As a result of my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome I use a wheelchair a lot of the time. It helps me to deal with hip subluxations, pain and pacing. My wheelchair is something that goes pretty much everywhere with me.
Rail travel for us wheelchair users has improved dramatically over the years (we used to travel in the freezing cold, dark guards van with the bicycles if we were lucky enough to travel at all!) but is still sadly lacking in several important areas – not to mention being one of the most stressful things you can do whilst on wheels. Even the phone call to book the assistance ahead of time can be a nightmare as you explain the journey you wish to complete and slowly fix the computer errors that come up (eg. computer wants you to do a ten minute transfer, which is simply not possible when you need to wait for a man with a ramp for each train and then wheel between platforms!) and they inevitably misspell something crucial no matter how precise you think you’ve been. This can lead to the station not knowing who you are (because they spelled your name so badly it doesn’t even resemble how you might pronounce it to the reader or got your email address wrong so you have no copy of the booking for yourself to help solve issues like the one above.)
Having just done two long trips via London, here’s my current list of irritations and annoyances:
- Stations with broken lifts or lifts that only operate between certain hours making the station unusable after a particular time of day,
- Booked assistance that fails to show up to get you off a train at your destination so leaving you to struggle and wave from the train door hoping someone sees you or rely on a kind stranger to prevent you from ending up in Timbucktoo,
- Mountains of luggage in the wheelchair space despite the clear and polite sign telling passengers not to leave it there (it is a wheelchair space by law unlike on buses). On my most recent trip to London I had to complain about a member of the Virgin trains staff who said it was OK for passengers to leave large suitcases blocking both my emergency exit and my path to the loo despite a sign clearly saying this was prohibited!
- “Assistance” staff standing about in stations who haven’t got the brains they were born with and don’t tell you that you need to go to a specific mobility point in that train station to get started on your journey when you approach one to ask.
- Huge national stations with only one or two accessible toilets for the whole station (and thousands and thousands of passengers daily many of whom will need an accessible loo as not all disabilities use a wheelchair) and often with a smelly baby change inside that to boot… One I used today did not even lock while you went in as the RADAR lock was broken and the handle just fell straight back down into the unoccupied position leaving me feeling very wary. I was glad I had someone waiting right outside for me!
- Many stations around the country that are simply not accessible at all and no plans to update them.
And then there are the general public: other passengers who go barging past while you wait patiently on the platform for the assistance man to appear (on the last minute as usual) with a ramp or for him to simply have the chance to lay it out only to then have to remove these bargers from the wheelchair space once you’ve finally been able to board. They barged by me, in some cases tripped over me or the ramp and then completely ignored the rather large sign telling them that I was going to need to be put there and yet it is somehow my fault (never theirs!) they have to go find another seat. And then there are the times you have to travel in the doorway because the train is quite full and people are not prepared to spend a couple of minutes shuffling about to let you through, so you risk your chair tipping and every time the train stops on that side people have to climb over you. Members of the public who lean on the handles of your wheelchair (which is for all intents and purposes an extension of the users body – see here for a good explanation) and risk tipping you out of the chair also drive me potty. I mean, would they lean on the bloke on the other side of them? Or a child? Or any other person at all? No. So why do you lean on me while standing on a train or in a lift? Stop it, it’s not acceptable behaviour and it’s dangerous as active wheelchairs are designed to tip backwards so we can go up kerbs this also is why the majority of our designated spaces place us with our backs against a barrier. While I’m bitching out people’s manners I’ll also call out those people who get in a lift on their own, can see I’m heading for it and suddenly seem to mysteriously “forget” how the lift works and so make a pretence at pressing lots of buttons but somehow never the one for holding the door open.
But on a cheerier note, for each one of these annoying stressful times there is the platform/assistance staff member who remembers your name and regular destination, the staff member who goes out of his way to help, the assistance staff member who is just so awesome at making sure you catch that connection even if he has to hold up the train, the staff member with the cheeky smile and a joke, the times you roll on to the platform and find the ramp is already down and waiting for you! The lovely stranger who goes to find a staff member to help you off the train at your destination or if necessary two kind and strong strangers who physically lift you on or off the train by themselves when you’re stuck.
The assistance staff who see you come in from their desk and come over to you to help or the regular staff at your local station who you get to know and who recognise you on their CCTV and come straight out. Members of the public who take the initiative and move out of the wheelchair space without being asked, coaxed or even needing to have the sign read to them as if they were aliens from Mars and who offer to help with my luggage.
So yes, you do have to have everything planned in advance like a military operation only better, but for every bad experience you can nearly always guarantee to have a good one to pair with it. As long as you don’t need the loo…