I’ve always hated public transport since becoming a wheelchair user. Something the city I live in, London, relies heavily on.
Once my NHS wheelchair arrived 6 years ago I was determined to not let my new found mobility issues stop me from using buses and the like, however, having spent over a year managing the pre-school run bus journeys (which meant coping with people pushing me out of the way, refusing to allow me to sit down, purposefully kicking my crutches etc) I had an inkling that being a wheelchair user could be even worse.
I was right.
For a while, I was really angry about this. The times I forced myself to be brave and try the bus again something always happened. I have been left stranded outside a hospital for hours not being able to board the bus I need due to there being no space for me, I’ve been stuck inside a bus with a suddenly broken ramp and a ton of angry passengers. I’ve been pushed, climbed over, trodden on and yelled at. Every single horrible experience made me hate and fear both the general travelling public and public transport as a whole.
Since being blessed with a privately purchased wheelchair from Lith-Tech (read how my wonderful friends and family raised enough money for me to buy it here) I have become more excited about travelling again as my ‘chair is so lightweight and of course foldable. I still wasn’t ready for a bus journey but I decided to try something I haven’t done in years – going on a train! My son has been wanting to go on a train for such a long time, seeing him so excited about our upcoming journey really gave me the confidence boost I needed to make it happen.
We decided not to book wheelchair assistance as I can transfer and walk a few steps with my crutches safely with my husband (who is my full time carer) to help. We were also unsure of exact timings for our day, having children will do that to your plans, so the regimented and strict rules for assistance didn’t really fit in with an enjoyable day. I have also heard a lot about assistance being booked online or over the phone and not actually manifesting when needed, so for our first trip we decided to try it at our own pace and go solo.
Arriving at Penge East station, I believe the only really accessible station in my close local area, was a breeze. We bought our tickets and settled down on to the platform to organise my ‘chair. I transferred to one of the many free seating areas whilst my husband folded down my wheelchair ready for boarding and my son held on to my pressure cushion. After much excitement when not one but two high speed trains whooshed past, our train finally arrived. The step up into the carriage was challenging but manageable with help. Hoofing the wheelchair in was a piece of cake for my husband. We left it folded up and resting next to us in our seats, which were luckily right by the doors. A few minutes in a super dark tunnel, pushing further into cityscapes, past scrawling graffiti, collections of towering cranes, Battersea Dogs Home, the power station and over the river Thames, we were in! We had done it!
Exiting the train was done in much the same way, although easier as London Victoria is the termination stop, so there was no rush to disembark in a particular time. Our plan was to literally hang around the station taking in the sights and sounds. Grab some lunch, have a bit of a shop and then head back, super chilled and low stress. The first mini hurdle we came across was finding the lift in Victoria station to get to the upper mall shops. After a little looking around, we were approached by members of staff asking if we needed help which was unexpected but really lovely. At first, they thought the lift wasn’t working and they were planning to take us a different route to the shops however another member of staff discovered it was working fine and showed us where to go. I have to be honest here and say the lift service for such a big station and parade of shops is pretty poor. It’s a small lift, round and off the last set of platforms, deep within what felt like a maze of identical grey pillars and storage. It’s not sign posted and is so set back and away from everything you feel like you’re trespassing! It was quite an exciting adventure for my 10 year old of course but I feel it’s an area that could definitely be improved.
What couldn’t be improved however was staff friendliness and helpfulness.
After doing a little bit of shopping (I discovered my new favourite shop, Neon Sheep!), grabbing a bite to eat (vegan Burger King treats) and picking up some sugary snacks for home (Krispy Kremes and Millies Cookies of course) it was time to head back. Our train had just pulled in with 30 minutes to clean and wait before departure. Now here’s where that fab customer services comes back in again. I passed through the disabled access barriers and as I was moving through, a staff member asked where I was going. Assuming he was just checking I knew what platform to go to, I said “Penge East, it’s ok it’s on platform 3, but thanks!” and carried on pootling over to the train. As we reached the disabled carriage another member of staff came up with a ramp for me! I realised they had run off and grabbed it so I could board easier. They had also radioed ahead to Penge East to check that a member of staff there could use a ramp and help me disembark there too. It was basically the assistance we hadn’t booked!
Still unsure if the message really did get through to Penge East, we were ready to make a quick exit with my crutches if needed but true to the staff at Victoria Station’s word, a member of staff at Penge East was waiting for us upon departure. It couldn’t have been easier and staff at both stations couldn’t have been more helpful and friendly.
Now I know from being an active member of the disabled community both locally and wider spread through the UK that I could have just been super lucky that day. We specifically chose a weekday during the quietest times to travel to try and limit the stress for us all. I have read the horror stories of people who don’t have a full time carer or support with them being stranded inside trains. Assistance being notoriously difficult to book and often not showing up when it is booked etc. It is something that clearly still needs a lot of work and funding, however, my journey on that day was just the journey I needed. I needed to see that people aren’t all awful to those who need extra help. I needed to see people invested in providing a good quality service in their job. I needed to step away from the bitter and conflicted world Covid-19 and disability has brought to my door for the last few years. I’m so thankful for that little bit of light.
And I’m so thankful for those Krispy Kremes.
Have you had, seen or been part of a positive experience of disability within public transport? I’d love to hear about it below.