Tuesday 27 August 2013

We're all Equal Now

Here's an example of access for sick and disabled people in the UK today. Now, Carolyn from Northern seems like a kind and thoughtful respondent. There is clearly regret in the response. But the truth remains that just one person in a wheelchair of certain dimensions can travel at any one time on a Northern Train. Unless a scooter can be folded and carried onto a train, and presumable, the disabled person can transfer to a normal train seat, travel is not permitted at all. 

I didn't think about this stuff much until recently, when I started to need a wheelchair here and there myself. It's been a complete eye-opener for me - I thought it might be for you too. Everything in the post-paralympic garden is not as rosy as one might imagine. 

I don't imagine anyone has unkindly restricted the access of sick and disabled people on a company's-worth of trains. But the truth remains, it just hasn't been a high enough priority for train companies to comply with their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act. Or to meet the commitments ratified by the UK under the UNCRPD (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) to include sick and disabled people as fully as possible in society. But not just train companies. Stations must be made accessible too. "Mind the Gap" must become a thing of the past. No-one is arguing it's not a huge task. 

But it's a worthwhile one if we want to cling on to any vestige of being the best that we can be, all together.

There is a desire in this response to do better. Now, in 2013 it's time to DO better. 
From: Media Relations <Media.Relations@northernrail.org>
Date: 27 August 2013 17:41:59 BST
To: XXXXX (Redacted)
Subject: Northern's policy re mobility scooters
Dear Sir,

Further to our telephone conversation this morning, I am writing to confirm Northern’s policy on mobility scooters, and more broadly the support and guidance we provide for our disabled customers.

Mobility Scooters
Firstly, I must stress that Northern is committed to improving access to our network and we support and comply with our obligations under the Equality Act.

We do carry wheelchairs up to 67cm wide and 120cm long as explained in the National Rail publication, ‘Rail Travel for Disabled Passengers’. However, due to restricted maneuverability and stability we currently do not accept any type of scooter for travel on our services, regardless of size, unless it can be folded and carried on board as a piece of luggage.  Our staff will be available to assist with this.

We cannot carry unfolded mobility scooters because:
·         We operate several different types of trains, which call at over 500 stations all with varying platform heights so we cannot guarantee any ramp gradient.  This can cause safety issues when driving a mobility scooter on or off a train
·         The variety of scooter designs also means some have the risk of tipping backwards on ramps; are heavier than the ramp’s safe working load or are the wrong shape to manoeuvre safely inside the carriage

All our trains have room for at least one wheelchair and our trains were designed to allow easy access for wheelchair users to this space. Unfortunately, as there is no standard design for scooters (unlike wheelchairs) we cannot guarantee that a scooter user will be able to manoeuvre their vehicle into the wheelchair space. I hope you can appreciate that we cannot allow passengers to travel, sitting on their scooter in a doorway or vestibule. This could block an evacuation in an emergency and pose an unacceptable risk to both the scooter user and other passengers.

We do understand that more and more people are choosing scooters rather than wheelchairs to aid with mobility.  That is why we are undertaking localised trials where variations on scooter design, platform height and type of train can be reduced or isolated to test safety implications – if successful these could operate on a permit system.  We are also working with our industry partners to find realistic solutions for our customers who wish to use mobility scooters, unfortunately in the short term it is unlikely that the types of trains we use will change significantly.

Further guidance
Our website contains information about accessibility for customers, including details of Passenger Assist where we can arrange for help and assistance or provide alternative means of travel if a station is inaccessible – it is a freephone number 08081 56 16 06.

It is also possible to download a copy of our guide ‘Making Rail Accessible – Helping older and disabled passengers’ – the link is here: http://www.northernrail.org/northern/passengercharter/pdfs/dppp_2012_final.pdf

or you can request a hard copy from our Customer Relations team on 0845 00 00 125.

Yours faithfully


Carolyn Watson
Head of Corporate Communications

Northern Rail Ltd
Northern House


  1. An excellent argument in favour of bulldozing many stations (among other buildings) and re-vitalising the construction industy by starting from scratch for the 21st century and beyond.

  2. Imagine the cash that was going to be spent on HS2 being spent on the present railway system!
    Mind, I didn't know we had any money, but that's by the by!
    So we can have some old lines re-opened to improve rail coverage, better disabled access, newer carriages, & what about bringing back the guards van - one could park scooters in there!
    I am sure there are other ideas too, heck we might have trains suitable for the 21st century!
    But silly me........why do something of benefit to us all!

  3. The station closest to my office is Birchwood, Warrington. Have to climb 2 flights of stairs, go across a bridge and down 2 flights the other side. It used to be excruciatingly painful. Only solution provided by Northern rail was to carry on to Warrington Central, change platforms using the lift and wait for another train to come back to Birchwood on the station side of the rails! This on top of a journey that was already 2hrs long! And I would haveto pay extra for my 'extra' travel! That was their idea of disabled access!

  4. I got an office job with Scotrail just before I got too ill to work.
    I was told by head of HR that they wouldn't have employed me if they'd realised how disabled I was.
    So much for equal ops.

  5. I would say that the Tramlink from Croydon to Wimbledon is very good for wheelchair access. The trams floors are all at platform level, with no gaps, so easy to wheel on and off Trams. The Trams themselves have whole sections of the carriages that have no seats, so wheelchairs can be parked there and the door opening buttons are all at low positions to help wheelchair users. There are also track crossing points with no steps and the entrances to stations are all slopes, no steps. Coming home on the Tram from a Chelsea football match with my Father recently, we saw a man who i have seen before pushing his wife in a wheelchair and my Dad grabbed one of the wheelchair handles to help him up the slope. The man said "Thanks, but i do this all day", but my Dad just carried on and said "I know but I'm just giving you a bit of help". The man was fine about it.

