In recent, and very unreported news, two conflicting cases on wheelchair access on buses have been sent together to the court of appeal. This is set to become a leading case on public transport issues, and therefore may well be a litmus test case for disability rights in our current system, and under our current ideologies.
The conflict that arises between wheelchairs and other passengers on buses is very symptomatic of the way our society currently operates on issues of equality and access. It’s one that raises questions about the difference between concepts of ‘equality and diversity’ versus ‘anti-discriminatory practice’ and tells us which one of those is actually more useful. It tells us much about what our society considers the word ‘equality’ to mean, and contrasts that against what it really means to those from minority groups affected by it.
Wheelchair users should have access to buses. It’s a simple no-brainer, one would have thought. The wheelchair accessible bus was invented in 1947 by Walter Harris Callow. This isn’t some strange, newfangled technology. Sadly, however, it is quite new in many places to have actual access to such buses, or such access does not exist at all. Across the EU, a legal directive, known as the ‘Bus and Coach Directive‘ came into force in 2001 mandating that wheelchair users must have access to buses, and that any new buses purchased from then on must not discriminate against wheelchair users in their design. (A mere 54 years after it became possible). In the UK, the disability discrimination act of 1995 had made similar national regulations, but ones that only came into force for any new purchases from 2001 onwards. Routmasters, those ‘traditional’ London buses with several steep steps up to the entrance, remained the dominant type of bus on the London streets until 2005, when they were finally replaced by Ken Livingstone, the encombant mayor. And so, it has only been since 2005 that wheelchairs, or buggies, or shopping trollies, can be taken onto buses. How quickly a culture adapts to push off the very people the change was predominately made for…
And so, to the present. Not every bus in the UK is yet wheelchair accessible. After all, the law that all new purchases must be compliant is only 14 years old, and a bus can have a life of 20+ years. But we are finally coming to the end of the old physically inaccessible buses, and entering the era of culturally inaccessible ones. From the point of view of the wheelchair user sitting at the bus stop, unable to catch a bus, a much bigger slap in the face in oh so many ways…
The wheelchair user and the bus.
People who use wheelchairs also need to use buses. There is no getting around this. Some may also use trains, trams, and other public transport methods, but buses are the mainstay of our getting around. In London, the underground network is particularly inaccessible. There are 270 stations on the Transport for London Underground network. Of these, only 66 have step free access. If you use a wheelchair, and want to make a public transport journey, the chances are buses are your only option for any typical route. Similarly, many people who use wheelchairs can drive, and have adapted cars, but many others either don’t own a car, or for complex reasons could never drive. Equally, calling a cheaper hackney cab is not an option for most electric wheelchair users, you can only utilize considerably more expensive Black Cabs – and even so may be routinely charged double the price of a non-wheelchair using member of the public. If a group of people were at a bus stop, and for some reason buses suddenly stopped running that day, but all other transport continued as normal, it is the wheelchair user would would undoubtedly remain stranded at the bus stop, while the vast majority of other passengers would likely be able to find other options available to them.
Buses are important to many people, but have a place of particularly special importance to wheelchair users
Wheelchairs blocked from buses
A wheelchair user wants to get on a bus. There are any number of hurdles in their way. Its not as simple as it may be for other passengers.
The bus needs to be able to stop along a straight pavement with unbroken curb to be able to extend the ramp. In parts of London, this may not be possible. The ramp needs to be working. They don’t always. However, it is people who create the biggest impediment to wheelchair users getting on buses. The wheelchair space is seldom empty, even when the bus itself has almost no passengers on board. It is one of the favorite spaces for any passenger to occupy. People with luggage occupy it. People with shopping occupy it. People with pushchairs, prams and buggies occupy it. People with shopping trollies occupy it. Men in business suits occupy it with a specific masculinity that precludes them from sitting even on an empty bus with no seats occupied. But this toxic masculinity somehow hampers them from moving when a wheelchair user wants to board, and they can try to refuse. The most talked-about divide is created by the parent with the buggy who refuses to move, but like myself, many other wheelchair users I know complain that those with shopping trollies create more stress, and more obstacles than even the parents with buggies.
