Public Transport and Disabilities

public transport disability

So…I have a disability.

Looking at me, you wouldn’t think that I had one. I don’t use a wheelchair, I’m rubbish at walking with crutches and I only occasionally have a walking stick. In fact, most of the time I walk fast-paced, without a limp. But I promise you, I have a disability.

It’s called hypermobility, a condition which means that my joints dislocate on a semi-regular basis, leaving me with chronic pain pretty much all the time. I have good days and bad days. Good days involve walking, and being able to go to the cinema with friends and travelling to London for lectures. Bad days mean crying, and not leaving my bed. But on those good days, when I’m catching a bus to the train station, or travelling by tube, I look like every other able bodied commuter. But I’m not like every other commuter, and travelling whilst disabled can be fraught with challenges.

The recent ‘wheelchair vs buggy’ case in the Supreme Court has illustrated just how difficult using public transport can be. Doug Paulley, who uses a wheelchair, was refused entry on a bus when a mum refused to move her buggy. Whilst the Supreme Court ruled that the bus company should’ve done more than ask the mother to move her buggy, the court didn’t go as far as making it a legal requirement for bus drivers to move non- wheelchair users from spaces. For any person with a disability, this was an interesting judgement, and practical implications from this case remain to be seen. However, it did get me thinking about the difficulties I face whilst using public transport.

The train I get to London is often packed. I’m talking sardine level packed. Most of the time all the seats are taken, people are staring gloomily out of the window, or playing on their phones, or reading the newspaper. For me, standing in one place for a long time is extremely painful. Obviously there are seats that are supposed to be reserved for the elderly or the disabled, but those are, of course, taken up. To go up to a person sat in one of those seats, tap them on the shoulder and ask them politely if they’d mind giving up their seat for me, because of my disability, is nerve-wracking and requires bucket loads of courage. I don’t do it much anymore.

In the past, people have completely ignored me and refused to even look me in the eye. Some have laughed at me, or implied that I’m lying about having a disability. Most of the time they just shift uncomfortably, murmur “sorry, no,” and go back to reading their newspaper. The rest of the carriage looks at me like I’m some kind of pariah for breaking the unsaid ‘don’t talk to anyone’ rule. And guess what?—I’m still standing, in pain. I’ve attempted to sit in seats when using my walking stick as well, and even when I am visibly disabled, people have refused to move. There are of course some lovely people who immediately jump up and offer me their seat, but most of the time I get a flat out no. Nowadays, when a train is that busy I sit on the floor next to the doors. It means that I’m sitting in dirt and rubbish and everything that people stomp on to the train with, that I still get weird looks, and that at every stop I’m nearly stood on, but at least the journey is physically bearable.

When dreaded train delays happen, things get even worse. Sometimes there’s no room to sit down on the ground and I have to stand in the aisles, doing a weird hoppy dance to try and stop the pain, or my knee from dislocating. Two weeks ago, there were tube strikes and I had a lecture in central London. I didn’t go. I didn’t even attempt to go. I knew that my knee wasn’t good enough to walk to my class and that the buses would be packed.

The purpose of writing this isn’t to make anyone feel sorry for me, it’s to explain the realities of using public transport whilst disabled. The ‘wheelchair vs buggy’ case is a landmark one, not only because of what it now requires companies to do, but also because of how far it didn’t go—there’s still no legal requirement for bus drivers to remove non-wheelchair users from the bus. Only recently, Anne Wafule Strike, a Paralympic athlete and wheelchair user, was forced to wet herself during a train journey because the only accessible toilet was out of order. Travelling whilst disabled, whether or not your disability is visible, is often stressful, chaotic and difficult. I hope that the Supreme Court’s ruling will inspire public transport companies to ensure that their policies on dealing with customers who have a disability are inclusive, practical and make travelling whilst disabled easier, not harder.

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  • Chloe

    This post resonated with me more than I’d ever imagined. The more unable I have become, the more I dislike the word disability, and I would never use it to describe myself but ultimately the migraines I experience are technically a neurological disability. Many times these migraines are triggered by stress or tiredness and so usually on public transport I have some kind of migraine (whether full blown or just starting) and the nature of my migraines essentially paralyses half of my body but still I struggle to think I should have priority to a seat before someone else on public transport. The only ‘positive’ I guess is that it can be seen once it really sets in and so when my body starts twitching and my face glazes over, it’s a real giveaway that something is not right. I don’t really know where I’m going with this, apart from to agree, you’re not alone and this whole thing is very inconvenient, especially when you’re young and look ‘healthy’, so. Thank you for this post!

    • Laura Noakes

      Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment! I felt exactly the same way with my hypermobility–I always referred to it as a ‘condition’ rather than a disability, but ultimately, like you said, it’s a disability. I’m so glad I’m not the only one to experience this!

  • Oh wow, I’ve only had a small taste of this, having recently ruined my ankle by falling down some stairs. It’s obviously not nearly to the degree of pain you’ve got, but I absolutely cannot stand for my entire commute. I’ve gotten good at picking out people I think will be getting off at certain shopping centers and standing near them like a vulture, waiting for their seat, but I hear you about asking for a seat when you don’t look disabled. It’s nearly impossible and very stressful. I’ve skipped one or two buses in a row when they look too full, making my hour-long commute into a two+ hour ordeal. It sucks!!!

    • Laura Noakes

      Totally get where you’re coming from with standing by people you think are going to get off at the next stop–I’m an expert at that! I’ve had that before–if the tube is packed, there’s absolutely no point me even attempting to squeeze myself on! It does suck–so much!