Second-class only for disabled travellers

Millions of Britons face humiliation, worry and discomfort every time they use public transport
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Jane Tapper used the train to attend a human rights conference but found that, as a wheelchair user, she had fewer rights than other passengers on First Great Western.

Jane Tapper used the train to attend a human rights conference but found that, as a wheelchair user, she had fewer rights than other passengers on First Great Western.

Two station staff had helped Mrs Tapper on to the London train at Bath and, after collapsing her wheelchair to get it through a narrow door, were about to reunite her with the chair when another official told them to leave the train immediately or else the train company would be fined for a late departure.

Mrs Tapper was left standing, clutching on to a bemused fellow passenger as the train pulled out of the station.

On the return journey from London she found that no provision had been made for her seat so, again, she had to move out of her wheelchair. She spent much of the journey home worrying about being able to get out of a seat designed for an able-bodied person into her wheelchair in time to leave the train at Bath Spa.

"The fuss they'd made about the train being late in the morning was in my mind," she said. "I was so worried about being left on the train that my carer helped me to get up before the train arrived in Bath."

Although disabled people qualify for substantial discounts on fares, her experience exposed the lack of joined-up thinking that bedevils public transport for the disabled.

It is often a struggle for a disabled person to locate advice in the first place. Many frontline staff are not trained in dealing with disabled people, while other obstacles include confusing signposts, unmanned stations, a lack of Braille and larger-print timetables and tactile paving. Wheelchair users must give train companies 72 hours' notice if they want assistance. Disabled people also feel they have been excluded from the very consultations at which their needs are "decided" by local planners.

Lorraine Gradwell, a wheelchair user who takes Virgin trains between London, Birmingham and Manchester, has been told of one wheelchair user being stranded on a train and left on a carriage in the sidings. She has also noticed that carriages with lavatories for the disabled are being withdrawn on many routes.

"We also hear of disabled people travelling in the guard's carriage," said Ms Gradwell, a member of our Passenger Panel and chief executive of Breakthrough UK, an organisation offering employment training to disabled people.

Great Western said it regretted the way Mrs Tapper was treated, adding it requires advance notice from disabled travellers because it could not otherwise guarantee that enough staff would be available to help. Around 75 per cent of Great Western frontline staff have participated in a one-day disability awareness course which was started last year.

They clearly need all the practice they can get. Mrs Tapper's first visit to Bath Spa - she suffered a cerebral haemorrhage last year, limiting movement down her right side - was a humiliating experience. "The chap at the ticket window wanted me out of the ticket hall as quickly as possible," she said. "He didn't offer any information and just gave me a slip of paper, saying 'That's where they deal with the likes of you'. I broke down in tears. He seemed determined to reinforce the fact that something was wrong with me. To cap it all, the number was wrong."

Trains are not the only frustration. Disabled passengers using Gatwick, Stansted or Manchester airports are charged up to £60 to be taken on board planes, while private-hire vehicles often charge people with sight problems extra to carry guide dogs, claiming they must cover the cost of cleaning up dog hair.

Kate O'Shea, a retired nurse with rheumatoid arthritis, found black cab firms reluctant to take disabled people. Many councils subsidise taxi journeys but Mrs O'Shea wasted her £40 ballet tickets - a birthday present - because London's main cab-booking service could find no wheelchair-accessible taxi in the whole of London. Despite booking at 1pm, there was still no cab available by 7.30pm when the ballet was starting at the Albert Hall. "We seem to have to join a pressure group to call for things we should already have," she said. "Whatever their disability, many people will simply give up at that stage. Some people may be happy just to potter around at home but I'm not like that. Something has to be done. We can't just go on the way we are."

There is little recourse if people are dissatisfied. Apart from a requirement for wheelchair accessibility and colour-coding on trains built after 1999, the Disability Discrimination Act does not cover transport, a state of affairs described as unacceptable by the Disability Rights Commission, the Government's own policy adviser on issues affecting disabled people.

It is no surprise that many simply give up attempts at independence. A survey by the Royal National Institute for the Blind last year found 33 per cent of blind and partially sighted people never use public transport. Forty per cent rely on being conveyed by car.

"A negative experience means that someone gives up travelling independently and has to rely on private means," said Tim Pope, a policy supervisor for the RNIB. "That is expensive for the Government and has a hidden cost on families. It's frustrating when just a few simple changes can turn someone from being dependent to being able to travel independently."

Mr Pope hopes that improvement will come from using the only language the privatised companies seem to understand.

"Some 11.8 per cent of the population has a disability and they have a collective spending power of £40bn a year," he said.

"That is a significant potential investment and in the coming years the companies that decide to cater for disabled people will do significantly better than those that don't."