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Still a long way to go until London is accessible

Blog by Nina Grant. This blog and its content reflect the views of the author only.

I have a chronic illness that for the last several years has slowly been taking away my mobility and independence. My electric wheelchair gives me a great amount of freedom, but it’s also opened my eyes to the limitations of “accessible“ transport in London despite TFL improvements.

Although, in my experience, attitudes of bus drivers towards wheelchair users have generally improved, the chances of being able to board a bus are still variable. The Supreme Court ruling on the rights of wheelchair users to use the designated wheelchair space has made little difference in reality, and I still often find myself turned away from two buses in a row before one arrives without multiple buggies already on board. Now I’m more likely to get an apology from the driver when the parent with the buggy refuses to move, but I rarely see the driver leave their cab to talk to them, or offer a transfer ticket as the bus drivers’ manual suggests. The space itself is often only just big enough for my wheelchair, and requires tactical turning to avoid various poles and steps in the way (depending on the bus). Despite this, drivers often let buggies on after I have boarded, to try and push in by my feet, or block me in – yet this is definitely not an option the other way around.

Another frequently encountered problem on buses for wheelchair users is ramp trouble. On the lower end of the scale, the doors sometimes won’t open automatically, and the driver has to come and press the emergency door release. Much more troubling, is that I’ve been stuck on the bus for over 15 minutes three times in the last year because of ramp failure. Drivers don’t seem to be trained in what to do in this situation, and I have even been driven back to a bus station so other drivers can be consulted! Invariably, kicking the ramp is the first port of call, then turning the bus off and on again... the latter is far more effective in my experience. It worries me that a wheelchair user could be stuck on a bus in a situation like a breakdown, or even a fire, with no way to deploy the ramp. I would like to see TFL place emergency manual ramps on all buses, but I feel this is unlikely to happen without pressure.

As a wheelchair user, I have a very limited number of routes that I can take on the London Underground. Subsequently, a single lift failure on a route can cause mayhem in my journey and mean I have to cancel my plans entirely. If my local accessible station’s lift is out of order when I come home, which has happened, I have to go back a whole 10 stops to get to the nearest accessible station on the line. Once I was even told to go back one stop, and have someone “help me up the escalator” in my heavy electric wheelchair! (I didn’t take this advice.) I’ve also found that even routes which are described by TFL as “accessible” are not accessible to all wheelchair users. For example, last year I tried to access the Jubilee Line at London Bridge station to get to an event, which is advertised as fully step-free. However, I found that there was not only a height difference of a few inches between the platform and the train, as there is at my local station, but also a significant gap between these which combined with the step up meant boarding was impossible for me as my smaller front wheels would get stuck (after using a particular wheelchair for a length of time, one gets used to judging on sight what is and is not possible). I asked the platform staff if there was a ramp, and was told no, “because it’s an accessible platform“. TFL’s response to my subsequent written complaint was to suggest that some wheelchair users find it easier to board by rolling at speed towards the train, or by going on backwards with the larger wheels first – “solutions” that would either trap me under a tipped-over wheelchair, or find me similarly stuck by my small back wheels! I have had to avoid changing at that station since, and have heard from other wheelchair users about similar problems at the newly “accessible” Tottenham Court Road station. It feels like TFL have only tested these platforms with certain types of wheelchair, and decided that it is safe and reasonable for anyone to use.

Recently I have seen posters for TFL praising its achievements in disability access. The quote used concludes with “London is the first place I lived that I felt less disabled“, implying that the semi-accessible network should be praised for the freedoms it affords. I find my own experience is a bit less rosy. Maybe it’s because I’m coming from a position of a long-term Londoner who has didn’t used to be disabled at all, but once I couldn’t do x-number of stairs, and then stairs at all, and then required a wheelchair to help me get around, I found more and more of the network completely shut off to me. I definitely feel disabled when I turn up in front of a broken-down lift, and the others queuing take their suitcases and buggies and go up the escalator instead, or when I get to a station requiring assistance to disembark, and have to send a complete stranger to go and find the platform staff who should have been informed that I was on the train. London is an exceptional city, with a fantastic and wide-ranging transport network, but there are more steps that need to be made before its physically disabled transport users can feel completely confident using it.

Follow Nina Grant on Twitter: @notwaving