Philippa Willitts goes in search of the groups and individuals campaigning to make Britain’s public transport better suited to the needs of everyone…
Many disabled people rely on public transport to work, socialise and live independently, yet they can face problems at every stage of their journeys. Fortunately, however, there are a number of dedicated campaigners working hard to ensure that nobody is limited in the ways they want to travel.
In recent years we have seen improvements in public transport accessibility; just last month, the Secretary of State for Transport, Norman Baker, announced that he would be rejecting calls to abolish the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), to which some of those improvements could be attributed. Here, we talked to three campaigners committed to ensuring equal access to Britain’s road, rail and air.
Julie Smethurst from the Sheffield-based Transport 4 All group believes strongly that change is best achieved through collaboration and co-operation. Originally formed when low-floor buses were first introduced in the 90s, alongside the Disability Discrimination Act, the pioneering Transport 4 All committee represents disabled people with a variety of impairments. The group aims to cover accessibility and usability issues on buses, coaches, taxis, trams and trains, and have been instrumental in bringing about significant transport changes across South Yorkshire.
Julie Smethurst is herself blind, and it was her love of travel that led to her desire for better access. She has seen Transport 4 All develop from a small group with a limited remit to an influential force to be reckoned with, and believes that the key to its success is its philosophy of working together. “We realised that it isn’t a battle,” she explains. “It’s us all getting on one side and saying, well what can we actually do to make things better for everybody?”
One of their key achievements was to make Sheffield the first place in the country where disability awareness training is mandatory for all new taxi drivers. Around 25 or 30 people attend Transport 4 All’s quarterly meetings, with commercial managers from public transport providers usually in attendance – who seem to recognise that rather than simply paying lip service, improving accessibility for disabled people can actually offer benefits to all customers and passengers.
Julie is proud of what Transport 4 All has achieved, saying, “I do think it’s been a success story. Sheffield is regarded, within the public transport sector now, as being a place that’s doing best practice.”
There is other public transport accessibility lobbying taking place on a national level. When RNIB recently asked its members what the organisation’s campaigning priorities should be, one message came through loud and clear – blind and partially sighted people wanted better access to buses.
RNIB commissioned research that subsequently found nine out of 10 of its members identified the need to flag down buses as a key barrier to independent travel. As Natalie Doig, Campaigns Officer at RNIB explains, “Blind and partially sighted people can’t see the bus soon enough, so when companies train [their] drivers to only stop if somebody is waving their arms around, the buses sail past.”
Having herself once flagged down a fire engine by mistake, she is keen for services to abandon ‘request stops’ in favour of having drivers pull up whenever they see somebody waiting at a bus stop.
The second biggest issue identified by the RNIB’s research was that communication from bus drivers can be unreliable. In areas where buses do not provide audio announcements, anyone depending on drivers to provide relevant information can find it impossible to know whether they can trust what they are told: “The word ‘trust’ came through again and again,” adds Natalie. “”Even if information is forthcoming, you’re not sure whether it’s correct”.
A further issue identified by RNIB was that many bus companies are blissfully unaware of the difficulty their passengers have in accessing their services, since their complaints processes are themselves inaccessible. If a provider’s website does not work properly with a screen reader, or has no easily identifiable phone number, blind and partially sighted people will be unable to communicate their experiences.
Prompted by its members’ concerns, RNIB now holds regular ‘Swap with me’ events, (Word document) where bus drivers meet with blind and partially sighted people to talk and swap places. Blind people have the opportunity to sit in the driver’s seat while drivers put on vision-obscuring SimSpecs or blindfolds, and attempt to negotiate a typical journey. Bus operator First has found these exercises to be so valuable that it has since started organising some of its own with support from RNIB. Positive changes are now underway, with some services having already got rid of the ‘request stop’ system and others ready to make the change.
The next step for the campaign is to produce an audio report and present it to government officials. Natalie is keen to encourage the introduction of compulsory disability and visual awareness training for all bus drivers, noting that, “Often it’s not physical barriers any more, it’s attitudinal barriers.”
Up in the air
Another group whose campaigning focuses on a specific mode of transport is Trailblazers, part of the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. Trailblazers is a group of 450 young people, most with neuromuscular conditions, who have identified airline travel as a key campaigning priority. The difficulties they reported included problems booking flights, damage to passengers’ wheelchairs and other equipment, lack of access to aeroplane toilets and an inability to take advantage of budget airlines’ prices.
Tanvi Vyas, the Trailblazers Campaigns Officer who has overseen their ‘Up in the air’ campaign, believes that when disabled young people can’t access air travel they are prevented from living life to the full. She talks of members experiencing the humiliation of needing to urinate into bottles, and having to suffer uncomfortable and painful transfers from a wheelchair to a plane seat, due to poorly trained staff.
Tanvi and the Trailblazers campaign have already brought about considerable changes. Through working with aircraft designers they have been able to introduce some improvements to general passenger accessibility, and have also helped to create an industry-led steering group with representatives from manufacturers, airports and airlines.
There is a strong argument to be made that increasing public transport usability for disabled people will improve the experience for all other service users too. Visual and audio announcements on London buses can be helpful to tourists and people travelling on unfamiliar routes; tactile paving at tram stops in Sheffield conveniently indicate where the doors will open for all tram users, not just those who are blind or partially sighted; and low-floor buses can make life much easier for parents with buggies as well as wheelchair users.
Yet for all the advances in public transport accessibility that have been made in recent years, there is still a long way to go. But with campaigners as passionate and determined as Julie, Natalie and Tanvi, making independent travel possible has never been more of a priority.