Wheelchairs, Buses and Prams

It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Doug Paulley, the wheelchair user who was denied access to a bus because the wheelchair space was occupied by a passenger with a pushchair who refused to move. And I’ve no doubt that many will see the court victory by First Bus as evidence that disability rights are pushed to one side when big business comes to call.

But those criticising First Bus (of whom there are many on social media) need to remember one thing. It’s not some highly paid executive, or faceless corporation, who would be responsible for enforcing the ruling, had the court upheld Mr Paulley’s claim. Individual bus drivers are the ones who would have to police the decision, and they are the ones who would have to face the abuse from passengers if they delay the journey while trying to resolve the situation. And what is the driver expected to do if the passenger refuses to move? Physically eject them from the bus? Can you imagine the headlines?

Bus drivers – and others who provide frontline public services – already face a good deal of both verbal and physical abuse from their customers. From an HR and employment perspective, we have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of our employees. That might be a minor “admin” task for those who work in offices but is a big deal if your staff do a more dangerous job.

The real culprit here is not the bus company but society’s attitudes toward the disabled. The whole situation would have probably been avoided, not just if the other passenger had not been selfish but if the rest of the bus passengers had made it clear that her behaviour was socially unacceptable. Passing legislation, and then expecting low-paid frontline employees to implement it, is no substitute for basic good manners or an unselfish attitude.

3 thoughts on “Wheelchairs, Buses and Prams

  1. This IS a problem of the bus companies’ making. Those accessible buses that exist (and many aren’t accessible at all) have only ONE wheelchair space. The bus companies could offer buses with greater acessibility, but as First Bus’s appeal shows, they simply don’t care. What the Justices fail to realise is that, while parents have many options including folding their buggies, using any of the 40+ seats on the bus, standing, taking a bus that has stairs, or walking, wheelchair passengers have NO OTHER OPTION. In addition, while able-bodied travelers can take taxis and trains easily or perhaps drive a car, many of us who are disabled are unable to drive due to our disabilities, and are often unable to take taxis and trains due to inaccessible cabs and train stations (as well as those taxi drivers who refuse to pick us up).

    There were reports on social media today that over the weekend a bus driver refused to even ask two fit mothers to vacate the wheelchair space, so that a disabled passenger could board. First Bus claims that their policy is to always ask non-disabled passengers to vacate the wheelchair bay, but I have no doubt that many won’t even bother. (Some drivers view disabled passengers as a hassle, because they have to lower the ramp, and it takes time for us to board, putting further pressure on their time schedules.)

    And you are completely wrong saying that passing legislation is no substitute for good manners. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in the United Kingdom and The Americans with Disablities Act (ADA) in the United States have helped provide greater accessibility to public goods and services and a more level playing field in competing for employment. But for this legislation, society would not have provided any such equalities remedies based on good manners. Indeed, it took disabled people chaining themselves to buses in both the UK and the US to get the provision of acessible buses in the first place. (So much for the good manners and unselfish attitudes of the bus companies,)

    To absolve the bus companies of their responsibility to provide accessible transport – on the basis of some perceived health and safety risk to bus drivers – is, quite frankly, absurd. Surely, the bus companies have a responsibility to implement legislation while providing their employees a safe working environment through the provision of appropriate policies, procedures, and risk assessments.

    Based on your argument, there woud be no point in having legislation or policies outlawing smoking, eating, theft, indecent behavior, or violence on buses, because 1) bus drivers would be powerless to take any action whatsoever, and 2) all that’s required is that society act with good manners and an unselfish attitude. (The very fact that you fear for the safety of bus drivers makes it clear that in the real world, as opposed to your idealised world, society does not, at times act, with said good manners and an unselfish attitude.)

    Even your contention that the other bus passengers should have confronted the able-bodied passenger to tell her that her behaviour was “socially unacceptable” has been undermined by today’s ruling. Those able-bodied parents who choose to use the wheelchair bays now will feel that they have a right to do so, that the bus companies will do nothing about it, and that their rights trump those of disabled people (because now, in fact, they do).

    You also conveniently ignore the fact that legislation and judicial rederess help to ensure that certain behaviours are more-widely viewed as socially unacceptable in the first place. How many more people would still be drinking and driving and smoking in pubs in the absence of legislation?

    If I “need to remember one thing” (more than a little patronising, but – hey- as a person with a disability I’m used to it), you and the Justices need to understand that accessibility isn’t a nicety or a luxury, it is a right.

    In denying disabled people access to buses (make no mistake that is what they have effectively done) they have consigned disabled people in the UK to second class citizenry.

    • Thanks for your comment Mike, there are some very valid arguments. My apologies that you found the tone patronising, which wasn’t my intention. I don’t think there’s that much disagreement between us – my point is that legislation on its own, without a change in broader attitudes, probably wouldn’t have resulted in a different outcome in the specific incident on the day (though it would have upheld the later compensation award).

      Your point about providing more than one wheelchair space is interesting – in the mid 1990s I worked for a bus company who operated some of the first “accessible” buses with ramps, low floors and, if I remember correctly, either 2 or 3 wheelchair spaces. There was criticism from some people (including those with other disabilities) that there were too few seats, and in fact it was infrequent that more than one wheelchair space was actually used . That’s not to say that bus companies shouldn’t look to provide more than one wheelchair space but that it’s an issue that doesn’t (or didn’t at the time) have a straightforward solution.

  2. Hi Simon:

    A couple of quick points re your reply:

    It says a lot that the bus company you worked for almost 20 years ago offered double or triple the accessibility available today.

    I find it a bit mind-boggling that passengers who had access to 95% more seats than disabled passengers would complain about there not being enough seating.

    This goes exactly to the heart of this week’s ruling: People in wheelchairs have access to only One space and only one option (we are proscribed from using any other space).

    By contrast, able-bodied passengers have a multitude of options including sitting in any of 40+ seats, standing, or riding on a number of inaccessible buses that we can’t even get on.

    What I find most baffling about the decision is that the Justices have placed the full burden of inconvenience on a minority with far fewer options than the majority. And they’ve done so despite the fact that that minority is a protected class under Equalities Legislation with a legal right to accessible transportation.

    One of the Justices took pains to say: ‘The judge seems to me to have thought that the needs of wheelchair users trumped all other considerations. If that is what he meant, I respectfully disagree.’

    Ironically, in making their ruling, the Justices have guaranteed that the needs of able-bodied passengers “trump” the legal rights and needs of disabled passengers. That is what I find most galling.

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