Together with fellow Paralympians and other activists, I am raising money to help disabled people take to court cases about discrimination on public transport.
We are doing this because disabled people are continuing to face challenges despite promises of change and a policy of ‘reasonable adjustment’ is slowly being watered down by big companies and franchises. Disability should not be a disqualification to rightful inclusion and access to public transport, which many of us face.
Disability discrimination is defined as when you are treated less well or put at a disadvantage for a reason that relates to your disability in one of the situations that are covered by the Equality Act. The treatment could be a one-off action, the application or a rule or policy or existence of physical or communication barriers which make access difficult or impossible. The discrimination does not have to be intentional to be unlawful. As a disabled person, I am happy to have been invited to the party - but how accepted does it feel when one is asked to dance? This is the diversity and inclusion kind of model I am talking about. Vulnerability does not mean availability to exclusion, discrimination or unequal treatment. Yes, I am disabled, but I am human being first.
We are learning more and more about some of the challenges disabled travellers face daily - from being stuck waiting for assistance on planes, on trains to being denied access because of their mobility aids which are sometimes lost or damaged. Many people with disabilities are constantly anxious when travelling because they can never tell if they will be able to use an accessible toilet or whether the planned journey will be okay, and parents and carers or profoundly disabled people fail to travel because of a lack of facilities such as changing places toilets. It is disempowering. In this day and age it cannot be okay to treat anybody like this, and disabled people are not an exception - not with the power of technology and certainly not when men have walked on the moon.
Life should never make you feel small or worthless. It should be a pleasure to know that because of you, in whatever form or shape, and your abilities, this world is a better place, because each of us has a special function.
I travel often - whether it is to see friends, go out with my family, or to attend important meetings. I need to be on time, but I can never be sure I will. And I know almost every disabled person has a story to tell about the problems they have when using public transport. Some people just take it as part of life, but why should we have to?
For me, it is a question of treating us with dignity by breaking down and removing barriers that are a challenge to accessing public transport. We are customers like everybody else!
All this happens in spite of the fact that the law says public transport providers should take reasonable steps to remove the barriers we face and provide effective assistance to enable us to travel. The law says our experience should be ‘like that of other passengers’. Well, it is not.
For many disabled people, the whole exercise of taking legal action to challenge discrimination is very difficult because of court fees and not being financially able to employ a solicitor. The law will be a dead letter if we don’t do something about it. Many times when the journey doesn’t go as planned, one may get an apology, sometimes people get a meeting with managers, but usually in a few days the same thing will happen again. How should we expect to see change if we don’t do things differently? To paraphrase the words of one of the campaigners and a parent of a disabled child, Dan White, when your generation treats you as an equal rather than a political point or a charity case. Inclusive minded children like his daughter are coming to educate all and it’s our duty to keep advocating for a more inclusive community. As the world moves on, disability should stay on the agenda at all times. It should not be a political point but a human point therefore it cuts across all political divide.
I stood up for my rights and stated conversation with a rail company and got them to commit to train their staff. My case had a lot of publicity and got settled, so I did not have to make difficult decisions about costs and financial risks. But many agree that legal action is the way to get the policy implemented, we need to send a stronger message to get public transport companies to take our needs seriously. I know many people are up for it, but they are too afraid to do it alone and not all can afford to take even small financial risks. At the end of the day, taking a big company to court is not easy.
This is why we are raising money. All of it will go towards legal costs, fees and insurance to help people who want to stand up for what is right and get public transport providers to change their policies and practice. Disabled people should not allow themselves to be made victims. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.
Anne Wafula Strike is a British Paralympian, author and speaker