Three weeks ago video exposing Amit Patel's experience navigating the Tube as a blind man went viral - putting the world of Twitter in to a frenzy. It demonstrated how truly stressful it can be to travel by public transport for Amit and his guide dog, Kika.
An impatient commuter on a tube escalator at London Bridge insisted that Mr Patel and his guide dog, Kika, get out of the way to let him pass, despite it not being safe for Mr Patel to do so, and despite being asked to wait by the member of staff. The man persisted rudely, even when members of the public reprimanded him. Amit told the Evening Standard afterwards that he felt 'destroyed'.
This experience was, needless to say, extremely unpleasant, but unfortunately it is not at all rare.
Both tube and bus travel can pose insurmountable barriers to disabled people. This contributes to the rise in isolation and poverty, depressed and anxious states, disabled people often find themselves in. If you had hurdles that were so high, ask yourself, would you venture out?
I too am a disabled person, I cannot hold the right rail of the tube escalator safely because I have no control over my right arm and I cannot safely walk down the left while holding on because I have difficulty balancing. I am, however, a busy person and like the majority of those also travelling by tube, I have places to go and people to see.
I refuse to be marginalised from society. I travel on the tube every day and almost every escalator ride I am faced with people who are not aware of my disability. They openly scoff, tut or treat me like an idiot. Often I receive the dirty looks and people frequently swear at me and get frustrated because there is someone not abiding by the rules.
These rules, like ‘please stand on the right’, are there for safety and efficiency. But importantly, sometimes, they are there to be broken, where safety is paramount. I do not blame people because they are not aware, but undeniably people in tube territory can go from being decent, considerate human beings to aggressive savages with an ‘all for themselves’ attitude and it becomes a case of ‘eat or be eaten’.
I am lucky enough to be friends with Amit. He is an intelligent, eloquent person able to articulate why this incident was completely unacceptable. Like Amit, I feel confident enough to challenge and grasp hold of these crucial teachable moments. But when a person is not able or doesn’t feel able to speak up and advocate for themselves this becomes an internal battle resulting in fear and dread.
I know many people who get this abuse or worse, out-right rude, un-thinking, hurtful and truly heart-breaking, unkind, ignorant comments which have a huge impact on a person’s wellbeing. Not only do these experiences shatter a person’s confidence, both self-worth and self-respect plummet, but they also feel unsafe and would rather not deal with this extreme stress and anxiety so they do not travel on the tube.
When travelling by tube, I often request for assistance from tube staff, the customer service assistants – or as I like to refer to them as, my ‘heroes in blue’. These are often amazing people with good intentions, who go through the hellish job of dealing with people who demand things from them without even the hint of acknowledgement or respect.
However, unfortunately, I find due to little guidance on how to address the public when assisting a visually impaired person or a mobility impaired person they end up not knowing what to do. More often than not, when assisting me on the escalators they too get this ignorant mentality and often get the same treatment as me. They often address this issue with an apology as opposed to an explanation of why they are there.
If there was clearer guidance on how to deal with issues like this it would make the journey more pleasant and less stressful for everyone involved. It would equip the customer service assistance staff with the ability to explain efficiently and effectively why they are there and it would put the passing public in the know and importantly put the passenger at ease.
As it stands, escalator journeys for me remain stressful, I am on high alert and my anxiety spikes. I often tell the customer service assistants how to act on the escalator when it comes to dealing with the passers-by but they are frequently equally frustrated by this scenario and become perplexed by the indignant attitude people demonstrate daily.
Having personally consulted with a lot of the Tube’s customer service staff, I know they share my viewpoint. With this support behind me and the other incredible exposure stories like Amit’s, I propose better disability awareness training for the Tube’s customer service staff including a best practice communication guide. I propose to create and deliver this training course and guide myself.
This, coupled with my further proposal for a tube-wide campaign to raise awareness of disabled passengers, to alert everyone to be aware of those around you. Courtesy and manners cost nothing, and consideration is all I ask, so that everyone can feel safe to use the tube, not anxiety-ridden or a target for abuse. I propose these actions to advocate for everyone, promote awareness and overall encourage inclusion.
People with disabilities are people first, we deserve respect, we deserve the opportunity to travel safely, and we deserve the chance to thrive as equal members of society.
Sarah Burrell provides an inclusion and diversity training and consultancy at sarahburrell.co.uk.