Are we doing enough to support disabilities on public transport?
Two globe-trotting wheelchair users have spoken out on the difficulties they regularly face while travelling on public transport including rail and aviation to do more to remove the obstacles stifling their thirst for adventure.
Anne Luttman-Johnson and Chris Wood offered a candid insight into the difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis in a revealing new podcast - ‘Let’s talk about it’ - hosted by law firm Irwin Mitchell.
The podcast discusses matters affecting those living with disabilities and explores the challenges they face in different spheres, with previous episodes focusing on money, sport and employment.
Luttman-Johnson and Wood were guests on the latest episode, which discussed the common issues faced by disabled people while using public transport.
When Anne broke her back in an accident at age 21, feelings of depression hit when “the reality of life in a wheelchair came home to me”, but she soon accepted her new way of life and vowed not to let her disability stifle her adventurous nature.
Anne soon took to travelling the world, but just as quickly learned of challenges posed by flying and other modes of public transport. She explained that wheelchairs can’t be stored in the cabin on commercial flights most of the time, and that they are often broken while loading or unpacking, or even just during a flight.
She explained: “I suffer such anxiety when I’m parted from my wheelchair, because my wheelchair is my legs. My wheelchair is my freedom. I love my wheelchair. I don't look on it negatively. I look on it incredibly positively.”
Chris, an aviation accessibility campaigner, says he has also suffered similar issues and outlined his work to create a flight experience that is more wheelchair-friendly.
He explained that how the experience of travelling with his own children, who also have physical disabilities, illustrated the weight of the issue. He said: “They are aware how bad their industry is, and how far behind they are put against trains, buses and taxis. But it seems like they don't know how to do it.
“I've set up a group of people, a mini-consortium of six of us, who have skills and experience in aviation, wheelchair use, and in other areas.
“We will establish the solution, not only to make those wheelchairs that go in the hold more secure, but also to get the ‘holy grail’, which is the wheelchair inside the cabin of an aircraft. The likes of my son and daughter would really benefit from that.”
Anne explained that she has raised issues with transport providers on numerous occasions, but while she has received no shortage of gifts, including hampers and vouchers, as compensation following poor experiences, there has been no real change.
She said: “I don't want gifts. I want to be able to access these things in the same way as anyone else. I just want to get on and lead my life.”
Chris and Anne had similar tales to share from their experiences of travelling by train, particularly in the UK, where disabled passengers are often faced with obstacles and problems complicating an otherwise simple task.
Both referenced the inconvenient process behind ramp assistance, which has to be booked with train stations 24 hours in advance, which they believe highlights the impracticality of our train systems - especially when staff forget or aren’t made aware of the arrangements.
On her own experiences, Anne reflected: “It rather puts me off train travel, because I just like to be able to do things spontaneously, but you're supposed to book assistance 24 hours in advance.
“You have to tell them what train you're going to be on. Well, it's fair enough to say what train I'm coming up to London on - but how long am I going to be in London, what time train am I going to get home and how long is it going to take me to get across London to the station?”
Chris added: “I remember coming into London with my daughter once and experiencing exactly the same thing.
”On one occasion, we were waiting for somebody to bring the ramp up to the train and we just waited and waited but I could see the ramp, so I went to get it.
“I think they're locked up now, but they weren't then, so I grabbed it.
I thought ‘I can do this, it's just put it into holes on the train and down we come’, but I was spotted by one of the station staff who came up and said: ‘you can't do that. You're not trained.’
“I bit my lip. I really bit my lip. This guy had no idea.”
Due partly to her difficulties with public transport, Anne remains heavily dependent on her car, which she describes as a “huge lifeline” for travelling, while recognising government Mobility Scheme assistance that provides access to affordable adapted cars for drivers with a disability.
Anne explains: “I have a car and I like driving. And so, I tend to go everywhere I go by car. And I used to live in London, so I'm not frightened about driving around London. There are ways that they try and make it easy for people to get cars and drive themselves around. And when you have that freedom it's amazing. My car is a huge lifeline for me.”
Neil Whiteley, a specialist serious injury lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, said: “It’s fascinating to hear first-hand accounts of the difficulties faced by people with disabilities while travelling and concerning to learn of the many obstacles people face on a daily basis.
“It’s clear that, as a nation, we’re not doing enough to ensure public transport, from rail and bus right through to air travel, is accessible to everyone. Even simple changes, such as train ramps which don’t require staff to assemble, or cabin space for wheelchairs on flights, could make a world of difference to travellers with restricted mobility.
“We’re extremely appreciative that Anne and Chris could offer us this candid insight - and we hope those in the travel industry will now respond.”
To find out more about the disabled travel experience, listen to the full podcast with Anne and Chris at: https://www.irwinmitchell.com/letstalkaboutit or subscribe and download the series from all major podcast providers.