Today the Supreme Court gave its ruling on whether FirstBus, a major provider of bus services throughout the UK, discriminated against a man who was unable to travel on one of its buses in West Yorkshire because a mother with a sleeping baby refused to fold her buggy, claiming it wouldn’t fold. The man, Doug Paulley, originally won his case but the company appealed; the Court of Appeal supported the company, while the Supreme Court has delivered what disability campaigners are calling a partial victory, finding that drivers must do more than just ask a parent to fold their buggy, stopping short of insisting that they eject the parent from the bus. It therefore doesn’t amount to a guarantee that disabled travellers will be able to travel on what is often the only form of transport available to them. (More: Doug Paulley.)
It strikes me as odd that this conflict has been allowed to go on this long. In London, you cannot take non-folding bicycles on trains at peak times, or on deep sections of the London Underground at any time. The policy was brought in five years ago or so because rigid frame bicycles took up too much space and caused obstructions when people were trying to get off. There was a publicity campaign leading up to the rules being introduced, so people had plenty of notice. The same should be true for parents who wish to bring buggies on board buses, where space is much more limited than on a train: they have to use a simple, easy-fold buggy which, for anyone who was around in the early 80s, used to be simply called a buggy. They fold it up before they sit down, ensuring that no conflict with a wheelchair user can arise; I’m told that before accessible buses, which wheelchair users fought for, buggies and prams had to be folded down before the bus arrived. If for some reason the buggy does get into the wheelchair space unfolded, the buggy moves as soon as a wheelchair user needs the space, and the bus doesn’t move until that happens. He can radio his company if the parent still refuses, as they do if passengers refuse to pay, for example.
One objection to insisting that wheelchair users always have priority is that it puts too much responsibility on the driver. However, drivers can be, if necessary, protected by a glass or tough plastic screen which only they can open, so it does not put them in any danger. They are adults and already have responsibility for the takings (such as they are now that most bus passengers use Oyster or contactless debit cards) and for ensuring passenger safety. Other drivers are held responsible for ensuring that disabled people can travel; cab drivers cannot refuse guide dogs and have been prosecuted for refusing (it’s telling that small operators, often self-employed people using their own cars, are punished while large operators are protected). There are also parents with physical impairments that do not make them wheelchair dependant, but might make folding a buggy and carrying a child difficult; there could perhaps be a permit system for these people who do have a strong case for using the wheelchair space.
Making sure disabled people can ride the public buses is not an indulgence. It is vital for them not only to go shopping and get their hair cut or nails done, but to go to work (so they do not become the benefit scroungers so many people have been taught to despise), to get to activities so that they are not stuck at home all day, and to attend appointments which are vital to their health and well-being. It is not right that someone is forced to miss hospital appointments and find that their condition deteriorates because nobody could be persuaded to fold a buggy and pick up a child. Although this may seem a minor inconvenience in a major city where the next bus might be along in five minutes, in a rural or small-town setting, the next one might not be along for an hour, and a friend told me she once waited for three hours only to be refused carriage by six consecutive buses, eventually giving up and going home. All this because the able-bodied cannot be bothered to make room. With a bit of organisation and not much time, bus companies and local authorities can make sure wheelchair users can use what is sometimes the only transport available to them. It is not just a point of principle, although it’s a very important principle; it’s a matter of people’s jobs, people’s social lives, and people’s health.
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