London, with over 30 million visitors per year as well as over 8 million residents, remains one of the most visited cities in the world. Not only is this number growing rapidly with visitors wanting to see what London has to offer but London is becoming more difficult to navigate through for people using wheelchairs. A daily challenge that many shouldn’t face as well as feeling as if they’re less important or a second class citizen.
The London Underground has 270 stations, making it an efficient way to get around London, but these 270 stations are only accessible for those who don’t need ramps, step-free access as well as numerous lifts to navigate through the station. Only 71 stations throughout London and surrounding areas support those in wheelchairs but unfortunately not independently in some instances. For those who want to navigate independently then this number drops to 50 stations which are fully accessible - this being around 18% of stations allowing independent travel and only 27% allowing passengers to travel with some independence but with additional help such as by the use of ramps and assistance at stations.
The Guardian reported that Transport for London’s spokesman, Ruben Govinden, stated that “Some of the network is more than 150 years old – accessibility wasn’t even considered worth thinking about then”. Indeed, this statement is factually correct in the sense that the London Underground network was the first public rapid transport system which was opened in 1863. However, over 150 years there has been a wide range of changes and updates to the London Underground, the most notable being more lines being expanded as well as the addition to free WiFi at certain stations. With the progress being made digitally as well as expanding the network to reach more areas, there should be a priority of making the London Underground more accessible. Even though there’s plans to make the London Underground network more accessible in the next 20 to 30 years, this is simply not good enough for those wanting to navigate independently, which they should have the right to do, without being stuck and faced to take an alternative route.
Not only is the London Underground’s network itself a problem for those with wheelchairs, there’s the added scrutiny of those unwilling to give these people the space they deserve throughout their journey. On each journey passengers will see a symbol that states that a specific area is giving priority for those in wheelchairs - which many people tend to ignore, especially those with prams and young children. Many a time I have seen arguments between a wheelchair user and a mother pushing a pram over who should be in that specific space - a degrading occurrence that happens far too often over a fact of priority and respect. Another problem with the London Underground would be the regular occurrence of maintenance work on lifts, some lifts taking months to fix and the shortage of assistance for those needing to change their route to the next station. This can mean extra charges by using public transport such as a bus or in extreme cases needing a taxi to get to a station with accessible facilities.
London’s buses aren’t any better in terms of accessibility. Even though buses throughout London and surrounding areas have stated that passengers using wheelchairs have priorities throughout their journey but this is simply easier said than done. London’s buses are fitted with ramps but it’s been seen recently that discrimination against wheelchair users has seen members of the public taking matters in their own hands to allow passengers off the bus to carry on with their journey. The most notable occurrence happening out of London with Ian Barrington, The Metro reported that a “Bus driver refuses to help disabled man and tells him to ‘speak English’”. Not only did the driver refuse to help Ian getting off the bus but made remarks stating that “‘I don’t understand foreign languages, I understand English!’” and then went on to state that she couldn’t get the ramp out since she had a “backache”. Whether this is true or not, bus drivers should be fully equipped and in full health to help both able bodied passengers as well as those in wheelchairs needing assistance.
In 2012 TFL implemented a new set of rules to which stated that wheelchair passengers have priority to the space in the middle of the bus - which can be used as a standing area or a place for those with prams or luggage. Once again, this is easier said than done, as there have been many times when I have been travelling throughout London and either the bus driver refuses to make people in that space with prams move or the two people with prams arguing about who should fold down their pram. This not only making a bigger state of the matter but also treating individuals in wheelchairs like they are second class citizens since people are more concerned about their prams rather than a person. There have even been arguments between wheelchair users and passengers with prams regarding the reason they should have to move - it’s stated nearly everywhere that users in wheelchairs deserve priority and a simple fact - it’s not something that people can dispute or argue against.
I’ve experienced a lack of responsibility from bus drivers and TFL when I was trying to get my grandmother onto a bus, since she’s in a wheelchair. It was very cold so I made the point of leaving just a few minutes before the bus came to prevent her staying out in the cold too much, when the bus came I firstly made the point of tapping my Oyster Card as well as my grandmother’s. I then stated that she’d need to lower the ramp onto the pavement so I could easily manoeuvre the wheelchair onto the bus safely. The bus driver seemed to comply and stated that she would move the bus to get closer to the pavement but in the end stated that she couldn’t lower the ramp down - with no apology nor explanation as to why she couldn’t lower the ramp down. Two members of the public even came over and offered to help - why should members of the public help? A bus driver should be trained in all areas of operating a bus, from lowering the ramp and operating in such a way that allows all individuals to use the bus. The experience was not only humiliating for my grandmother but also made her wait in the freezing cold for the next bus, with her asking me whether it was her fault we couldn’t get onto the bus. The return journey was unfortunately met with the same bus driver but this time the ramp seemed to magically work and there were no problems getting onto the bus. However, when pressing the button specifically designed to alert the driver that a wheelchair would be getting off the bus - therefore the bus will need to be lowered and a ramp used - the bus driver completely ignored the bell and drove onto the next bus stop. Not only did my grandmother feel invisible but it meant we had to make the journey of an extra 15 minutes to get back to the original stop.
Moving forward a lot needs to change. Firstly, TFL need to address the situation of the London Underground network, it may have been built over 150 years ago but regardless there has been 150 years of time to change the fact that it was built while disregarding it being accessible. There needs to be a discussion regarding the impact that certain planned works will have on passengers, specifically those using wheelchairs - it’s a bigger impact that it originally seems as well as the fact that people may have to alter their routes. From there, there needs to be extensive training for bus drivers to make sure they have the knowledge and practice to allow wheelchair users onto the bus - additionally fighting in their corner when they have the right to space on the bus over pram users. The public attitude needs to change also, we need to come together and help those who may need additional help if there’s no staff around or those unwilling to help. For example, if you see something that you know is wrong - someone unwilling to move out of the area for wheelchair users - take the point of explaining that they need to move out of the area for the fellow passenger.
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