When people think of ‘barriers’ to transport, the first thing that often comes to mind is something physical: a station with no step-free access, a car without the appropriate adaptations. But barriers don’t just exist in the physical environment and, often, disabled people face barriers to setting out on a journey before we’ve even left the house.
Advanced planning is an essential part of many disabled people’s transport arrangements: access barriers are so pervasive that often extensive research must be done and meticulous arrangements must be made before setting out, just to make sure that the journey will be accessible. Recent research has found that close to half (45%) of disabled people felt they can’t travel spontaneously due to the need to thoroughly plan every journey.
Even at the best of times, the need to plan can stop disabled people moving through the world with the same independence and freedom as nondisabled people. But quite often, we aren’t even given the tools we need to make these plans in the first place!
Because there is a lack of understanding of exactly how important planning is, what information disabled people need, and how to put these in accessible formats, transport operators often don’t make these readily available.
This is a significant barrier to using transport, and can completely undermine attempts to make the physical environment accessible: what good is it having step-free access at a station if nobody knows it’s there? What good is a webpage about using buses for visually impaired people, if the website isn’t accessible to screen-readers?
What needs to change is for people to understand exactly what information many disabled people need in order to safely plan our journeys. Just some of the details people might require to make a train journey include:
- Step-free accessibility
- Walking distances within stations (I.e. how far from ticket hall to platform?)
- Lift and escalator outages
- Staffing levels
- Crowding levels
- Rest spaces
- Noise levels
- Type of lighting
- Weather conditions
- Accessible toilet/changing facilities
- Gradient of slopes
- Charging points
These are not extra details or nice-to-knows; they are as essential as knowing which platform your train departs from. For disabled people to be able to travel with as much ease and confidence as non-disabled people, this kind of information needs to be accessible and readily available in a wide range of formats. But because this information often isn’t readily available, the onus (as usual) is shifted to us, having to scour websites and forums, phone up transport operators, and hurry about stations trying to find a member of staff to provide assistance.
The time spent doing this can make journeys much, much longer. In London alone, a wheelchair user’s commute is already up to 5 times longer than a nondisabled person. But with the added time needed to plan journeys, the burden can put people off travelling all together. The time-consuming process of researching and planning needs to be taken seriously as the accessibility issue it is.
The process can be made even lengthier by a lack of accessible formats. Even when information is available, it isn’t always accessible, and transport operators often fail to communicate with disabled passengers in the ways we need.
If travel details are only available on a website, this could exclude the 23% of disabled adults who have no access to the internet (compared with 6% of nondisabled adults). If live announcements are only given over a Tanoy, then Deaf and hard of hearing passengers may have no way of knowing what is said.
This means even more time spent trying to search for information, and often requires us to reach out directly to the transport operator to try and get the necessary details.
But there is still one thing more frustrating than searching for hours to get the information you need: searching for hours to get the wrong information!
A recent study found a third of disabled people have been given incorrect information regarding the accessibility of a mode of transport or a station. This could be information about permanent features such as step-free access and station facilities (it has been estimated that up to 85% of the UK’s mainline rail stations have a discrepancy between the accessibility info listed on National Rail Enquiries versus what is detailed in their Accessible Transport Policy), or information about more fluctuating or temporary features such as the working status of lifts and escalators, or the availability of assistance staff.
The Office of Road and Rail has itself acknowledged that passenger assist bookings are “designed to fail” if this is the case:
“Inaccurate, incomplete or unclear information may result in assistance being booked for a journey that involves a station which proves to be inaccessible to the passenger.”
For instance, a station website might inform you that it has an audio-induction loop. What it might not tell you, is that the station is unstaffed at the time you are travelling, meaning that there is no one there to operate the induction loop.
Information is only as good as its accuracy and validity, and transport operators need to take on the responsibility for keeping up-to-date records about accessibility. Just earlier this month, the Department for Transport (DfT) revealed that it does not keep a record of the number of vehicles in use on the rail network that fail to comply with modern accessibility standards. If the people in charge don’t know what’s going on, then how are members of the public supposed to?
What needs to change?
Thankfully, there is some good news. An increasing number of projects are underway that are looking to streamline journey planning, usually under the banner of Mobility as a Service. Often this involves an app that allows you to map out routes and book tickets across several different modes, tailoring the journey according to your access requirements. This has real potential for disabled people by removing the cumbersome process of planning and information finding. But it has to be done right. Coproduction is going to be essential in the development of these tools, otherwise, there is a risk that they will be inaccessible to the very people they could help the most.
There are also some moves to make live information more accessible as well. The new Accessible Information Regulations are set to be published by the DfT later this year, and will mandate audio and visual announcements on buses. This could remove a significant information barrier, and permit many more disabled people to use buses independently and with confidence.
“Audio announcements would make it so much easier to use the bus. I visited Durham recently for the first time and was able to travel around the local area on buses independently as they announced every stop. I could never do that in my local area.”
Tech companies have also been working on technology to bridge the information accessibility barrier. For example, Signapse is developing tech that automatically translates written text to sign language. They are working with Network Rail and major train operating companies across England to deliver announcements in British Sign Language, displayed on touch screens at stations, which could notify Deaf passengers of arrivals, departures, delays and disruptions. The fact that, currently, live details are often given exclusively over a Tanoy means that Deaf and hard of hearing people can be left in the dark about important changes to their journey:
“My partner and I both got on a train. We both use mobility aids and both hard of hearing. The train was evacuated but we did not hear the announcement. Nobody came with a ramp to get us off. So we were stuck on the train, with everyone else getting off. We didn’t know why they were.”
“Recently, I had a long journey back home and was travelling with my partner. Many announcements were made only overhead which meant that if my partner was not with me, as a profoundly Deaf person, I would not have been made aware […] The train conductor also refused to communicate with me for being Deaf. We gave many solutions such as writing things down but we were met with resilience and he became rude/aggressive to me and my fiancé.”
If this and other tech solutions were to be rolled out across the rail network, it could revolutionise the way Deaf people use and experience transport.
For disabled people, there are barriers to transport at every stage of our journeys. And without accurate information about these barriers, they can become impossible to navigate. As campaigner Doug Paulley puts it:
“The result is that disabled people suffer. I suffer; the frustration of attempting to find accurate information for planning and booking journeys, finding “on the ground” that journeys I wish to complete aren’t actually possible; that I can’t hear announcements or that I can’t go to the toilet and so on. And so do others.”
We need transport operators to understand that the barriers to transport are more than just physical. For transport to be truly accessible, information about transport needs to be accessible too.
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