The wheels on the bus: we’re having the wrong conversation about accessible transport

Rachel Krys blogs about how the debate is being framed around accessible transport:

I was a pushchair user for a few years, between 2005 and 2010. I remember being struck at the time by how much I was benefiting from the new focus on accessibility on transport and in public buildings. The button to open a door, the lift in the tube station, that space half way down a bus all made life a bit easier for me. It wasn’t perfect, I was often found at the bottom of a flight of stairs smiling hopefully at strangers until one of them helped me with the buggy, but I knew it was a massive improvement.

Of course, as soon as the kids could walk, I ditched the wheels and enjoyed again the freedom of walking up the stairs on the bus to find a seat, squeezing on a packed tube, standing on the escalators. The experience gave me a brief glimpse into the life of the people who face these, and much greater hurdles, every day. I had new respect for the great achievements of the disability campaigners who have fought to get a fraction of our society to be more accessible.

So I was saddened by the framing of a debate on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (at about 7.40am if you want to listen again). It centred on the decision expected from the Supreme Court today in the case of Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user challenging a bus company who refused to force a parent with a pushchair to clear the wheelchair area on a bus so he could get on, leaving him on the side of the road.

The programme makers decided this would make for a good fight, who holds the rights trump cards – wheelchair users or pushchair users? Let’s have a heated debate!

Despite the presenter’s best efforts, the discussion was quite reasonable. Mr Paulley made the case that these spaces are the result of a long-fought battle by disabled people to make public transport more accessible. They are there for wheelchair users, who can’t access any other part of the bus.

Sally Whittle, speaking for pushchair users, pointed out the difficulties of using public transport with a child in a pushchair, with shopping, limited space, lack of storage and overcrowding. For me she didn’t quite win the point. It’s a pain, but a pushchair can be folded, shopping can be carried, as can children. Wheelchair users have none of that flexibility, so need the space designed for them.

Both made the point that everyone should be able to use public transport. What was missing, and has been missing in the subsequent Twitter and Facebook rows in my timelines, was any questioning of the bus companies, who are running a monopoly service and still failing some of their users.

The way this case is being discussed asks us to accept the premise that there are limited rights to go round, that one person gets to trump the rights of another. We are being asked to make a false either/or choice. And we are overlooking the way in which the “market” in public transport is clearly letting us down.

We have human rights laws to ensure we all have access to what we need as we go about our lives. So the challenge must be put back to those providing services to ensure everyone, whether they use a wheelchair or a pushchair, can get on the bus.