A panel of seven judges from the highest court in the land is currently considering an issue that matters to me deeply. The judges of the Supreme Court are hearing Doug Paulley’s long-running case against his local bus company. This centres on whether or not bus companies are legally obliged to make sure that wheelchair-users can use the spaces reserved for them.
The initial County Court ruling found in Doug’s favour, the bus company appealed this decision, and the judges hearing that appeal found against him. With the support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Court is now considering the case.
As a wheelchair-using Londoner the outcome of this case will have a huge impact on my life, my independence, and my access to public transport.
This post is an open letter to the seven judges hearing this case.
Dear Supreme Court Judges,
It’s been a sunny summer weekend in London, the first I’ve had off work in many weeks. Free of time pressures, I decided to take a bus to meet a friend – but as a wheelchair user every journey is riddled with worries:
• How many buses will go by without opening their doors for me before there’s one that I can board?
• Will I experience the euphoric joy of a bus with a free wheelchair space, or the gut-wrenching dismay of finding the space occupied by pushchairs?
• Will this driver know that I can easily fit into the reserved space with a buggy there as well, or will they assume I can’t, and use this as an excuse not to let me on?
• Will I have to ask the driver to play the automated announcement, and feel a destructive mixture of shame and rage in the process?
• Will my support worker have to get onto a busy bus and negotiate our access with flustered parents with buggies?
• Will the driver be patient enough to position the bus so I can board?
• Will the ramp work?
• Will there be a confrontation?
• Will voices be raised voices or will I be greeted with sullen silence?
• Will I have to watch as the bus pulls away meaning I have to repeat this stressful process all over again?
• Will I have to make the decision as to whether I spend yet more time and energy on writing a complaint?
This afternoon I was able to get on board at the third attempt. As the bus pulled away with us safely on board my support worker said: “I had such an intense feeling of relief when I looked into the two buggies and saw empty space instead of sleeping children.”
We are stressed out by this experience, worn down by the tension surrounding such a simple act. My confidence in travelling by bus is on the floor.
It’s great that London’s bus fleet is fully physically accessible, but the rules, and how they’re interpreted, very often mean that they’re not actually accessible.
In a previous decision on Doug’s case the Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Underhill said ‘It has to be accepted that our conclusion and reasoning in this case means that wheelchair users will occasionally be prevented by other passengers from using the wheelchair space on the bus.’
I want you to know that I am not occasionally prevented from travelling – I am frequently prevented from doing so.
Of the last ten buses I’ve attempted to board I was successful only four times – meaning on six out of ten occasions I was not able to travel.
On only two of the four buses I managed to board was the process difficulty-free. I was only able to board the other two after conflict with the driver.
Is it acceptable for me, because I’m a wheelchair user, to experience issues on 80% of journeys that I want to make, issues that result in me being unable to travel or being subjected to conditions that cause me high levels of stress and agitation?
Lady Justice Arden, another judge who considered Doug’s case at the Appeal Court said: ‘Drivers should… be taught to pile pressure on selfish passengers.’
This misses a fundamental point – it’s often not the attitude of other passengers that prevents wheelchair users – it’s the drivers’ understanding of the rules. By not ruling clearly that bus companies have a legal duty to ensure wheelchair users can travel, the situation has been made much worse. Many drivers have told me that access to the reserved space is, “First come first served.”
My understanding of the role of the law is that it’s there to give clear guidelines about how to behave, and to protect people from harm or discrimination. Bus drivers are required to enforce many other rules, such as no smoking or no standing on the upper deck or stairs. Why am I not worth the same effort?
Lady Justice Arden also said that the, “The proper remedy for wheelchair users is to ask parliament to strengthen the powers of bus drivers so that they could, for instance, require people to vacate the wheelchair space, or create new duties on other passengers, or to campaign for a different design of buses.” Should the responsibility for making buses accessible really rest with me as someone with a protected characteristic?
Is it appropriate, as this ruling seems to suggest, that it’s my job as a disabled person to convince politicians and service providers that I shouldn’t be discriminated against?
Without the committed backing of the law it’s very unlikely that there will be meaningful progress on this issue. But you, on the other hand, do have a chance to make change happen.
As a wheelchair user I can only use one of the 82 spaces for passengers on the average London bus. Surely it’s right that bus companies not only have to provide this physical space but that they also have to have the necessary policies, procedures and training to ensure that the space is actually available for disabled people to use.
Your decision on this will either mean I can move around London with increased confidence and reduced fear of discrimination. Or it will mean the many barriers I’ve described will become more firmly established, both in operating procedures, and in the minds of the people implementing them.
Buses obviously aren’t the only means of transport. In London for example there’s also the Tube and the Overground. But 72% of tube stations and 50% of the rail network are non-accessible. That’s why the bus system is a crucial means of transport for almost all disabled people.
You have an opportunity to vastly improve the equality of access to transport across the UK and you don’t have to install a single lift or ramp to do so. You can do it simply by supporting disabled people’s right of access to a safe, reliable space on the bus.
Access to bus travel is about so much more than just being able to get on board. It’s about getting to work, seeing friends, going shopping. It’s being able to take your child to school or go on a date, go to an art gallery or visit an elderly relative. It’s the difference between living in a city you can never see, and being able to enjoy a sunny weekend by the river.
To many, your ruling on Doug’s case will seem trivial, but to me, and many other disabled people, it’s hugely significant – you’re ruling on whether we’re treated as equal citizens with equal rights.
I know there may be legal nuances I don’t understand, but I want you to understand the urgency of my perspective.
I’m the person waiting at the bottom of the ramp, holding my breath and hoping that today I can get on a bus without a battle.