Public transport is probably Public Enemy No. 1 for most wheelchair users. Personally, as an aspiring journalist who will most likely end up working in London, the daily commute into the capital is not something I will particularly savour. Nevertheless, even though the infrastructure is far from perfect, the transport system is something that can be conquered no matter what your impairment. In this piece, I hope to give you a comprehensive guide of how to keep your journey as hassle-free and be as financially frugal as possible.
Before going into the individual modes of transport, there are three essential areas that you need to focus on/have knowledge of in order for your trips to go smoothly:
I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. We wheelchair users have plenty of potential obstacles as it is and trying to wing it will only make it much harder. Planning your route, booking assistance, setting aside time for food and drink, and checking there are accessible toilet facilities may take up time in the short-term but I guarantee it will save you time and trouble in the long-term.
A top tip is to make sure your mobile phone is charged and you have the contact details of your transport provider in case of emergency. You never know when you might need it.
Know Your Rights
On occasions, I have been treated unfairly on public transport and let it go when I shouldn’t have done. For example, bus drivers have told me that they don’t have a ramp when it’s obvious they do and I haven’t argued. It’s crucial you know your rights and, in particular, the legal obligations of the transport provider which come under the 2010 Equality Act. Below is a brief summary:
- They cannot refuse someone or charge him or her extra because of their impairment.
- They may refuse impaired people for valid safety reasons.
- They must guarantee to accommodate an impaired traveller if notice is given and must make every effort to help if no notice is given.
- They must provide help with moving around the station or terminal, getting on and off and loading and unloading luggage.
What some may perceive as a simple journey may be a monumental effort for wheelchair bound transport users so saving money can be the difference between it being worthwhile and a waste of time and currency. Whether you travel by train, bus, taxi or all three, there are a number of special discounts available to you:
- The Disabled Persons Railcard gives up to a third off most train fares for you and a companion; it costs just £20 for one year or £54 for three years.
- The Taxicard scheme provides subsidised transport for disabled people who have difficulty using public transport. It is run by local councils but only for people living in London.
- If you live in London and have an eligible disability, you can apply for a Disabled Persons Freedom Pass. People coming in from outside London can use their Freedom Pass only on buses, not on the underground. For further information contact your local council.
If you follow the advice above then you should have the timings under control, you shouldn’t be pushed around by those who may view you as a burden, and you hopefully won’t be out of pocket. That is only half the battle but fortunately I also have advice for specific modes of transport that could make your life easier.
I have had mixed experiences with train travel depending on what provider I have been travelling with; some days have gone swimmingly, on other occasions I have been stranded waiting for a ramp. From experience, booking assistance at least 24 hours ahead leads to fewer hiccups than when I have asked for help on the day. Also, often when I have just turned up on the day, I have ended up in between seating areas which is not ideal.
Another factor which is often overlooked when planning a journey is what available assistance there is after 5-6pm. This should be checked, as well as whether the lift is working or not, otherwise you could be in for a shock.
Buses are probably my most hated mode of transport largely because of some of the people that drive them. I understand that drivers have to keep to a strict timetable but they are also legally obliged to get you on the bus. It should be a last resort but don’t be afraid to kick up a fuss if the driver is not meeting their obligations to you. In these cases, I have found it useful to alert other passengers of your situation so they can fight your corner and aid you.
On other occasions, I have missed the bus simply because the bus driver has missed me. Ensure that you position yourself in front of the bus stop, so the driver has plenty of time to see you as they approach the stop.
In the past, taxis have been my failsafe when other modes of transport have let me down. If you’re a wheelchair user, secure your chair but never sit sideways; if you do it could be a bumpy ride! Furthermore, although I am an advocate for independence, it is sometimes better to ask somebody else to hail you a taxi as it eliminates the chance of a cabbie ignoring you.
It is also worth avoiding the 8-9am and 3-6pm timeslots, if possible, when booking taxis as they are often reserved for school runs or work journeys.
Unfortunately, I am no expert when it comes to the Tube because I try to avoid it whenever possible. Yet, if you’re braver than me, it is worth noting that the underground map has two colours for the wheelchair symbol – One shows access to platform only (for carers), the other shows access to platform and train.
I want to end this guide by providing a disclaimer – The advice given above should reduce the risk of problems occurring but issues will still crop up from time to time; that is the nature of the beast I’m afraid. I will reluctantly leave you with a cheesy cliché and say that if unexpected obstacles arise, the best thing to do is to keep calm and carry on.