Though physical access barriers are important in relation to street and public transport infrastructure, they are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the multitude of challenges disabled people face in getting around.
That is the key takeaway from an insightful, recently published guidance document developed by Cross River Partnership (CRP).
The report entitled “Mobility Justice and Transport Inclusivity,” forms part of the Healthy Streets Everyday Project, a Mayor of London Air Quality Fund initiative to help deliver pedestrian-priority healthy streets across the U.K. capital.
Though the report’s authors note some important underlying data points, such as the fact that only 80 out of 270 London Underground stations feature some form of step-free access and 65% of disabled people used public transport at least once a week in 2017, this report is anything but a dry statistical analysis of transport accessibility.
Instead, it adopts a person-centered approach through in-depth interviews with five individuals with mobility impairments from a variety of different ages and backgrounds.
The aim, as the authors explain, is not to make specific recommendations but to tease out some of the emotional and psychological drivers defining inaccessibility from a disabled person’s perspective.
The report builds on the notion of “mobility justice,” which it defines as the principle that all people should have the same opportunity to move around and access public spaces.
Travel anxiety prevalent amongst disabled people
One message which comes across loud and clear from all five interviewees is the degree of anxiety involved in using public transport and spaces as a disabled person.
Setting aside the present restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, negotiating the cityscape has, for too long and for too many disabled people, felt like a perilous mission due to the sheer number of variables governing what could go wrong.
Illustrating this state of anxiety with an account of her difficulties using the railway, Isabelle Clement, who is a hand cycling enthusiast and Director of the award-winning charity, Wheels for Well-Being, said “Trains are my least favorite.”
“It has got nothing to do with the train – the main things are getting to the train station as most are not accessible. The whole palaver of having to organize a ramp, the time you need to plan your journey, the long, complicated telephone conversation about booking the wheelchair ramp, and then having to arrive lots in advance and trust that they are going to have the right people to get you onto the right train.
“Then, even scarier than that, is not knowing that somebody else is going to be there to do the same in reverse at the other end. To me, there is no worse stress level than having to take the train which is a shame because trains are fantastic.”
Some people, such as Jo Becker, a former Transport for London employee, with a more recently acquired mobility impairment, likes to leverage data and technology as a means of reducing travel anxiety.
“I need to feel confident going into the journey that I will feel physically comfortable so I have to manage anxiety in a way that I didn’t before. I also use Google Street View. I can figure out if there are steps up to a building.”
She further added, “If there is a walk, I will have a look in case there is anything that I am uncomfortable about. It is an amazing tool to give you confidence in that you understand the environment that you are going to arrive in, which reduces the stress and the anxiety.”
However, Daniel Holt, an aspiring barrister and wheelchair user from East London and the founding chair of the Association of Disabled Lawyers is less sold on the benefits of rigorous journey planning.
“I’m not much of a journey planner when I don’t need to be,” he said.
“What’s the point when there are so many variables that are put in your way? You might not be able to get on the bus because it’s packed with buggies (strollers), or you can’t get the tube because the lift is broken.”
A clear and present danger
Most of the participants also agreed that, though there are high-levels of stress around feeling uncertain about being able to complete a journey, there was additional serious anxiety related to the risk of accident or injury.
Daniel Holt said in his interview, “Pavements around my flat weren’t wheelchair accessible for a long time, which meant that I had to go onto busy roads. While I don’t scare easily, it felt like a vulnerable situation.”
Barbara Britton, a retired assistant librarian who uses a powered wheelchair, explained more during her interview.
“The other thing is tree roots making holes in the pavements or making them buckle so you haven’t got a flat ride. One place I go has tree roots and dustbins, so I can’t get through – I’m having to bump around onto the tree stumps, or failing that, go down the dropped kerb and drive in the road.”
Bringing her hand cycling expertise to bear, Isabel Clement said, “Camber is the one thing that nobody understands creates hazards.
“It isn’t perceived by cyclists or walkers, but if you are in a wheelchair, a three-wheeler, or mobility scooter, you are in danger of tipping out into the street or onto the pavement. If it’s married with a rubbish surface and gradient, it’s absolutely petrifying. It creates a lot of stress.”
Do people really understand?
Other interesting observations to emerge from the report revolve around public attitudes to disabled people out and about in the community.
On the one hand, appreciation was expressed at the fact that members of the public are often more than willing to offer assistance.
“Luckily strangers are often very kind and will be proactive about being helpful and that’s been incredible to see,” said Jo Becker.
However, she later added, “It is still a bit embarrassing – I really appreciate it but then I always feel there is a slight humiliation that I can’t just do it myself.”
Jo’s frustration is echoed by Katouche Goll, a 23-year-old mobility scooter user with cerebral palsy.
“I am reliant on other people. Not because I need their help, but because I am disempowered by how everything is structured,” she said.
“Immediately you are putting so much of your personal space and belongings in the possession of other people – it’s a very infantilizing experience.”
Some instances of inconsiderate behavior by members of the public were also cited, such as parking cars on the pavement, occupying the wheelchair space of buses with strollers and buggies, despite it being needed by a disabled passenger and leaving dustbins strewn across the pavement on garbage collection day.
An element of “out of sight, out of mind” appears to be at play, whereby members of the public often offer assistance when they see a disabled person struggling and yet, many do not take the needs of disabled pedestrians into account when they are just going about their daily business.
“During 2012, when we had the Olympics and the Paralympics, things were great,” said Barbara Britton.
“Since then, it’s gone back to how it was before and I think disability seems to have gone back onto the back burner.”
London Mayor Sadiq Khan currently has his work cut out, coping with the recent coronavirus surge in the U.K. capital.
Hopefully, when he has time to sit down and read this report, he should agree that creating more accessible streets and transportation must be a top priority for post-pandemic London.
Two key takeaways he would do well to heed is that firstly, in the words of Jo Becker, “If you get it right for disabled people, you get it right for the parents with buggies, you get it right for people with luggage, you get it right for anyone with a broken leg or an injury, or anyone who’s older or may be feeling more confused.”
Additionally, while the complex nature of transport systems may mean full and equal access will be difficult to achieve in the short-term, the time has surely come to look at more sophisticated ways of tackling anxiety by making transport more predictable and responsive to the needs of disabled passengers.
As Isabelle Clement so eloquently encapsulated it, “The day that disabled people are as free as others to daydream while they’re walking/wheeling (thinking about their shopping list or what they might watch on Netflix), rather than trying not to fall over – we’ll have taken a huge step towards accessible streets.”