Thursday, 24 July 2014

Accessible London?

Ever since the 2012 Olympics Transport for London have been proud of their accessible transport system.

Apparently about once a year (see previous post here) I am moved by my experiences to share them.

My husband and I have been spending a fortnight travelling about London (re-living our honeymoon) and for the most part using public transport.

The day starts, always with a bus; four routes run past the top of our street giving access to trains, tubes and other bus routes.

The bus is where the problem invariably starts. Day trips in the Summer mean taking the Wheelie-Walker; too hot for Husband to push me in the wheelchair (also access not guaranteed) and too far for me to make my way around on crutches.

On the buses there is an area either labelled 'Priority Wheelchair Area' or asking buggy users to give way to wheelchairs. This is where the first problem comes in; the Walker isn't a wheelchair. When two buggies are taking up the space then there is little to no chance of the owners offering to make space. I have several times this fortnight blocked the aisle because there was no room for the Walker and fellow travelers have needed to climb over/around the Walker. On occasion if the Walker and I have been one of the first two occupants of the space a buggy has been refused access, and I have been allowed to block the bus and never refused access. These are best case scenarios. On one journey there was no space for the Walker and the driver had to ask the passengers if one of them would give me a seat. I've had to take seats further away because bags are taking an accessible seat, my husband has had to pick up the Walker to put it in the 'inside' space blocked by the pole. Because I'm not in a wheelchair and if you don't see me walking, I don't look disabled; so  the assumption is that I can manage. This fortnight travelling with my husband has been blissful; an extra pair of hands instead of trying to manage the thing by myself.

It doesn't end with buses though. Once you get to the station you have to get to the train or tube. The Underground gets more accessible towards the outer zones; zone 1 you mostly need a co-conspirator to help you by carrying the Walker up and down steps or escalators. Even when there are lifts my bug-bear is people using them who don't need to. Husband is claustrophobic and avoids lifts whenever possible, and meets me at platform or ticket office level. Several journeys have been delayed because the amount of people in the lift precluded me and the Walker. I don't mind waiting because there are three buggies filling the lift, but I do mind when the rest of the family who could use the escalator are just tagging along and taking up space.

So we've got as far as the tube or train. Husband helps me on and off with the Walker; when I travel alone if I'm lucky some kind passerby will help me; more common on the train as there are bigger gaps/steps and they are worried that my ineptitude will delay the journey. A lot of the trains and tubes aren't in the least friendly for wheelchairs and/or Walkers. South Eastern trains on our line are inexplicable, I have only found a wheelchair space on a handful of occasions. Tubes aren't too bad as you can use the standing areas pretty safely for the Walker, and hopefully get a seat next to it.

Ever since I broke one of the brakes manhandling it on a bus the other day it has been a bit inclined to 'wander' off on moving transport; this at least does soon encourage people to offer me the seat nearest to it to keep an eye on it.

The accessibility doesn't end with transport though. Just because there is a lift that doesn't make somewhere accessible. Whether you (or someone else) is propelling a wheelchair or you are utilising another kind of walking aid (Walker or crutches) it isn't just about vertical transportation; there is also the question of horizontal transport. Getting up and down is worth nothing if you then have to trek miles at another level.

So here's a few etiquette pointers for travelers sharing their journey with disabled travelers.

Wheelchairs, of course, need the most assistance. A Wheelie-walker is almost the same as a wheelchair though; the user just doesn't sit in it. Walker users can't walk without them; if they are like mine with a seat, they can't walk very far with them. Yes, they do fold (slightly) but so do buggies. Buggies are mostly pushed by fairly young, able bodied people. When I was a child my mother managed, with two children under five, to fold a double buggy on a bus and deal with two children and shopping. Deal with the pantechnicon monstrosities. If the user won't fold them to make access, don't let them on or ask them to get off. Priority for disabled users of all types (including wheelchairs).

Offer your seat to disabled people, please. No matter how long and hard your day has been I'm going to lay money you are more able to stand on a moving vehicle than a disabled person.

Using the lift; make way for people who can't take the escalator or stairs.

Using the disabled exits at trains and tubes; don't if you don't need to. If you need to talk to the staff member standing by the gate, move out of the way to let people through. Wheelchairs and Walkers are not the easiest things to maneuver without dodging suitcases and crowds.

I think that in addition to the 'Baby on Board' badges available for pregnant women there should be badges for disabled travelers (especially those with less obvious disabilities).

Once we're out of the transport system we aren't out of the woods.  From trekking from the wheelchair hire to the place to store the buggy at London Zoo to areas with no accessibility (and I include the tunnels between the two sides in that). From trying to find get a wheelchair under a restaurant table to finding somewhere to put the Walker (taking it away to the buggy-store isn't ideal - what if I need it to visit the facilities or even worse, get out in an emergency situation).

It doesn't take much to accommodate disabled people, I focus on walking because that is where my problem lies, but it isn't any more difficult to help out anyone; just a little planning, a little thought and consideration.