The view I take is quite straight-forward and hard-nosed. Wheelchair spaces are for wheelchair users. We fought for them. For decades wheelchair users risked arrest and brutality campaigning and chaining themselves to buses for the right to ride. And they didn’t do it because it was fun. They did it, because they needed it to be able to live at all.
Picture: A disabled woman being pulled backwards by 2 police officers , with bus in background. Picture taken 1994. Source: The Guardian
And it was those brave campaigners, back in the days when I and many of my generation of disabled people had no idea yet that it would ever apply to us, that our current rights were won.
No mothers with prams stood shoulder to shoulder with the disabled campaigners. No women with shopping trollies. No men with large suitcases. They fight against us now. They didn’t even fight for us back then. They had no need. They could already use the bus. Our rights, once won, added fractionally to there convenience, nothing more. In fairness, they were the days I could still walk. And had a small person in a pram. I always folded my buggy at the stop before boarding because I knew no different, and never felt hard done by for it.
It amazes me that so little time as passed, and yet people have managed to totally forget this. In the first mentioned case above, the judge ruled that it is not discrimination to refuse a wheelchair user a space on a bus, because to do so would inconvenience the mother with a child in a pram. But parents with babies were always able to use buses, prior to the existence of wheelchair spaces.
Picture shows entrance to a stagecoach bus with three steps, separating by a pole. Source: focustransport.
This picture was taken in 2012 in Cantebury, Kent, and the photoblogger comments that when boarding this bus he witnessed 2 mothers with prams being advised to wait for the next bus, as a low floor bus was right behind. Ten years previously, however, all buses on the route would have looked like this, and any parent would have thought nothing of taking their child out of the pram at the stop, folding the buggy and boarding the bus to sit with child in lap. It was only wheelchairs would could not use these kinds of buses at all.
In the intervening time, a cultural shift has occurred. Wheelchair spaces were created for wheelchair users, but despite the large blue wheelchair icon painted on them, and corresponding signage, they are known in the vernacular as ‘buggy spaces’. For a person in a wheelchair attempting to use one, the daily micro-agressions pile up. People sigh. People tut. People stare. People point and comment out loud about how unfair it is that a wheelchair user us taking up the ‘buggy space’. And all of this will occur with no parent or pram aboard the bus, it is simply peoples perceptions in case someone else wanted to use that space. It gets a bit tough when, day in and day out, just to get to work and back, a hostile crowd must be faced who will openly express opinions on your existence, and see your very presence as a threat to someone else’s ‘rights’. It gets even tougher when an occasional unreasonable parent is encountered who argues heavily, throws a strop, and storms off the bus into the pouring rain with a helpless freezing child because she is too lazy to fold her buggy, or indeed listen to reason, and her little drama about how her ‘rights’ are being taken away is more important to her than the well-being of her child.
Wheelchair users often need to use more buses, and stay on them for longer, than other passengers, but are also regularly treated as social pariahs, and made to feel like an inconvenience to others that shouldn’t really be allowed to be there, on each and every bus journey.
What is the source of the problem?
People expect to take things on buses now that they would never have thought to take on a bus 15 years ago. Although no one seemed to feel the loss before it was indeed possible. Other social changes are undoubtedly part of this. People carry huge amounts of shopping, and transport them in shopping trollies. They could not have done with before wheelchair accessible buses were made mainstream. People carry giant unwieldy luggage around with them, and equally could not have done this is previous years. However, for brevity, this blog entry will focus on buggies, as they are central to the current legal appeals.
Meanwhile, people have come to view ‘rights’ in a way that conflates them with ‘wants’, and have lost all concept of anti-discriminatory practice. However, that is a complicated enough concept that I am leaving it for a subsequent blog entry.
