On Thursday 29 August I attended the first event of a week of action by disabled people over the many issues currently facing our community. The protest I made my way to was over Crossrail and the fact that several stations along the route of this massive infrastructure project were not going to have step free access, which as a full time wheelchair user means that all of these stations would be closed to me due to my inability to fly down stairs.
Ironically my wife and I used public transport to travel to Canary Wharf, the home of the offices of Crossrail. I am not a big user of London's public transport system I must admit, mainly as it's not been accessible for very long and I'm a bit set in my ways. I have too many memories of feeling like a third class citizen, due to experiences such as the many times where I was made to sit in the goods wagon on trains with the baggage, parcels and bicycles while the rest of my gang sat in comfort on seats in a real carriage. That was when I could gain access to the supposedly public transport at all.
For nearly all of my adult life all buses were totally out, especially in London. The Routemaster, a bus which most Londoners remember with fondness which has led to a new modern version to be created with the major Boris Johnson's backing, was a means of transport that was impossible for me to gain access to. The same went for the entire tube system. In fact throughout my career as a TV presenter I have been carried down stairs on to tube trains many times, mostly onto the Circle Line as it meant I could go round and round with having to try to get off, to film items about how inaccessible London's tube system was for wheelchair users like me. But these were the only times I had ever been on a tube until the last year.
Now things have got better since the days of almost all "public" transport being not so public, and I think all disabled people are finding that as the system becomes more and more accessible that an unknown world of travel is opening up for us. But that's why the fact that such a major project must be fully accessible. It is unacceptable that any Crossrail stations will not have step free access in the 21st Century, especially as it will be costing around £14.5 billion pounds at current estimate. The cost of creating a totally step free Crossrail system will in no way add so much to this huge sum that it will become financially unmanageable yet this is the excuse that has been given.
I think that this is where I hope you will stop and think dear reader. If you aren't disabled I ask you to imagine what it feels like to be told that your ability to experience this wonderful capital city like the majority of its residents and visitors comes down to money. Yes we are living through difficult times financially, but this project should have been designed from the outset as fully inclusive. Not only because it should be the goal of any architectural or environmental development in our modern society, but also as it allows the disabled people that can finally travel without barriers to do things like... work! Yes, one of the key reasons why many disabled people find it hard to work is the inability to actually get to work. I mean we can't get on our bikes, as many of us will just fall off, and walking is right out. Many disabled people can only use public transport due to their impairments, and while they have been set free from enforced house arrest by recent improvements in access there is still a long way to go. Like making Crossrail fully inclusive and accessible for all. Not just for us wheelies, but older people, parents with prams and cyclists will all benefit from a step free entrance to the Crossrail system.
The big worry for everyone at the protest, organized by campaigning group Transport For All, is the precedent it sets. If we allow this project to be built as it currently stands then it may be that the next and the next project of this size will also allow cost to trump access. We do not want to see anymore infrastructure projects to be built anywhere in the UK that excludes anyone. Surely we should now be at a point in our society that it is considered obvious that everything that is built should be accessible, from the smallest to the biggest like Crossrail? If we allow Crossrail to go ahead without full access, then what does that say for our chances to have access built into designs for smaller developments?
While at the event someone had a banner that reminded everyone it was the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. Disabled people also have a dream, that one day soon we will no longer be seen as an expensive bolt on group whose needs are always considered outside the original design process but will become an integral part of the creation and design of all of the built environment. Well that's one of them. There are many more, like full equality under the law, equality of experience and life chances and acceptance by the wider society, but if we can get access to our societies infrastructure we'll be on the way to fulfilling the rest. When I'm not being a media luuvie I run a successful access and inclusion advisory service, and I continuously find that my clients massively over estimate the cost and difficultly of creating accessible projects. I am sure that this is the case with Crossrail. But whatever the cost, we must stop penny pinching and see the drive towards a fully inclusive society as something that benefits everyone. If for no other reason that over 90% of disabled people become that way during their adult life. So it might seem detached from your lives right now... but who knows, it could be you soon. Sorry if that sounds a little too gleeful but trust me, if something does cause to you to join our gang then these things become some of the most important in your life.
I know I attended the protest as I really don't want future generations to experience what it feels like to be made to feel third class as you are barred from doing things everyone else takes for granted. I want a future where we are all able to do something as basic as travel without it being seen as a big deal. Public transport should be there for all of the public, whether they use legs, wheels or bounce on a space hopper.
Oh and before I go I should just say the details for the week of action can be found here.