Since injuring my knee in December I have been walking with a stick. This has given me a new insight into how people, and our transport providers in particular, treat the disabled; a word that was applied to me on Friday for the first time.
It has limited some of my more strenuous and demanding activities and affected how I earn my living. Where possible, however, I have tried to carry on as usual. I have travelled by train and tube a good number of times and these last few days I flew to Gibraltar and back.
Most people have treated me with patience and consideration. I have experienced some genuine and unexpected acts of kindness from strangers, although I admit I find it difficult when women stand up and offer me seats. That is my traditional upbringing poking through. Being vulnerable somehow brings out the best in other people but I admit I find it difficult to be on the receiving end.
What it has shown me is how disabled people are treated in public.
First, many of our transport hubs are not designed for those with mobility problems. Distances between transport nodes favour the fast or energetic. Calls for trains and planes only allow time for the fit to get there. By the time they open the gate at St Pancras I can only just get on my train before it pulls out. It was the same travelling to the gate at Manchester Airport.
Then there are the unnecessary sets of stairs. Getting off the plane on my return I had to walk up stairs, down stairs, up stairs and then down stairs before getting to the customs hall.
Use the lift, you might say. I tried that the other day on the tube. First I had to find it. It was out of the way in a dark and grotty area and took an inordinate amount of time to call and then move. It has been the same at the airports. What about ramps? They obviously involve walking further but they also tend to be out of the way, a considerable diversion from the line of travel.
You may be asking, why don’t I ask for assistance. Perhaps because I am independent, a little proud and stubborn, and don’t want to delay my journey more than necessary.
On occasions, however, I have been offered help. At the three airports I have visited in the last few days I have found the staff are very attentive. They have recognised my need and directed me to special fast track “assistance” lanes. I found it funny that one of these involved an extra 200 metres walk than would otherwise have been necessary, simply to put my stick through a scanner.
I had expected that other passengers might resent this favoured status but, on the contrary, some even encouraged me to ask and to accept offers.
Then there is the offer of a wheelchair or buggy. I admit I have not really paid much attention in the past to how these matters operate. I now have a very real perspective.
I have declined a wheelchair on every occasion. Pride again, with a little vanity thrown in. However, I twice accepted the offer of a buggy driven by a member of staff.
On both occasions I regretted it. I only did it the second time to see if the first had been a one-off. It wasn’t.
As soon as you accept the offer of a buggy , or a wheelchair, you become baggage. I, along with others, was left on a buggy for 40 minutes – or would have been if I had stayed. I didn’t know why we were left waiting. We were not told. When I asked I was told the staff had to do paperwork. I got off and walked, very slowly, for a quarter of a mile. When the buggy eventually arrived at the gate the driver parked it, got off – without a word to the passengers – and again left them.
I watched elsewhere as three wheelchair occupants were lined up in close formation against a wall like supermarket trolleys. Their “pushers”, again staff, had been chatting to the occupants while moving but then went off to do something else leaving the poor people unable to move. It reminded me of hospital patients left on beds in corridors, as if they themselves are “goods in” waiting to be processed.
While transport companies clearly put in a lot of effort to support their disabled passengers, my experience suggests that further thought and attention needs to be given to how those with mobility problems are treated.
As soon as you accept a form of disabled transport operated by another person you lose control over your own movement and you cede certain decisions to your helper. That may be inevitable but what is not acceptable to me is how you may also lose the dignity that we all deserve as you are lined up, parked and left.
Surely we can treat people better than this.
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