BUSES are a big deal. Especially for people with little by way of alternative travel options at their disposal, such as the bulk of people with learning disabilities.
For years now Scotland’s government, bus companies and other organisations have been working hard to make buses more accessible for vulnerable people. At present, as well as travel accessibility being a core area of the Scottish government’s Fairer Scotland for Disabled People plan, which includes the developing Disability Travel Hub, it is also an aim of the new Transport Bill.
So on paper it is fair to say that progress is being made. So why are people with learning disabilities feeling as though bus travel still does not meet their accessibility needs?
As most people who work with people with learning disabilities will tell you there is seldom a time when bus travel is not a hot topic, often because of a bad experience. Obviously every bus journey does not fall into this category, but when you can only go by bus it can be a major blow if the journey also comes with the extra anxiety of a negative experience like this one, for example:
*Recently Emma and Laura (pictured) from Kilmarnock, sisters with learning disabilities and visual impairment, boarded a bus with their parents. The bus had disability seating but it was full and they were forced to go up to the top deck.
They spoke to the driver about their disability – both girls also carry white sticks – and their stop and yet when they were on the stairs to get off the bus at their destination the bus drove off. You can imagine the screams and panic, not to mention the risk of them falling over and being seriously hurt.
Naturally the family complained and have since been issued with an apology, although they have not been told what action has been taken against the driver as this is considered an internal employment matter. But do you think the girls are going to be up for another family outing any time soon?
And that’s one of the problems with accessibility in public transport, it’s weighted against running a business, something that could be changed with the new transport bill empowering local authorities to be more involved in local bus service provision to meet local community needs.
Learning Disability Views
Over a year ago, the LDAS accessible politics group in Forth Valley did a lot of work on this issue and produced a pamphlet as a good practice guide called On The Buses for people with learning disabilities and bus companies. They addressed all the usual complaints, buses moving when people are not yet seated, problems with accessing ramps, vulnerable passengers being unsure about the stops, buses stopping too far away from kerbs, and so on.
A year later the group revisited the issue with a questionnaire for vulnerable people in the local community to see if things were improving for people, an initiative borne out of the negative experiences of the members of the group. More organisations are now taking part in the questionnaire so updated results will be coming shortly but the overall experience is that despite bus companies working with the group, little has changed in practice for the people who took part in the questionnaire.
The same could be said for the feedback of delegates at the recent LDAS conference where 62% said they had not experienced an improvement in accessibility since the introduction of the Fairer Scotland Disability Plan and cited more accessible bus travel as one of the main areas they want to see improved in order to make life ‘fairer’ for them.
Solutions with status
So what can be done? When compiling their questionnaire report, the Forth Valley group have come up with two important corresponding steps they hope to take forward if it is something the broader learning disability community feels would be a general benefit.
Step one is a development on existing disability cards to serve as a discreet but official identifier that the person has a learning disability – something which may not be readily apparent – but one that would be incorporated onto the National Entitlement card. Group member Craig explained: “We use the Thistle card and other First Bus cards that say you have a disability but they are not taken seriously and some people have been told by drivers that they don’t know about them. So it needs to be something official, something with status. So the best thing would be to put a symbol or colour on the official travel card so bus drivers know you might need some support.”
Step two, correspondingly, is bespoke learning disability awareness training for all bus companies/staff that includes the input of people with learning disabilities themselves so that drivers will know about the type of support they’re required to give when they see the learning disability identification, regardless of the company they work with.
If we are going to take accessibility and accessible buses seriously these are the changes many people with learning disabilities would like to see. But they can only happen with the agreement of bus companies and a commitment from bus customers that sometimes helping a vulnerable person will hold up your route or risk inconveniencing other users. If we want to be a truly accessible society it is changes like these that we will all have to support.
*This story was recounted with the permission of Emma, Laura and their family.