Sheffield #Access #Fail by @Northernrailorg

Being a disabled traveller

I don’t often blog about the minutae of attempting to be a working person who uses various mobility aids in order to participate in society, but the response to a number of Tweets I sent out yesterday when I found myself in a labarynthine mess stuck between policy and prejudice that I regularly encounter in the public sphere. So here’s a snapshot of what it’s like for me to attend a meeting.

Going to visit Patient Opinion in Sheffield

I had arranged to go to the @PatientOpinion offices to catch up. I’m a big PO supporter, but haven’t previously been to the office. It’s only 35 miles from my door, so how hard can it be to go there for a meeting?

Problems encountered every time I travel

Firstly, I can’t lift the pieces of my scooter into the boot of my car. this means that to all intents and purposes, it’s useless to me. I have to go everywhere in taxis and on trains. I could use some buses, but the attitude of various drivers and the physical difficulty of getting into the approved space means that this option isn’t used at the start of a long day because it’s so exhausting.

So, I use my electric scooter to get from my house to the road. I can’t get down the hill outside my house without it. I used to rely on my manual wheelchair, but this wasn’t safe to self-propel down, and impossible to self-propel up. So I had to get a (fit and strong) person to do the pushing me up and down the hill. Which meant I couldn’t go out independently, for instance to work.

So, now I have the electric scooter. I use it in an “off-label” way to get up and down a hill that is far steeper than my OT head assesses as safe to use an electric scooter on, but I have limited options. The battery is being burned out fast, but it still keeps going, helping me to participate. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

First class is more comfortable for disabled people

So, I ordered train tickets for collection. I can’t comfortably travel in standard, so I often buy first class tickets if I can afford it. There is a critical few extra inches of turning circle in First that means its less painful to travel in a wheelchair or scooter. I see this as a good use of my DLA. So, instead of a £17 ticket, to Sheffield, mine is a £35 ticket (return). To be honest, I’ve had that many experiences of the system cocking up that where there is an option to be more comfortable, I’ll take the hit.

Leeds station

As I arrive at the platform to depart in Leeds, there’s clearly panic from the guy at the station, who informs me

“you can’t get on the train- you haven’t booked special assistance”.

“Don’t be so ridiculous. I don’t need any assistance except the ramp to alight the train, and I can drive unassisted up it. Please just put the ramp down and we’ll say no more about it. Please let the Sheffield staff know I’m on my way.”

(Only here I am blogging about it. Tsk).

Sheffield first #access #fail

I got to Sheffield (after a lovely Bacon Roll and cup of tea- thanks Cross Country Trains!) and unfortunately despite checking with both the guy on the platform at Leeds and with the conductor on the train, there was no-one there to provide the ramp that I need to disembark the train. Madly waving at passers-by and frankly anyone in the area, I attempted to make them aware of my plight. This is always really panicky, the sense that if one isn’t noticed, one will be soon headed off far away (in this case, to Plymouth).

The conductor on the train had come to check I had disembarked safely, and was as annoyed as I was to see I was still waiting on the train, hanging out of the carriage and waving like a woman possessed in the vain hope that someone would offer assistance. He offered to use the ramp within the train to get me off it before he was due to leave, rather than wait for the station staff. So that’s what we did. Problem solved. He did tell me he had phoned the station staff to tell them I was coing, but then so had the ridiculous man at Leeds station, and I didn’t know if either of them were being honest.

Visit to Patient Opinion

I was met by the lovely Dr James Munro of Patient Opinion at the station, and we spent a couple of hours chatting with the team. It was lovely. Sadly, it was soon time to go home. I was dropped back at the station by Dr James Munro, who wasn’t able to stay in the drop-off zone for long.

Sheffield second #access #fail

I went into the station, and went to the platform the train was leaving from. Phew, 15 minutes to spare. So, knowing how often this is the critical time to make sure arrangements are properly made I looked out for station staff and train staff. Sure enough, several staff were floating around, so I made sure that I politely informed each of the that I was expecting to travel on the next rain to Leeds, that I would need the ramp, and that here I am, sitting next to the ramp ready for someone to attach it to the train so i can alight.

Each person I spoke to insisted it wasn’t their job to attach the ramp to the train, but not to worry, because

“someone will be along in a minute”.

Now, I’ve relied on “someone” before, and let me tell you, they’re not very reliable. In fact, “anyone” could have attached the ramp to the train. It doesn’t require much training.

The train arrives, and I nervously drove the scooter in between the ramp and the train, all the time telling all the staff I could see that I needed someone to attch the ramp. Everyone was sure that “someone” would be along to do it. I felt that the time was approaching for the train to leave, and was on my phone. I could see the conductor and train staff get onto the train and close all the doors. Then, the train pulled away.

