I’m going to start this post by telling you about two things I did yesterday. They’re almost unrelated but there is a connecting thread between them.
Firstly, yesterday was the last day of our half term playscheme at work. I led a small group of children across London on a trip to the Adventure Playground of the Year Awards. In researching the trip I discovered the step-free route would take us an hour and a half, but that if I wasn’t a wheelchair user it would take just 20 minutes.
Secondly, I watched Disowned and Disabled – Breaking Free, a documentary that tells the largely unheard story of disabled people’s battle for equality. It showed footage of disabled people taking direct action to highlight the inequalities they faced. This included people chaining themselves to buses to highlight the inaccessibility of the public transport system.
Thanks to the efforts of disability rights campaigners, public transport’s much more accessible than it used to be. But access to the London Underground is still far from equal as the journey times for yesterday’s trip illustrate.
When we set out I explained the situation to the children. I told them that we were going to have to go by a much longer route because lots of parts of the Tube aren’t accessible to me. I fully intended to take the longer safer route but midway through our journey I realised we’d be very late for the event if we stuck to the plan. So, because I can transfer out of my wheelchair reasonably easily and can move about a bit by crawling or shuffling, I decided to give the more direct route a go.
In many ways this was a stupid decision. It put me at increased risk, it had the potential to make things much harder for my colleagues who were with me and if it’d gone wrong and I’d been injured it would’ve been far more distressing for everybody than simply being late.
But there’s part of me that was glad I’d had the opportunity to show the children how difficult it can be to get about as a wheelchair user. We worked as a team to tackle the steps, they saw me put my helmet on to protect myself from injury and they waited patiently while I shuffled up the stairs on my bum. The fact that this spectacle was visible to other passengers felt positive too – it’s easy to ignore an issue if it doesn’t affect you and you never see anyone who it does.
That doesn’t mean I made the right decision. I didn’t choose to take the most direct route as a political act but because we were running late and I gave in to the pressure of time. For many wheelchair users what I did yesterday wouldn’t be an option at all. It’s clearly unacceptable for our journey to be four times longer than for non-disabled people.
While things might be much better than they were twenty years ago, progress to equalise access to public transport feels painfully slow. Transport for London proudly state that 66 of their stations are step-free from street to platform. But there are 270 stations. This means that if you’re a wheelchair user, three out of four stations are inaccessible.
In 2004 only 45 stations were accessible, so in the last decade there’s been a 7.5% increase in accessibility. If progress continues at this rate the Tube will be fully accessible… in another 100 years! Even that looks over-optimistic because the sad reality is that progress is unlikely to continue even at the present slow rate. This is what the Transport for London’s website says:
‘Unfortunately we have had to defer a number of other step-free schemes due to budget constraints.’
Of course I understand that London’s underground system is old and that schemes to improve access can be expensive. But can we really tolerate a pace of change that will see generations of disabled people discriminated against for years to come?
This issue goes way beyond just the Tube. In every sphere it’s important that we don’t settle for partial access or accept the tired old adage that ‘Something is better than nothing’. And by ‘we’ I definitely don’t just mean disabled people. While activism by disabled people must continue, it’s also vital that everyone becomes less tolerant of the inequalities embedded in our environments.
While I was watching Disowned and Disabled – Breaking Free I was surprised by how recently basic rights for disabled people were won. Those chaining themselves to buses for simple freedoms were doing so in the 1990’s. The policies of the current government have already put many of these rights at risk.
It’s important that access isn’t an afterthought but an integral part of all of our thinking. An inclusive society benefits everybody, but we’ll only get there if we all play our part in shaping it.