In early November I travelled to London to attend the sociologists outside academia (SOA) group which I co-convene with a few colleagues. The trip to London was uneventful, but the return trip turned out to be eye-opening in more ways than one. I experienced first hand what travelling is like for a wheelchair user and was both pleased at how helpful most staff we encountered were, but also surprised and disappointed by how difficult it was to get assistance in the first place and at the attitudes of some station staff.
One of the SOA group members is a wheelchair user. I hadn’t previously met her, but she is intelligent, thoughtful, and has a frightening number of anecdotes to share about times people have treated her as unintelligent or unable. From meeting her this is unjustified and, I assume, based on assumptions or preconceptions about people with disabilities. The basis of such preconceptions escape me because if a disability is physical, why assume the person’s mind is also affected?
After the SOA event we both needed to travel home from Euston station so we shared a taxi to get us there, since the tube isn’t really an option for her. We hailed a taxi which was equipped with a ramp, as most black cabs apparently are now, and the driver was helpful without making a big deal of things. He’d clearly done this before.
I have never travelled with a wheelchair user before so I didn’t realise there was so much to consider. It may sound obvious, but lining up the wheelchair wheels on the ramp is a skill in itself since there’s only a centimetre or two on either side. The ramp is also quite steep so you really need to be ungraceful and give a good shove!
On the way to Euston station we learned that all trains leaving Euston station were severely delayed. Since we both needed to head north west, we went to St. Pancras instead and changed her travel assistance booking on the way.
When we arrived at St. Pancras station – a modern, international station – it was very difficult to find help. We stopped three separate members of staff to ask where we should go. One directed us to an office that was closed and the other two didn’t know where to send us at all. This exercise in frustration was made worse by the fact that none of the signs throughout the concourse showed where to go for an information desk or where to get assistance.
The attitude of the staff we asked also varied greatly. Most were apologetic that they couldn’t help, and tried to offer what help they could. Some were abrupt, and one even rude. I asked if the member of staff knew where we should go to arrange journey care (apparently that’s what it’s called) and she replied simply that she didn’t know what that meant, and began to beckon for the next customer as if I was wasting her time. When I explained that it was assistance for a wheelchair user to get on the train (with the next customer now standing over my shoulder) she gave me directions to the information desk before quite categorically dismissing me.
When we arrived at the information desk it was for a specific train operating company, and not the one for the train we needed. Consequently we were a bit concerned we would get turned away again. Fortunately the staff at the desk were able to help, but this wouldn’t have been clear without having to ask.
This whole process from arriving at the station to finding where to get help took about 30 minutes, and as I said earlier this is a modern, international station. It should be easier than it was.
Onbaord the Train
In contrast, when someone arrived to help us on to the train things ran smoothly. He helped us to get on the train without any fuss and made sure assistance was booked for us at our next station. When we arrived at the next station to change trains, a member of station staff was waiting on the platform for us, got us off the train and directed us to the lift and said he’d be waiting for us on the next platform when the next train arrived. Re-assuringly he was already waiting for us when we arrived about 10 minutes early for our next train. Again, he helped us on to the train without any fuss and told us he would ring ahead to our final station to make sure someone was around to meet us. By this point I was a dab hand with wheelchair ramps so he only put the ramp down for us, but he was helpful, efficient, and re-assuring, which is what we needed after almost four hours travelling at that point.
My experience from this one journey suggests that most individual members of staff are helpful, courteous, and don’t make a fuss. Once we’d found the initial member of staff who knew how to contact staff at other stations on our behalf, we were fine. I think travelling through smaller stations was also easier, since trained staff were easier to find. Based on this experience I think more needs to be done to make larger stations more accessible and navigable for people who need travel assistance, such as clear signs, training for all staff to know where to find appropriate assistance, and perhaps even a more visible information desk. Since we were dependent on someone meeting us at each station, I was able to relax more once the train guard had come around and confirmed with us that the station staff at our next station staff had been contacted. Perhaps the train guard doing this first would also be helpful and reassuring for travellers who need assistance?
Eventually we both got to our destination stations, but it was harder work than it should have been.
Help for Wheelchair Users Travelling by Train
Disabled travel advice is a good place to start for advice for wheelchair users using public transport.
Edit 19 November 2011
You might want to read this related article in the Guardian about the accessibility of London transport.