    1. Ummm, Martin I'm sure you mean absolutely no harm, and neither did your father, but I have to say that as a wheelchair user I find your story and the way you tell it very disturbing. One of the reasons I rarely feel safe enough to leave the house is because of fear of well meaning strangers who think they are 'doing the right thing' by grabbing my wheelchair and manhandling me about, and the pain and even permanent physical damage this can leave me with.

      I know you're coming from a point of view of total lack of understanding, but please allow me to explain that it is absolutely never ok to have (in your words)
      'grabbed one of the wheelchair handles to help him up the slope'.

      It is very nice that your father wanted to help. I am sure if he'd offered the wheelchair user herself (the wife who is strangely absent from this anecdote) would have been grateful for the offer. It would then have been up to her and, secondarily, her husband, to accept his help or not!

      You conclude that 'The man was fine about it'. Again I find it pretty strange that you don't mention whether the woman - the actual wheelchair-user your father was, according to your account manhandling without her consent - was 'fine with it'. She seems simply to be, in your eyes, an inanimate physical burden, much like a large suitcase, which your father decided her husband needed help with.

      Please understand, I am not writing this to irritate or provoke, I am not being 'PC for the sake of it' but because I think you've probably got the best of intentions but your basic understanding is really flawed.

      A quick example. I have extreme chronic pain and can no longer walk. My legs are extremely easily damaged. My husband and I have spent years working out the exact way to help me with difficult wheelchair manouveres so as to cause the minimum amount of pain or damage.
      Had your father or you grabbed hold of my wheelchair when my husband was helping me up a ramp, to say we both would have been terrified would be an understatement. You would of course have had no idea how easily you could have caused me serious pain and permanent damage. My husband would have said pretty much exactly what you report this man saying: 'I do this all the time' - i.e, I know what the f**k I'm doing, get your hands off my wife'. He would have spoken politely, he would not want to antagonise given the incredibly vulnerable situation your father had unintentionally put me in.

      If he would not let go, as your father apparently wouldn't, he could hardly risk physically forcing your father to desist, after all, he had hold of my wheelchair.

      Afterwards, as I sat quietly sobbing, ashamed and in pain, my husband may well have given you the impression he was 'fine with it', because neither of us could have coped with a scene. The fear of this encounter would certainly lead us never to leave the house alone again, without a 3rd party to stop someone well meaning like your father from hurting me again.

      I am not saying that these were the actual effects of your father's actions on this couple, but I'm saying they could well have been, and he would be none the wiser.

      It's really not complicated. Have respect, offer the wheelchair user help, if it's refused then trust that he or she knows best. Ask yourself, under what possible other circumstances would you think it ok to invade the personal space of another person to this extent without permission? A child, maybe? Or maybe not.

      I am not a not a child, and I am not a suitcase.

    2. Hi Lucy. I never meant to portray the lady in the wheelchair as an inanimate object, far from it. I just simplified the story i guess and omitted the lady. I suppose it's because she didn't actually say anything at the time, whereas the man did. I understand what you are saying though. I am sure my Father would appreciate your concerns and he would think twice about offering assistance in a similar situation in the future. What you said reminds me a bit of a time at family wedding, when we were all on a hired bus taking us to the church. I put my arms around my dear Nan to lift her off the step, not knowing she had a very delicate back problem. I was so upset when i saw the pain in her face as i lifted her, so sometimes simply helping someone can create a bigger problem. I would offer an apology for my Dads naivety, but i won't as, one; my Dad apologizes for himself and two; this wasn't a direct action towards yourself. I am not ignorant to the sensibilities of a disabled person, neither am i ignorant to the reality of a disabled persons life. There is a line that separates right and wrong, which maybe my father crossed when he helped the man and lady up the slope, it wasn't due to his disrespect of the man and lady, just possibly a bit of 'over-friendliness'. Typical isn't it! In a country where a nasty government deliberatly tries to create hell on earth for disabled people, a simple gesture of goodwill can be regarded as an assault and violation of someones personal boundaries. How crazy! Thanks again Lucy, for your honesty, care and education, my Father and i will hope to learn from this experience. X

    3. Hi Martin,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply and trying to understand where I'm coming from. I know it would be much easier to take offence and write me off as angry and irrational and I do appreciate it.

      I'm worried I might not have been clear enough on one thing - I think it's fantastic that your father wanted to help. I always appreciate it a great deal when someone asks if I'd like a hand when I'm in a difficult situation.

      Most of the time of course in my case it's a 'no but thank you', but it leaves a warm glow to be asked! Other times, if it's something like holding a heavy door open I definitely take them up on it and am very thankful for the help.

      The key words are just 'offer' and 'ask'. Just like it's lovely to eg offer a pregnant woman a hand with some heavy bags, but not ok to grab the bags from her and start walking!

      Good luck, and I hope I haven't upset your Dad, he sounds lovely! x

    4. Thank you Lucy, you are very kind. X

  6. another death reported today in the Crawley observer on page 4 in the name of lee Robinson who committed suicide after his ESA was stopped following long term unemployment

  7. I too have started to need a wheelchair recently, I know the feeling. They need to go back to the drawing board with it all! We need more creative answers - such as chairs that can be altered or compressed together in order to make more wheelie room , meaning 10chairs could be in one carriage with all the chairs slid back... !

    However, we generally tend to be an after thought, a "shove them in the corner" attitude. I just hope wee are looking back on this in a few years and laughing bat how big companies thought it was ok to do it,,, !

    Love your blog by the way, always a good read when I can sleep (now for example!)

    Friday @ dignifiedandproud,blogspot.com

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