Life in a wheelchair: 'Why do you walk funny?'

As a wheelchair user, James Moore knows from experience the abuse that many disabled people encounter. And in a culture of suspicion about benefits recipients, there are worrying signs that these hate crimes are on the rise. What can be done to stop them?

Apparently, I’m hilarious. I realised this on a Thursday evening on a half-empty District Line train heading east. Thanks to a road accident, I don’t move well. On a bumpy train, my movements are laboured and jerky. The young man opposite me noticed the tremendous comic potential in this and treated his fellow passengers to an impromptu routine designed to demonstrate his skills as a mimic.

At first, I was completely nonplussed. I’d never before seen myself as audition material for Britain’s (not) Got Talent.

Then I got angry: “Are you trying to be funny?” I asked, in as menacing a manner as a 5ft 6in disabled journalist can muster.

“Here, let me help you,” he said, mockingly extending a hand in jerky fashion. I informed him that I didn’t require his help, while debating with myself what would happen if I wrapped one of my crutches around his neck. Not very constructive, I admit – I’d probably have landed myself in court – but it would have been very satisfying.

Fortunately, by this time he had stalked off after admonishing me, Bart Simpson-style: “Where’s you sense of humour, man?”

Perhaps he was disappointed at the reaction of his fellow passengers, who looked at the floor or at their Kindles.

Do you think this couldn’t happen to you? You’d be surprised. In researching this piece, I was supplied by Transport for All – which campaigns for accessible transport – with some eye-opening statistics. Nearly one in seven people in the UK have mobility issues and there are 9.8 million Britons who are classified as disabled. And the population is ageing as people are living longer.

As people become older, disabilities become a fact of life. Nearly all of us will be disabled at some point. Including my friend, the amateur comedian. I wonder if he’ll hark back to what he did to me on the train the other night.

Having a wheelchair shouldn't stop me shopping

But the scene on that carriage is a microcosm of what is happening across the country. Lianna Etkind, the friendly campaigns co-ordinator at Transport for All, told me it’s all too common. Then she put me on to Flash Bristow, a wheelchair user who got off a bus only to find herself being pushed across Tower Bridge in London at a scary speed by a group of students.

“I’d just started pushing myself and suddenly found myself whizzing really quickly,” she says. “I didn’t know what was happening and, because of my condition, being pushed like that is really painful on my joints.”

Mercifully, it was only for 100 yards or so, but as she says: “That sort of loss of control is really frightening.”

Now, Bristow is wary of, for example, using island platforms in the middle of t wo train or Tube lines because she wants to have a wall behind her to ensure that sort of thing can’t happen again, with perhaps more serious consequences.

Incidents like these might seem trivial – where’s your sense of humour, man? – but, for those with a disability, they are horribly frightening. With Tube ticket offices closing and job losses on the way, Etkind fears they  will become more common. But such episodes don’t occur only in the capital. These incidents are what Philip Connolly, the policy and communications officer at Disability Rights UK, calls low-level abuse and harassment. “There is a lot of it around,” Connolly laments. Connolly and Etkind are concerned that this type of harassment all too frequently turns  into something much worse. Connolly’s organisation is now running seminars nationwide on the growing problem of disability hate crime, in an attempt to create better dialogue with the police and other authorities, and to encourage victims to come forward.

In the 2012/2013 reporting year, there were 1,841 incidents recorded by police, a 5 per cent increase on the 1,757 the previous year. Connolly feels that this could be a gross underestimate of the total. “There is a great deal of under-reporting,” he says. “We need to get more reporting and investigation and create a climate where this is not acceptable.”

The Association of Chief Police Officers agrees that getting people to come forward is proving difficult. However, Chief Constable Simon Cole, the national policing lead for disability, sees the increase in reported offences as a sign that this is changing, as police forces endeavour to improve their handling of disability hate crime. But he admits there is still further to go.

