Voices: I’ve got no sympathy for rail disruption stories – every day is a strike day when you’re disabled

·5-min read

“Train strikes: How did passengers cope with day one?” The BBC informed us that, although it wasn’t quite as bad on past occasions – because lots of people are now geared up to work from home – there were still some fairly miserable stories emerging from people caught short.

It isn’t terribly noble of me, but I struggle to sympathise. I’m sorry about that. I really am. Perhaps it was nearly spending a night on the streets of Camden that did it. I wrote a column about it a while back. I’d gone to a Sparks gig on Easter Sunday and carefully planned the trip, only to have it spectacularly blow up in my face.

Finding myself unable to access Uber, with minicab offices closed and a critically endangered snow leopard easier to find than a black cab on London’s streets, I approached a Tube manager with a plan to get me, plus wheelchair, plus crutches onto the station – only to be told to get lost. But some of his best friends are disabled people, you know.

True, this was a quiet bank holiday evening (explaining the lack of minicabs) but, believe me, it’s the sort of thing that can happen at any time.

Every day disabled travellers venture out on public transport is a strike day. Every day involves navigating an obstacle course. Every day we run the risk of getting upended.

You might have seen the story of Chris Nicholson this week. He’s a wheelchair user who had to drag himself up the stairs at a railway station after staff refused to help, citing “health and safety”. The lift he needed was out of action – a depressingly regular occurrence. Nicholson, an athlete and influencer, was eventually assisted by a member of the public and then an assistant manager.

I’ve previously written about Anne Wafula Strike, a British Paralympian, who found herself on a train without an accessible toilet, with the inevitable, awful consequences. Then there’s my visually impaired friend who literally had to take their glass eye out to prove their impairment and that the disabled person’s railcard they carry was legit.

I was recently trying to meet up with a friend I’d not seen for more than 20 years via the London Underground when I encountered my own lift snafu. Mercifully, the next station down the line had a working one, so I was only three quarters of an hour late. It was nowhere near as bad as Nicholson’s experience, but the inability to get off at my chosen station was never an issue I encountered in my able-bodied days and, had there not been an alternative, I might not have seen my friend for another 20 years.

He lives in Sri Lanka, so I’d otherwise have to fly. Flying, I’m afraid, is not something I dare to contemplate. I take my hat off to the intrepid disabled travellers who do. They’re Britain’s modern-day equivalents of Scott of the Antarctic. You’ve seen the chaos pictured at airports. Now imagine navigating that in a wheelchair.

Which leads us to yet another recent report concerning the disabled passenger who died while trying to get off a plane. An investigation has been opened. In the meantime, a Gatwick airport spokesperson has said the incident occurred while airport staff were helping to disembark three passengers with restricted mobility. They said staff shortages played no role. Blasted cripples! And they want to get off the plane, too!

Back to earth (with a big bump) and to the buses. Disabled users were given the right to the (lone) disabled space on them by no less than the Supreme Court. But in practice, if a buggy is in the way, we’re left to wait. And wait. And wait, if it’s during a busy time. Possibly with some abuse to, you know, keep us interested and entertained. Which is what happened to me in London until I decided I was done with the hostile environment I was confronted with.

I could go on in this vein. These incidents, they’re not isolated. Trains, planes and buses can all very rapidly get Exorcist-level frightening for us. This is ultimately caused by transport industry bosses who blithely ignore the needs of disabled passengers, fail to train their staff properly and fail to hire enough of them. Not to mention the politicians who sit back and watch.

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All of this also helps to explain why your journeys have been getting progressively more frustrating lately too. But the dire obstacle courses people have been telling reporters about enduring through the rail strike? I’m afraid they are the reality every time we disabled travellers leave the house.

Even if you have a detailed journey plan, a carefully thought-through fallback option in the event that something goes wrong or someone screws up along the way, even if we make multiple phone calls or emails (which won’t necessarily be answered) in advance to tell people that we’re coming, we still end up getting royally screwed.

It would be nice if the current mess made people think a bit. Misery loves company and, if this led to us finding a few allies to make sure there’s a bit less grief for everyone, then great. We would all benefit from more and better-trained transport staff. Better paid too, because that doesn’t hurt.

But experience tells us this isn’t what’s going to happen, which is why you won’t find all that much sympathy for people’s strike misery stories among disabled people, who will be dealing with the like every day, long after the dispute has been settled.

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