The UK’s transport system is often difficult for disabled people to access, and the impact can be social isolation.
Travel brings a feeling of freedom and independence. Holidays shouldn’t be a luxury when they’ve been found to give different health boosts. The value of travel is also clear when so many students venture around the globe during gap years. Our economy is arguably driven by a ‘work hard play hard’ idea, where we work some of the longest hours in Europe but then flights are advertised cheaper than trains. But getting just from city to city in the UK can feel as epic a journey as travelling half way around the globe for many who encounter barriers along the way.
In 2016, it was found that over 3.5 million people spend two hours a day or more commuting. With travel times so high, many disabled people are shut out of employment or pursuing personal opportunities when there’s an issue of accessibility around transport. Being cut off from travel can mean increased isolation. Families are often spread across the UK, and employment opportunities are sometimes few in the area that people may be living. Furthermore, people should be able to travel with ease and follow whatever wish they may have, whether that’s moving for a job or getting the chance to spend a nice day in a quaint English village and away from the furore of the city. Wherever and for whatever purpose, travel should be an option but there are those for whom it just is not possible. The impact of this can be severe.
Payton Quinn shared their experience of travel, and expressed how it had become almost impossible to access.
“I have an immune system disorder that features chronic pain which causes a lot of problems with my mobility,” said Payton. “My partner’s disabled too and neither of us are able to drive thus we don’t own a car (not that we could afford one anyway). Despite living in an area that’s fairly well connected with regular buses and train links, I haven’t left my house in about three months now.
“We live in very unsuitable housing, essentially in the attic of a large house segmented into multiple apartments. By the time I make it down the stairs I’ve got maybe a hundred steps in me before I need to go home. Even if I transitioned to using a wheelchair, which I likely will soon, it’s going to be unbelievably difficult. This place was a sort of panic decision when we were on the verge of homelessness last year and we’re still waiting for council housing.
“The other barrier to traveling I’ve found is how expensive it is. In theory I would qualify for a bus pass but since I don’t have PIP (being refused last year) I’d have to pay and apply for a drivers licence and be rejected to use as evidence of my entitlement. It is incredibly isolating sometimes. I’ve seen two people (not including my partner) in the last three months and it’s making me rather strange.”
The inaccessibility of travel can sometimes be traced back to our social security system. One anonymous responder stated that their partner didn’t realise they qualified for a disabled railcard after qualifying for Personal Independent Allowance (PIP). The result of this was that their partner missed out on travel, due to the prospect of having to pay for fare rises and the burden of luggage. The social security system in the UK is often dense and convoluted – not in terms of what is paid out (as there could be further areas which receive support) , but in terms of how to apply for extra support. It’s not always clear who qualifies for what, and with such a lack of transparency there is a risk that people are unnecessarily missing out on what they are entitled to.
Ashley Howard is a part-time wheelchair user and has felt excluded from travel due to the lack of accessibility.
“So many times I have had to stay in because I cant get to or on public transport in my chair alone and have nobody to help me,” Ashley said. “I can’t visit my friends who live in places with inaccessible stations. it’s a massive barrier to my social life and freedom.
“Not being able to get around on my own is a massive blow to my mental health and independence. I’m so tired of not being able to go anywhere without planning like able bodied people can.”
“I’m so tired of not being able to go anywhere without planning like able bodied people can”
One respondent, Percy, lives in West Yorkshire and spoke of how the lack of accessible transport has taken a huge toll, both emotionally and physically.
“My disability is Ehlers-Danlos hypermobility, which broadly speaking affects every system,” Percy said. “The best way to describe the problems with public transport for me would be to sketch out a theoretical bus journey, like the one I would take from home to the hospital (a regular trip for appointments). That’s two buses, with a short walk at either end and a change in the city centre; a fairly normal trip and using the hub-and-spoke model of mass transit basically exactly as it’s meant to be used. I walk up to the bus station, on two crutches, stopping every twenty or thirty yards. The crutches hurt my arms, often dislocate my shoulders and wrists, and are fatiguing to walk with. I wait at the local bus stop. Thankfully, it’s a small bus station so it’s got some shelter, but it’s usually cold in winter and baking in summer, both of which are a problem for autonomic reulation. Often if I get as far as here, I’ll just have to turn back and go home as I either get so hot that I go dizzy and faint, or so cold that all my joints ache and my asthma kicks off.
“The seats are pressed steel and have dividers, so even if I can sit down, there’s no way to take the weight off my back and hips properly, which causes my spinal problems (three herniated discs and sciatica, atop the hypermobility which causes fatigue and spasms) to feel worse.
“The buses are often late, so I may end up waiting for half an hour or more. Getting on the bus and paying is usually difficult, as I’m either pushed by other people, or I have difficulty getting at my wallet whilst balanced on two crutches, then trying to walk to a seat (if I can get a seat) is incredibly difficult on a full bus. Often, the driver will set off before I’ve sat down. I can’t count how many times I’ve been thrown along the bus or thrown down the stairs by a driver too eager to accelerate. Once it was so bad that I dislocated a kneecap, fully-dislocated a hip, and ended up with a concussion.”
