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Trouble at Tooting

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

It’s a little-known fact that a few Tube stations, although they’re not step-free, have an escalator all the way from street to platform. So if you’re a wheelchair user and you are able to get out of your wheelchair and walk a few steps, you can use these stations – assuming you’re confident about walking your wheelchair onto the escalator, standing safe and firm while you go up or down, walking it off at the other end, and also pushing your empty wheelchair onto and off a Tube train.

You can find a map showing stations with an escalator all the way from street to platform here – look for stations with a green dot surrounded by a red circle.

TfL’s conditions of carriage state that it’s forbidden to use an escalator while you’re sitting in your wheelchair, but there is no rule anywhere preventing you from taking your empty wheelchair onto an escalator, and there is not rule anywhere about having to fold your wheelchair before you take it on an escalator.

Yes, some wheelchair users can walk

It’s often assumed that everyone using a wheelchair is paralysed, or totally unable to walk. This is of course completely incorrect. Because I am able to get out of my wheelchair and walk a few steps, I have had many unpleasant incidents in which people have made really nasty comments like “Look! There’s nothing wrong with his legs!”.

Recently I had a very unpleasant experience at Tooting Broadway station, which has an escalator from street level to the platform. I often use this station, and for years I have been taking my empty wheelchair quite safely up and down the escalator, holding onto it firmly while I stand behind it.

‘Safety reasons’

I arrived at the station and, still seated in my wheelchair, had reached the wide gate at the ticket barrier when a member of station staff positioned herself firmly across the gate, blocking it totally, and refusing me entry. She said it was for safety reasons. I queried this. I explained that my legs were not paralysed, that I would be getting out of my wheelchair at the top of the escalator and holding onto it firmly on my way down. Still she stood there, rudely and officiously blocking the gate, refusing me entry. She told me that I was not allowed to use the escalator unless I had a companion/assistant with me. This is untrue – there is no such rule in the Conditions of Carriage or anywhere else, she invented simply it.

We argued for a long time. Finally, she said she would only let me through the barrier if I got out of my wheelchair right there and pushed it through the gate, and then pushed it all the way to the escalator – which is quite a bit further than I’m comfortable with. It was as if she had decided to set me a test to see if I was lying about being able to walk.

I was deeply shaken and upset by this incident. She was attempting to obstruct my perfectly legitimate access to Tube travel; and she was – at first, anyway - falling into the trap of seeing a person in a wheelchair as paralysed, as totally unable to walk.

Rudeness, obstructiveness and discrimination

Until this incident I had had the feeling that Tube station staff were clued-up and helpful and friendly when it came to disability and accessibility issues. Not so at Tooting Broadway on that day! There is still a long way to go before everyone realises that wheelchair users are a broad spectrum of people with a wide range of impairments, from those who cannot walk at all, to those who can walk quite well one some days, and quite poorly on other days – and everyone in between. Only when this very basic fact is understood will the rudeness, obstructiveness and discrimination I experienced at Tooting Broadway station be a thing of the past. I’m impatient for that day to arrive.

To end on a positive note, I did submit a complaint to TfL about this member of staff’s behaviour, and TfL wrote back agreeing that it fell short of their expectations, adding that “I’ve sent your correspondence to the senior manager responsible for staff at Tooting Broadway station to take appropriate action. Actions taken can include demotion/suspension or re-training … I can only apologise again for any upset caused.” So it was a case of an isolated and ignorant individual acting inappropriately and contrary to TfL’s policy on wheelchair users.