19 September 2010

Giving wheelchairs preference

Regardless of the Disabled Discrimination Act (DDA), it's surely common sense to offer every assistance to someone less able than ourselves when using public transport. At train stations, porters are often on hand to ensure those in wheelchairs can be loaded/alighted in a safe, dignified manner (guards are also trained to use station/train ramps) and one-to-one assistance is given at airports by staff therein.

Travelling by bus is a little less prescriptive for a number of reasons. Few operators provide a pre-book system, where a wheelchair user can call ahead and make an operator aware of their presence. In many companies, drivers are cautious of leaving their cabs due to the potential for assault or the theft of their takings. Ramps on some of the older low-floor buses tend to be cumbersome and awkward to both assemble and stow - this process needing to be done twice per wheelchair user. An old friend of mine used to say of the first-generation of Dart SLFs: "Like a deckchair on Brighton beach, you need an A Level to assemble one of those bloody things!"

And finally, owing to the upsurge of buggies that occupy the wheelchair area, parents can be unwilling to fold their buggy to make way for a wheelchair user. Some bus operators openly advertise this as a 'buggy zone' or similar.

Can you blame them? So infrequent are wheelchair users aboard buses that many parents with buggies may have travelled for years without ever coming into contact with one. Then, two years on, a wheelchair user boards and they need the dedicated space vacating. The bus is particularly busy and the limited luggage storage area (usually above one of the front wheel arches) is already in use with a couple of suitcases.

This is a scenario most bus drivers will find familiar. In an unusual move by one of the 'big boys', I spotted a bespoke buggy notice affixed to the front windscreen of a Stagecoach Yorkshire ADL Trident/Enviro400, attending the Meadowhall Bus Rally today.

Mr Stenning will surely have a duck-fit - not a corporate 'swoop' in sight!

We know what the sign is getting at but it is misleading. Rather than something along the lines of "Buggies may need folding, should a wheelchair user board" the sign implies that the inanimate wheelchair itself has preference over all other human passengers. It does not. Nor does a wheelchair user have any greater right to travel than his/her able-bodied counterparts. The DDA instructs companies to ensure adequate provision is made to accommodate people with disabilities; they do not receive preference. It just feels like that to some.

Chatting to a couple of contacts in the Barnsley area, where the Enviro400 operates, it appears "single mothers" have become very vociferous towards drivers and even the people in wheelchairs, when faced with the task of collapsing their buggies to make way for someone less able than themselves. They believe that, with a child and a collection of Asda shopping bags, they are less able than someone with no/limited use of their legs.

It's not Stagecoach policy to affix notices like this to the windscreens of its newest 'deckers, though I hope as a result of this post it won't be outlawed immediately. Operators need to show that they are enforcing the DDA accordingly, which includes ensuring its workforce is aware of their obligation towards wheelchair users - and this can include having to make awkward decisions regarding buggies. If nothing else, this notice sends a very clear message to intending passengers and illustrates company policy in line with current legislation. If offers drivers immediate clarification and can help diffuse an awkward situation, with any greviences being taken up with the company's office at a later date.

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