The daily commute is no fun for anyone, especially on public transport. As Londoners it’s almost a sport to see who can make eye contact with the fewest people on our journey. We bury ourselves in our papers, dig our faces as far as they can go in books, or spend an inordinate amount of focus reading the vitamin advert above the head of the passenger sardined opposite us. Getting a seat is like the holy grail of rush hour commuting. No-one wants to spend their journey with their nose in the armpit of the guy on his way back from the gym. So we cling to our seats and we get busy with Candy Crush.
Alongside everyone else there are people like me. People with disabilities. People who are unable to stand. People who don’t just want the seat, they desperately need the seat. We need you to look up. Don’t worry, we don’t want to chat with you, you can continue being a Londoner once you’ve offered us your seat, we’re not going to force you to chat about the weather, we have our own scores to beat on Candy Crush. But we need to sit down and we need you to see us.
I’m 40, I’ve had problems with my back since I was a teenager and three years ago it got so bad I was bed-bound. I have Scheuermann’s disease, DDD, osteoarthritis, tendinopathy, bursitis, nerve damage and endometriosis. Due to my chronic pain and disability I also suffer from depression, anxiety and panic attacks and have also been diagnosed with PTSD. I have only recently regained enough mobility and function to return to work part time. But it is far from easy. I am in constant pain, my balance is shot and due to the lack of step free access at my stations I cannot use my rollator (fancy zimmer frame on wheels) so I have to struggle up and down stairs and onto a packed tube on my walking stick. It’s not my only aid… I have a shiny blue badge which TfL issues me, which proclaims to the world that I am disabled and need a seat. I don’t like wearing it. I shouldn’t need to be branded even further. Able bodied passengers should look up and see me and offer me the priority seat they or their bag is occupying. But a lot of times they don’t.
I like to think that most of the time it is unintentional, I believe most people are good people, even first thing in the morning when they’ve had to skip their morning coffee. I have to believe that most people are good.
But sometimes it is intentional, sometimes people are so eager to keep their seat they glance at my stick and become further engrossed in their paper. And sometimes, when the pain hits its limit, or I’m about to fall down, I have to ask someone for a seat. I’ve found when it gets to the point of asking I’ll be, at best, met with an eye-roll and an overdramatic surrender of the throne. Or at worst I’ll be rejected. Sometimes people just shake their head, sometimes they say ‘no’ but I’ve had some real belters.
“You’re too young to be disabled”
“You don’t look disabled”
“I’m getting off in two stops anyway, can you wait?”
“Is this the right line for Kings Cross?”
“What’s wrong with your leg anyway?”
And sometimes it’s abuse, at one station I was called “a waste of a good c**t”.
People ask me with varying degrees of condescension/helpfulness, “why don’t you just ask for a seat?”
There are a few reasons.
After each rejection, every subsequent time I have to ask for a seat, it gets harder. I’m embarrassed, ashamed, scared and exhausted to my core. Some people don’t have the ability to ask, they cannot communicate verbally or they find it incredibly difficult to do so. And most importantly I don’t like asking someone to move from a seat in case they have an invisible disability and rather than one embarrassed person, you end up with two. The onus has to be on able bodied passengers to offer their seat to those more in need.
And, like I say, most people are good. I think people don’t offer because they just don’t look up, they don’t see us.
So I’ve become a reluctant activist. There is such a simple solution to this problem. TfL have prerecorded announcements at every stop, there are constant announcements in the stations, the buses have prerecorded stop information. All we need is an extra announcement
“Look up. Does someone need your seat?”
All it takes is a couple of people in every carriage to notice and act on that simple instruction and it could change the daily lives of thousands. Mind the Gap is ingrained in our collective psyche, we don’t even ‘hear’ it any more, we just know it. We need ‘Look Up’ to become as ingrained, as instinctive. We need to start seeing people who need, if not our help, our seat.
So please sign the petition. And please Look Up.