On free transport passes and invisible disabilities

Epileptic Jess McGee, 19 Ordered Off Bus After Driver Calls Her Illness A ‘Pisstake’

The other day my new Asperger’s job consultant in Kingston asked me if I had a Freedom Pass (a free bus and train pass issued to the elderly and people with certain types of disability). I said no, as I had never imagined I was eligible for one and had not been told by her predecessor. She told me I was, and that all of their service users had them and they had helped fill the application forms in. We filled mine in, I got a new set of passport photos done in Kingston, photocopied the required documents and I handed the bulging envelope in at the town hall yesterday. I looked forward to being able to go up London for free (now that off-peak day Travelcards cost nearly £8), but wondered how often I’d have to justify my having the pass to people who have no right to demand it. (More: Same Difference.)

This is exactly what has happened to a young woman in Bath, 19-year-old Jess McGee, who has the pass (or her local version of it), tried to use the no. 13 bus, operated by First (a major bus contractor which also operates a number of routes in and around London on contract to Transport for London), on her way to work. The driver demanded to know what her disability was, and when she told him she had epilepsy, he told her that it was a “piss-take” and demanded that she get off or pay. In the event, another passenger paid her fare. If you have epilepsy, you are not allowed to drive unless you have not had a seizure for a certain length of time, for the obvious reason that you might have a seizure at the wheel, so people with this condition are dependent on public transport. It might be argued that running a car costs money, like public transport, but family members often provide the use of a car without charging for maintenance or fuel — but you cannot take this up if you are banned from driving. Hence the need for an exemption from public transport fares (which have been getting higher and higher because of rising oil costs and falling subsidies, and more so in the provinces than in London).

I can suggest a number of ways of reducing this particular problem, the most obvious being not to make the cards identifiable as concessionary passes, because people are most likely to question a holder when they have a disability or medical condition that is not obvious; in London, they should simply be called Travelcards with the disability or age part in the small print. Barriers can easily be programmed to reject their use when they are not eligible. This would mean no busybody standing by can demand to know why someone has a Freedom Pass or its equivalent and bus drivers (and other inspectors, although they have less of a reputation for this sort of thing as they do not control entry, only issue fines which can be appealed) cannot question it. But really, bus companies should impress on drivers that it is not their business to question why someone has a special pass; their job is to judge whether the person in the picture is the person holding it. Especially, if passes are issued for autism or mental health related reasons (as they are in some places but not others), they should not be a source of stress or confrontation for the holder as it could lead to a serious crisis. Whoever this is should be discliplined, if not sacked.

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