Sure enough, “someone” had failed to materialise and I had missed my train.

So, I went back to the information desk to talk to the staff about how this had happened, and what to do next. I showed them my First Class anytime return to Leeds. They were apologetic, but said that there was nothing they could do. I told them about the morning experience, too, but they said that the fault was with both Leeds station (who hadn’t phoned in) and the conductor on the train (who hadn’t phoned in). Complaint form number 1.

They advised me of the next train to Leeds, which was run by Northern Rail.

Sheffield third #access #fail

I dutifully went to the platform (this time with a member of customer service) only to find myself confronted by the train conductor.

“Sorry, I can’t carry you in the scooter. Company policy” he said.

“Really? I said, ” this sounds discriminatory? surely this isn’t your company policy?”

“No, we don’t *BAN* scooters. But we only carry folding ones.”

“Oh. I see. well, luckily my scooter breaks down into seperate pieces and fits in any car boot. So you’ll be able to take me?”

“Only if you can carry all the bits of the scooter onto the train and put them in the luggage rack yourselves”

“Really? so if I had a heavy suitcase you would offer me assistance, but you’re directly telling me you refuse to carry any bits of my scooter onto your train?”

“Yes”

So, we carried on with this pleasant conversation. I was becoming less pleased with the service from Sheffield and Northern Rail by the second. But there was no shifting this man, who was convinced that his company policy overrode any national or international law and obligation to people with mobility issues, quite apart from having a human response and just helping a traveller out.

Fuming, I went to the platform supervisors office. Having already filled out a complaint about the train that had left without me despite seeing me waiting for assistance, Ithought I would fill out another form for this experience. The supervisor was apologetic, but helpfully printed off a policy document from Northern Rail stating that they did not agree to transport scooters, unless the mobility impaired person carried them onto the train themselves. So the conductor had been correct in interpreting company policy, it was actually an official policy to directly discriminate against people with disabilities and mobility isues.

I was informed of the next train, and started to wait. I had some time to kill, so I thought I would also complain about the morning when no-one had arried to help me off the train. Having completed a hat-trick of complaints I felt it was time my luck should turn.

Sheffield fourth #access #fail

The train to Leeds arrived, thankfully a Cross Country service, and so I started up the train to board. The platform supervisor had the ramp set up into Standard. I asked him if he would mind moving the ramp as I had a First Class ticket and wanted therefore to travel in First Class.

“No, can’t do it love. There isn’t time”

“Yes there is. It will only take a minute- the train isn’t very long. I’m not paying for a First Class ticket and travelling in Standard. Would you ask a non-disabled traveller to do so?”

“You never showed me your First Class ticket. How am I supposed to know you wanted the ramp into First Class?”

*turns to customer service person* “Hang on, I showed you my ticket about an hour ago, did you not see that it was a First Class ticket?”

“Well, you cant go in first anyway. There’s already someone in the disabled spot”

“Is there? that’s unusual. Well, if thats true, well have to work something out. Let’s go and see.”

So we went down the train. the platform supervisor joined me, swearing and muttering all the way down the train in a most unfriendly manner. He obviously didn’t see the reason why I should not want to accept his kind offer of help into Standard and insist on travelling in First.

We got the ramp up, and I drove on to the train. Suprise, suprise, there wasnt anyone in the disabled spot. There was a whole family’s luggage in the disabled spot. The family memebrs startted to remove the luggage with guilty faces, avoiding eye contact with me, and placed it all in the luggage spot. I’m familiar with this from the people who guiltily come back to cars parked in disabled bays without Blue Badges. Only “popping in” to the shops and they get away with it. I dont know if they had refused to move the luggage and therefore the train operator had to offer me a standard space, or if they had simply not been asked to move the luggage despite the clear signage that the space was protected for people with disabilities by law. But, they were only “popping their luggage there” it’s not like it was going to impact on a disabled person, now is it? They were not reprimanded, or fined, or saw any consequence to their actions. No wonder the guilty faces.

So, for people wondering why you dont see so many people using wheelchairs and scooters in your local train station, in your workplace, in your church or social club, down the pub, out in town, taking their kids to ballet lessons, or cheering on their kids at football, how about reflecting on this journey and think about why that might be.

And also have a think about the planned reform of DLA and replacement with PIP. Large numbers of people who have mobility needs will not be assessed as needing any help on the basis that our country is now proudly accessible to all.

I can’t think of a better word to describe this than sick.