While it is therefore far from the only problem, the one focused on here is the conflict over the wheelchair space between buggies and wheelchairs. And it boils down to a numer of issues.
1. Many buggies do not fold.
2. Many others do fold, but not easily, they are large and awkward.
3. On many buses there is nowhere to put a folded buggy.
4. Bus drivers do not know the rules, or refuse to apply them.
5. Passengers are totally unaware of the rules.
This entire blog, so far, has been written from the point of view of the wheelchair user. But its a constructive exercise to shift focus, and look from the point of view of the mother pushing a baby around in a pram, and conceptualize it from her point of view.
Based on so many hundreds of parents I have ended up chatting with while trying to make space and maneuver onto a bus I would start out by pointing out that, in our still very sexist society, the ‘typical’ parent is still most definitely a mother. Fathers do push buggies onto buses, but its a rarity. So we will talk of the Mum.
First of all, she probably hates her buggy. Most mums I end up chatting to start out by apologizing for how long it takes to fold up – from my point of view, I can assure you I really don’t mind how long it takes. If a mum is wiling to fold at all, I think she’s brilliant. Mums tell me that their buggy was bought by the parents-in-law as a gift, as was never the model they would have chosen, sorry its so large and unwieldy, or they say it was second hand from ebay or a neighbor, and never the one they would have chosen. O they say they did buy it new, but no one warned them they might ever have to fold it on a bs, so they didn’t think to compare it to other models. These Mums are stressed, and hating the big clunky buggies that it is a fight to fold. most of them are wishing for a small umbrella buggy in that moment, but its not totally within their control.
Once the baby is out of the buggy, there is no where to put it. Chances are, on a typical bus, there is one tiny luggage rack, at about chest height. Its too small for a large buggy, and would take considerable strength to swing a large heavy pram frame up there. So, instead of being able to stow the buggy and sit happily with her child on her knee, she ends up standing uncomfortably, with a child on one hip, or precariously on a seat by themselves, and gripping an unbalanced, large clunky piece of equipment threatening to fall and cause havoc at any moment.
By TFL’s own regulations, a bus driver is not allowed to pull away from the stop until both wheelchair, and buggy are safely in position. However, most Mums don’t know this, and fear a jerking, swerving bus skidding down the road as they try to get settled. Some bus drivers also break the rules, putting the lives of the mothers and the children at risk anyway. A mother folding her buggy and settling her child on a seat needs to be given enough reasonable time to do so.
Other passengers are rude as hell. They won’t necessarily offer the mum a seat for herself and her child/ren. They will take the side of the Mum ‘against’ the wheelchair user, throwing evil looks at the wheelchair, and sympathetic smiles at her, as long as they think she is going to do the ‘typical’ thing and get off the bus, and wait for the next one. But heaven help the Mum that folds her buggy and sits with her child. In that moment she may become as much of a social pariah as the wheelchair users. In Victorian times children were allowed to be seen but not heard. In 2014 London buses children are to be neither seen, nor heard, or all social disapproval breaks out. tethered and tied inside a dark black-interiored pram, and silent, a baby is tolerated. Sitting on Mums knee, gurgling and teaching on her fingers, and its a different story. Adults are allowed to shout on their phone, shout at each other, engage in football chants, but any child that makes a noise, even those tiny baby pleasant happy noises that babies sometimes make, and the mother will be inevitably tutted. It demonstrates something very sick about our society. The general mass of passengers on the bus don’t want wheelchairs in the wheelchair space, they want the buggy there instead – because they neither want to see nor hear the children in those prams.
So, what is needed to solve the problem?
Many of the issues outlined are complex. A cultural shift that acknowledges the right of children to be seen and heard on buses would be hard to achieve, but many other simple and straightforward changes could be enacted.
