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.