The Paulley Principle

Last night we opened our run of Backstage in Biscuit Land at the Birmingham Rep – as I rolled on stage I felt more excited than nervous. And while I was certainly pretty tense before our Broadcast from Biscuit Land just over a year ago, nothing compared with how nervous I felt a few moments ago when I turned on the Supreme Court’s live stream.

I’ve never watched a live judgement before. In fact the only rulings I’ve ever seen have been in TV dramas, so I had no idea what to expect. This one wasn’t about a dramatic murder or an intriguing celebrity misdemeanour, but it was about something that’s very much part of my day-to-day life.

Over the last few months seven Supreme Court judges have been considering a case brought by wheelchair user Doug Paulley. Doug took his local bus company to court after he was denied access to a bus because the wheelchair priority area was occupied by a parent with a buggy who refused to move.

The case has been widely characterised in the press as Buggy v Wheelchair, but this unhelpful oversimplification misses the real issues. I’m frequently denied access to buses because buggies are in the wheelchair area, but this is rarely because a parent is unwilling to move their buggy.

Most often it’s because the bus driver decides not to open the doors, put down the ramp, or play the automated announcement that asks people using the wheelchair space to move. This isn’t just an occasional issue: I encounter difficulties on about 80% of the bus journeys I attempt to make. This makes travelling by bus stressful and unreliable. And the experience of being ignored and refused a service is deeply humiliating.

Obviously travelling with a buggy and young child is also stressful, and this isn’t about wheelchair users’ rights trumping those with buggies. Often a buggy and a wheelchair can fit in the space together, and parents usually have the option of folding their buggy and sitting with their child in another seat. But for a wheelchair user the only space on a bus is the wheelchair priority area.

I was nervous watching the judgement today because it was about so much more than just my right to access buses. It was about my right to travel to work, to meet friends and to be in public space. It was also about being acknowledged as an equal rather than an inconvenience that can be left at the side of the road.

The judgement was short. The judges found in favour of Doug. They ruled that the policy of simply asking for the wheelchair spot to be vacated was not enough, and that “unreasonable” passengers who would not budge should be pressured into moving.

My hope is that this ruling is a step towards policies that mean buses work better for both wheelchair and buggy users, that it encourages bus companies to invest in training and developing vehicles that are designed to be inclusive. I know it’s not an instant fix and that there’s a long way to go before we have a fully accessible transport system, but this is a significant move in the right direction.

I’m deeply grateful to Doug, to the legal team that supported him, to all the buggy users who spoke up in solidarity, and to the disabled activists who chained themselves to buses in the 1990s to get the wheelchair space in the first place. And finally to the Supreme Court judges for a ruling that I profoundly hope will bring greater clarity, accessibility and harmony to all bus users.

My nerves have calmed now and I’m left with a feeling of intense relief and optimism.

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