He also identifies a worrying trend: “I think there is a generally mistrustful climate towards disabled people. The welfare reform legislation, the way the Government describes benefits – a recent Department for Work & Pensions release referred to ‘handouts’ – it’s causing a real problem. Language like that has an effect on how people behave at a time of austerity.”

At a time when people are losing benefits, disabled people are being singled out because they are somehow seen as getting special treatment, even when they are as much victims of the cuts as anyone.

The hostile climate has been exacerbated by columnists such as Richard Littlejohn of The Daily Mail, who has regularly highlighted incidents of “scrounging”, generally choosing apparently outrageous cases to which he adds a dose of his own spin: the part-time magistrate taking salsa lessons while claiming incapacity benefit was one recent example.

It feeds through to a narrative that holds that everyone is cheating, which appears to affect the attitudes of transport staff as well as the public.

Bristow recalls an unpleasant experience with a taxi driver. “He asked if I needed help getting on board. I said, ‘No, I can manage. I use a wheelchair but I can walk a bit.’ So he said to another driver in a sarcastic tone: ‘Oh, look at her. She can get in the cab.’”

The sneers continued as Bristow got in. Then, halfway home, after an exhausting and trying day, she looked at the meter: “It seemed much higher than it ought to have been. He said, ‘Well, you took so long getting in, didn’t you?’ But part of the reason for the delay was because he was having a go at me to his colleague.”

Last month, it emerged that the boss of Teesside’s biggest taxi company had refused to transport disabled passengers after firms were warned that they could lose their licences for overcharging them. A recent report by the House of Commons Transport Committee said: “We heard concerns about the attitude towards disabled people of some drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles. For example, allegations were made that some taxi drivers claim that their wheelchair access ramps are broken, refuse to allow guide dogs into their cars and fail to strap wheelchairs in correctly.”

When travelling on the Tube in London, I have twice been asked by staff members: “Are you sure you’re well enough to travel?” because I get shooting pains. Once, I had a wheelchair and crutches, and was trying to get the chair on to the platform. Instead of helping, the Underground employee stomped off to call his supervisor and eventually growled quite aggressively that I’d have to use carriage six if I “wanted help”.

Fortunately, a passenger came to my rescue. But, when I subsequently complained, I was told that I represented a “health and safety hazard”. Needless to say, I wouldn’t have been a hazard if I’d been offered assistance.

Transport for London claims that it is committed to providing disabled people with a “safe and reliable service”.

“Abuse of a disabled person is a disability hate crime,” according to a TfL statement, “or a disability hate incident if it does not constitute a crime. We do not tolerate this behaviour on any grounds and encourage passengers to report incidents to our staff and/or the British Transport Police (BTP).”

The statement adds: “All our staff receive training geared towards providing good customer service and keeping our stations secure. Our staff are encouraged to be proactive in terms of station safety, and have radios so that they can quickly contact others if help or assistance is needed.

“They are not police officers, but work closely with the BTP to respond as needed to incidents and to ensure that any perpetrators are apprehended and prosecuted. We are lucky to have fairly low levels of crime and we want to keep it that way.”

Etkind and the other disabled people I have spoken to also say that many members of the public, and the majority of staff, are helpful. Bristow comments that the regular taxi drivers who regularly take her home from Stratford in East London are “lovely, and I have had staff go out of their way to help me”.

Still, these examples show that there is much work to be done. Right now, around Tube stations you’ll see posters warning passengers not to abuse the staff.

One rather mawkish example features a child’s plaintive writing that reads: “My dad works on a train. Sometimes people shout bad words at him and he doesn’t want to eat his dinner.” A handful of forlorn-looking peas illustrate the final point.

TFL said was “not sure” similar posters would be “the most effective way” of tackling the behaviour I and some of those I have spoken to endured. But it couldn’t hurt.

I didn’t eat my peas on the night it happened to me. But then, I’m not a great fan of peas. And my kids were in bed so they didn’t have to put up with my malheur that evening.

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