The most obvious two are a change in bus design to allow for more storage space. Not more space for unfolded buggies – that’s never going to be enough. On a bus with one buggy, two will want on, and a bus with 2 biggies, three will want on. Storage space, that allows buggies to fold, and parents to sit with their children would allow ten buggies and a wheelchair user all on the same bus. It used to be totally normal to have five or six or more parents with babies sin prams before wheelchair buses, and it could still happen easily by having a floor level storage space where folded buggies could be stacked together.
The second, probably easiest to enact, with longest term significant impact, would be:
a requirement for all buggies to be properly labeled at point of sale.
Why would this help?
Many people end up with buggies that are totally unappropriated for use on public transport. Often, that wasn’t their own choice. TFL does actually have rules that a buggy must fold, or it is not allowed on public transport. Actually, they have a bunch of rules that are never applied. For example, if you want to bring a buggy down an underground escalator, by their regulations, you are required to fold it, but no one ever does. A wheelchair user will, inevitably, due to the pressures of the situation, start off by being aware of the TfL regulations, and make equipment choices based on that. I don’t know a single wheelchair user that hasn’t discussed rechecking TfL regulations before committing to a new piece of expensive equipment. Many scooters and some wheelchairs are just not allowed on the bus, and people who use those have the sense to check in advance.
With buggies its not the same, and there are a number of reasons for this. While a bus driver can often see at a glance what a standard, bus legal chair is and what isn’t, its less easy to see at a glance with buggies. Often, I’ve seen a Mum come at me with a what looks like a big, unwieldy contraption, and think ‘why did the bus driver even let her on’ only to watch, amazed, as she swings the baby onto her hip, and with one click and one kick, the buggy collapses into a tiny neat package that is perfectly stable, and doesn’t even need a luggage rack, as it fits easily under a seat. The next journey I see another buggy, which looks small and lightweight, only to have the parent insist it can not fold and doesn’t have a folding mechanism. When I then point out that taking such a buggy on any bus is illegal, so even dismounting and getting on the next, wheelchair free bus is breaking the rules, the parents tend to state at me slack-jawed, disbelieving.
Buggy retailers have much to answer for. Whether you are a grandparent trying to find the most perfect baby carriage for the grandchild you are delighted to welcome to the world but will rarely see because of distance, or if you are the new, harried Mum searching for a bargain in your price range, if all you have ever seen and been told is that any pram at all can go in the ‘buggy space’ then you are not necessarily going to think to ask about the folding mechanism. But the retailers know better. And they know when they are selling models that are going to be hell on public transport, while the slightly cheaper model next to it would actually be far easier.
Food needs to be labeled for suitability. Children’s car seats need to be labeled for safety. Very many products carry regulated labeling systems giving the consumer information before they buy. There is no reason buggies couldn’t be better labeled at point of sale.
such labling could, possibly, have a traffic light system:
Red: a buggy that does not fold, or folds only into a very large heavy unwieldy package that is unfeasible to support on a bus or tube. Not for public transport users.
Orange: a buggy that folds, but may take two hands to fold, may not fit easily into a luggage rack. More challenging to store on a bus. Suitable for occasional public transport users who are willing to put up with some hassle, in order to have other features not relevant to the bus
Green: a buggy that can be folded quickly and easily with one hand, is lightweight and stows away easily or takes up little room and sit son a stable base when folded so that the parent can forget about it, and sit with their child on tier knee for the journey.
What would such a labeling system achieve? For all newly purchased buggies, a parent would be asked to think for a few minutes while making the purchase as to the suitability of the equipment they were buying. If a parent bought a pushchair that was unsuitable for public transport, they would know that they were doing so. And it becomes easier to get tough and deny access, as there is no pretense left. The buggy pusher knows they are making a consumer choice to own that particular model. Its not discrimination to refuse them the wheelchair space, or blocking the gangway with their buggy, as they an everyone else can accept that they are making a consumer choice, and unlike the wheelchair user, have plenty of other options available to them, so everyone can sit in comfort on the bus together.
It would benefit wheelchair users. It would benefit buggy users. It would benefit everyone. And help end the wheelchair versus buggy wars on buses.