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Priority seat for people with invisible impairments

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

I have Autism it’s an invisible impairment, I don’t look ’Autistic’ or ‘Disabled’ I need assistance when I travel on trains or the underground but I can do some bus routes by myself. I avoid certain times because of crowds and noise which cause anxiety. I need to sit down because my balance system doesn’t work and also because I blackout due to anxiety. I love my freedom pass and not just for the obvious reason but because for most of the time it’s the only proof I have that I am disabled. I use it to show to staff so that I can get assistance, I also show it to other passengers when I need a seat. I don’t like asking other passengers if I can sit down it makes me feel very uncomfortable. There is a hierarchy amongst passengers with wheelchair users and pushchairs being at the top, then those with visible signs such as sticks, canes, and glasses. Passengers with Invisible disabilities are not often thought of. Passengers on the hierarchy will often give up their seats to others on the hierarchy even if they are below them I have seen elderly passengers and a passenger on crutches move out of the priority seats next to the wheelchair space so that parents can sit next to their pushchairs. Some able passengers seem oblivious to the priority seats and never seem to expect to be asked to move. I have had one business man say “I am older than you why should I move?“

I think that more should be done to raise awareness of priority seats and also invisible impairments. Priority seats are not enforceable staff can ask passengers to move (not all staff will do this, Bus drivers will not even ask.) but not tell them to, I have to do that: something that I find very difficult to do. Once I get a seat I end up spending a lot of time defending my entitlement to it. Especially to those of a certain age, I have to put up with stares and tutting and remarks such as “she doesn’t look disabled.” “Everyone can get a freedom pass now.” “She should give up her seat for someone who is properly disabled.” This causes me extreme anxiety and I always end up getting off the bus early and walking the rest of the way.

On the trains and the underground many women will give up their seats for you. Where as men will pretend they haven’t seen you and then spend the rest of the journey complaining about someone eating fast food of talking on their mobile phone in the carriage.

Priority seats are better signposted now and some train companies even have a priority seat card that you can apply for. But it still isn’t clear that people with Invisible disabilities may need to use the seats. All the signs and symbols are around visible disabilities.

I would like to see London Transport bring out a Priority Seat badge like the baby on board badge in a universal design. The blue and white figures used at the moment always show physical disabilities. A simple letter P in blue would work.

I feel that it would take away some of the confrontation that happens when you have to approach someone, and when people know why they have to do something they are often more willing. I have started to wear a badge that says “Autistic” so that people have a visible clue to my impairment. I have had more positive reactions since.

Claire Lindsay is co-founder of Thoughtistic, an organisation working to improve access for people with autism