Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Why are people with disabilities still facing transport barriers?

In recent weeks, various stories have come to light about public transport staff failing to provide timely support for people with accessibility requirements.

The story of a disabled woman who was left stranded on a plane at Gatwick airport for one hour and 35 minutes took centre stage, hitting headlines across the country.

Victoria Brignell, who is paralysed from the neck down, booked support from ground staff at Gatwick airport two months’ in advance. However, when Ms Brignell arrived at Gatwick, no one was available to help her get off the plane.

Ms Brignell said: “I can’t use my arms or legs. To get off a plane I need two people to lift me from the airplane seat into an aisle chair, which is a specially-designed narrow wheelchair to push me along the aisle off the plane, and lift me into my wheelchair waiting outside.

“My wheelchair arrived promptly, but the people who were supposed to help me get off the plane didn’t turn up – they were busy elsewhere.”

Ms Brignell explains that this sequence of events not only put her in an uncomfortable situation, but it also delayed hundreds of other passengers who were due to board the next plane.

“Improving the service for disabled people is important because it improves the service for everybody,” she explains.

An isolated incident or part of a wider problem?

The CEO of Gatwick airport, who telephoned Ms Brignell to apologise for the incident, said he will do more to ensure that there are adequate staffing levels in the future.

But Ms Brignell highlights that this is not an isolated incident, and just two weeks ago, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson had a similar experience when flying into Berlin.

Baroness Grey-Thompson was left waiting for assistance for around half an hour before she resorted to dragging herself off the plane to reach her wheelchair.

This is a problem that looks set to continue unless these staff shortages are urgently addressed. An anonymous source told Learning Disability Today that she has been trying for weeks to book passenger assistance for her disabled son for an upcoming flight.

She said: “Before the pandemic, we flew on a number of airlines with my son who is a wheelchair user and found special assistance to always be of a high quality. With one quick phone call, we had seats at the back of the plane allocated so we could use the lift on to the plane. We also had confirmation that we could travel with his numerous pieces of medical equipment.

“This year, despite weeks of trying we haven’t been able to speak to anyone on the phone. There is a form to fill in but as yet no one has got back in touch. It adds unnecessary stress to the situation. I fear disabled people are being left behind in the current travel chaos.”

Why is there an upsurge in the number of disabled people being left without support?

Public transport barriers for disabled people is not a new phenomenon, but an issue that has been ongoing for years. The problem, however, has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has resulted in cuts to services and staff shortages.

When the pandemic began, public transport came to a standstill. With the public told to stay at home and avoid travelling, airlines, rail networks and bus operators saw a dramatic reduction in the number of people using their services.

Now, with billions lost in fare income, public transport networks are trying to make cost savings. This has led to staffing cuts and pay freezes, causing many staff to leave the profession and not return, or strike in protest.

With the number of passengers using public transport getting back to pre-pandemic levels, staffing levels now need to match this demand. But they are currently far from it.

Last November, a survey revealed that there were bus driver shortages at 99% of bus garages, and hundreds of daily train services across England, Scotland and Wales are being removed from timetables amid a lack of drivers.

There is limited space for wheelchair users on board buses and trains; a reduced level of service therefore risks leaving disabled passengers waiting for hours until transport with adequate space arrives.

Journalist Ellis Palmer reported on 7 June that he was removed from two trains during his trip to Newcastle because there wasn’t enough space for the wheelchair users requiring transport. He tweeted:

“Angry doesn’t cover it!!! Booted off the service at Manchester Victoria en route to Leeds and then Hull because two wheelchair users had booked the defined wheelchair spaces to Newcastle… The previous trains allowed for multiple wheelchair users to be on board. These, only two spaces.”

While staff shortages at airports is wreaking havoc for all holiday makers, people with disabilities are acutely affected as, without assistance, they can be left unable to fulfil basic human rights needs such as eating, drinking, or going to the toilet.

Why is it so important that public transport is accessible to all?

Mobility is a key factor for economic and social integration, and public transport therefore supports people with disabilities to live an independent life.

Around 15% of the world’s population has a disability, and according to The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, public transport networks are obliged to make transport accessible to persons with disabilities so that they can participate in society “on an equal basis with others”.

People with disabilities tend to rely more heavily on public transport options, such as buses, trains and taxis, than non-disabled people, making public transport essential to the lives of thousands of people with disabilities.

It is therefore of paramount importance that public transport is accessible for all. Without it, thousands of disabled people would be left without the ability to effectively participate in society.

Governments and public transport companies must therefore ensure that disabled passengers are not forgotten or overlooked. It is their responsibility to ensure that everyone can travel on planes, trains, buses and taxis with the same freedom and independence as everyone else.

Until this happens, people with disabilities will continue to face widening inequalities and be put at a significant disadvantage compared to non-disabled members of society.

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