Last month, it was reported that wheelchair user and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Brinton had been denied access to a London bus after a father refused to move his buggy out of the wheelchair priority space for her. The bus conductor allegedly refused to ask him to move and the driver then closed the doors and drove off. The incident had left her feeling like an 'inanimate object who was just getting in the way'. I know how she feels.
It's raining and I'm sat in my wheelchair, waiting for the bus at an unsheltered bus stop. I don't have an umbrella because it was sunny earlier and I'm now soaked to the bone. My bus turns up but I can't get on because there's a buggy in the wheelchair space. The parent doesn't move the buggy, nor does the driver ask them to. I feel uncomfortable asking a parent to get off the bus in the rain, and I'm already drenched, so I let it go.
Another bus arrives but again there's a buggy in the wheelchair space, so I continue to wait. Ten minutes later, a third bus turns up and the driver says to me "sorry mate, there's some luggage in the wheelchair space, can you wait for the next one?" At this point I politely but firmly explain that my need to get out of the rain and get home from a hard day's work is rather more important than someone's suitcase. The driver reluctantly asks the people with the luggage to move it aside. I'm relieved to finally get on but, like Baroness Brinton, I'm left feeling like a nuisance just for wanting to get on the bus.
I recently had a son with my partner and have some understanding of the plight of parents on public transport. Trying to whip your oyster card out whilst managing a crying baby is a tough task. So too is travelling with lots of heavy luggage.
But public transport is for everyone and we should all be able to use it including wheelchair users. The fact is, even though it's a wheelchair priority space on the bus and I'm a wheelchair user, there seems to be an unwritten rule that I'm the one expected to compromise my need to travel for other people.
When asked about Baroness Brinton's complaint, Transport for London said: "Our guidance to bus drivers clearly states that wheelchair users are to be given priority access to the dedicated space on our buses even if it is occupied by a buggy or other passengers. Drivers are asked to use the onboard automated announcement system to make it clear when the wheelchair space is needed and, if necessary, to ask buggy owners to share the space, move or fold their buggies." As a wheelchair user and Londoner myself, I have rarely seen bus drivers follow this guidance.
Ironically, this news story about Baroness Brinton was published the same day that the charity I work for announced an investigation into the accessibility of public transport. I help run a young disabled people's campaigning network called Trailblazers, which is part of Muscular Dystrophy UK. I've been campaigning with Trailblazers since 2009 to improve the accessibility of public transport. In that time I've seen some really positive changes happen but I'm acutely aware of just how much still needs to be done.
Doug Paulley famously won a case against the First Bus Group over his right as a wheelchair user to use the wheelchair priority space on buses, but the ruling was overturned last year at the Court of Appeal who stated that there was insufficient reason to impose a legal responsibility on bus companies. Paulley's legal team have launched an appeal to the Supreme Court.
This has left bus companies, wheelchair users and the general public in a state of confusion as to who the wheelchair priority space on a bus is actually for. Recently, when I asked a bus driver to ask people to move out of the wheelchair space for me, he replied "sorry, that thing means priority goes to whoever is in the space already". He then closed the doors in my face and drove off. I've heard from other young disabled people that this frequently happens to them too.
But it's not just access to buses that are a problem for young disabled people. A lack of step-free tube and train stations, being charged more to use a wheelchair accessible taxi and having to book train assistance 24 hours in advance are all part of the issue too.
This is why we're calling for young disabled people to tell us about their experiences with using public transport. We want to know what barriers and challenges still exist that prevent young disabled people from being able to enjoy the freedom and spontaneity of public transport just like everyone else. To do this, we've launched two surveys - one for young disabled people to give their general views and experiences, and one to report back on a journey they've just taken. So if you're a young disabled person reading this and you struggle to use your local public transport system, we want to hear from you.
In the meantime I'd really like to see more sheltered bus stops so that the next time I can't get on the bus in the rain at least I'll be dry.