Percy said that it took six months to get an apology from the company responsible. Bus trips have continued to have their problems and Percy has even experienced bus drivers who don’t believe the validity of his disability because he is not a wheelchair-user or elderly. The lack of accessibility has had a severe impact; Percy lost his last job due to the problems with travel as by the time he arrived to work he was exhausted. Additionally, the trains aren’t much better. Trains are expensive and Percy has found passenger assistance unreliable as he has been left to sit at the end of a platform with no way to get to the correct one.
Percy has since depended upon travel by motorbike. This is hardly ideal however, as he cannot carry many belongings and it isn’t always safe due to the weather. It has also interfered with his studies with the Open University due to the difficulty of parking his motorbike in Leeds. While the motorbike has given some control for Percy, he is still socially isolated as refuelling is tiring, he cannot consume alcohol while he is out and it can be dangerous to travel during winter.
“Broadly speaking, if I go on holiday now, I take my motorbike, ride up to the front door of a youth hostel,” Percy said. “Then collapse into a bunk and spend the whole holiday sitting on the patio of the hostel looking at the scenery, then ride home again once I have the energy. I don’t like to think about it much, but my world now is tiny and sad and unspontaneous compared to how it was when I was abled.”
Percy acknowledges the difficulty in traveling has had an impact on his mental health.
“Not being able to use public transport has honestly ruined my mental health,” Percy said. “When I still tried to use it I often felt like a “failed human” for not being able to do something so simple which was meant to be a basic part of living in a city. Not being able to easily access the things which are taken for granted by abled people (the pedestrianised bits of the city centre, nightlife ranging from high culture down to just going to the pub, hobby groups and even support groups which meet in the city, physical shops, university, a job… etc) makes me feel very disconnected from the world outside, and like I have less and less cultural touchstones to share with other people.”
“Not being able to use public transport has honestly ruined my mental health,”
Percy admits that opposition to proposals around accessibility feel like attacks on the presence of disabled people, but he is hopeful that a lot more can be done to improve the situation – some of which are simple steps.
“I feel like there’s a lot of room though to improve accessibility! Simple stuff like making more seating options, having better shelter at even the smaller stops, having more wheelchair spaces on buses and better climate control, running more buses at peak times so that nobody has to wait for long because of overcrowding, improving driver training (probably the cheapest and fastest option) so that they don’t just casually harass and injure disabled people, having more bus stops on routes so that it’s not so far to walk to reach one, having actual seats at bus stops instead of those awful leaning rails, having timetables set up in larger print and having the live departure boards in more formats (audio would be appreciated, high-contrast and at eye level would be good too), having passenger assistance at railway stations that didn’t need booking in advance, having manual wheelchairs available at stations for travellers who needed them, and who didn’t want to be pushed by a porter… probably a thousand other things which I’ll think of eventually. Honestly if they just asked disabled people, rather than guessing and handing down edicts from on-high.”
Small improvements could make a huge difference. Lucy Spooner has to travel with her husband, who is profoundly deaf and uses a cane as a result of hereditary neurological condition, Nf2. Their experience of travel together has been particularly trying. Her husband cannot hear tannoy announcements and has trouble walking long distances or standing more than for a few moments. For anyone who has used transport, particularly rail, it’s clear that travel would not be easily accessible, and Lucy acknowledges that flying has been easier for herself and her husband. There are elements though that have helped accessibility.
“Ticket machines and other automated services have made things slightly easier in terms of communication and purchasing tickets, etc,” Lucy said. “But I have to still travel with him when public transport is necessary. I also drive him anywhere he needs to go that’s further than around a five-minute walk.
“I find it easy to travel on trains and buses, but my husband can’t do it alone – or if he absolutely has to, it’s very difficult for him. Train stations typically have a lot of stairs/escalators, long corridors to walk down, and few lifts. With both trains and buses, it’s sometimes very hard to find a place for him to sit down, and when boarding a bus alone he can’t speak to the driver beyond telling him where he wants to go. If he has to ask the driver to repeat himself over and over, not only is it inconvenient, but it’s embarrassing for him.
“We took a holiday to New York City a couple of years ago – navigating the subway was very hard for both of us as we were unfamiliar with the layout or the range of different trains, and disabled entrances were few and far between. When going up and down stairs, my husband has to hold the bannister with his left hand as he has his walking stick in his right, and this made things tricky especially during busy times of day.”
Spooner says that one positive was that whenever they did have to keep resting on holiday, people were generally understanding once it was explained but disabled people (and their carers/partners/companions) should never be the anomaly where they stand out. Spooner says that as she drives that travel isn’t too limited but the real issue is public transport.
Many disabled people can’t drive or can’t afford or know of anyone who will drive them. Public transport is often the only option for many people within the UK but for disabled people, that can be no option at all. The toll that can take on mental health is often undervalued as able-bodied people take for granted a basic right of life – to be able to move freely. Disability isn’t often the thing that causes depression, but how society treats it. More work could be done by transport companies to bring change to allow more people to travel. It’s a matter that deserves urgent attention.