Let’s Talk About …. Independent Travel As A Disabled Person   Leave a comment

PLEASE NOTE THIS BLOG IS ALSO PUBLISHED ON MY ‘WHAT DO YOU THINK PENNY?’ SITE

At the end of May, I attended a conference in London – something I have done many times before. However this time was a little bit different as I was travelling alone and as a disabled person, and although this was not the first occasion that I have travelled alone as a disabled person, it certainly was memorable for the number of difficulties that I encountered – most of which were caused by a simple lack of understanding of how small things can quickly become a big issue.

I have learnt from experience that as a disabled person I have to pre plan any trip and simply cannot just ‘get up and go’.
So for this trip I:-
• Booked an accessible room at the hotel and checked it was in easy walking distance of where the conference was being held.
• Researched trains so I could use a direct train and avoid changes of train.
• Booked Travel Assist for my train journey and received an email confirmation.
• Arranged for a colleague to be available to support me at the conference.
• Arranged for my husband to be available to take me to and from my local train station.
• Checked the cost of taxi’s to my hotel from Marylebone, and from the conference back to Marylebone, so I had enough funds available
• Allowed plenty of time for everything
• Only packed essentials to keep my bag as light as possible, but to include medications and other aids I needed for my trip.

Therefore I thought that my planning should ensure my trip went as smoothly as possible.
On the day my husband took me to Kidderminster Station, and I checked in with station staff. They were expecting me, and assisted me onto the train and as pre-arranged into the carriage with an accessible toilet as due to my medical needs I need to use a toilet every hour (ish) and my train journey was going to be over 2hrs long. My journey to Marylebone was straight forward and I did indeed use the accessible toilet 3 times.
So far, so good and all going to plan.

However on arrival at Marylebone there was no sign of Travel Assist staff, everyone else got off and went on their way – apart from 2 ladies who were standing on the platform near the carriage I was trying to exit. A cleaner went past me, and did ask if I was OK, so I explained I was waiting for Travel Assist, but she did not help me or call for help (maybe was not able to). The 2 ladies on the platform then stepped forward and asked if I needed help, I gratefully accepted. Just as they started to help, a member of train staff who was walking along platform, came forward and helped the 2 ladies to get me, my bags and my rollator off the train. After giving thanks I was then faced with a long (and slow) walk to the concourse. This walk exhausted me, and I have to wonder what would have happened if the 2 ladies had not offered to help, or if I was using a wheelchair, or I simply could not walk the distance required.

In my opinion, to book assistance and to not receive it, is just not acceptable.

Once I reached the concourse I made my way to a café within the station, the nearest had no seats available (but did have a ramp had seats been available), so I went to the next cafe which did not have a ramp just a wide step. I struggled to get myself and my rollator up the step and was not offered assistance by either café staff (who could clearly see me) or members of the public. Once in the café I ordered my drink and staff did tell me to sit down and brought my drink to the table which was helpful. After a rest and finishing my coffee, I had to struggle back down the step to exit the café with no assistance.

I do understand the theory behind ‘reasonable adjustment’, but actually there was room to have a ramp instead of the step, and in any case in my opinion staff should be willing to help customers into and out of the building – and at very least ask if help is needed. I know I could have asked for help, but I was exhausted from the long walk due to lack of assistance off the train, and in any case getting my rollator nearer enough to the counter (without standing in the queue) to ask was near impossible – so the only other option would have been to stand by the door and either shout for help or wait for someone to come near enough to ask. So in the end I struggled and exited the shop myself. It is worth noting that if I had been travelling on my own in a wheelchair or on a mobility scooter I would not have found a café in which to rest and take refreshment.

If I had have been travelling with another person I could have sat in various places while my companion went and collected drinks, and thus avoid trying to get in and out of places, but as I was travelling alone I had to go into buildings to order my drink.
I am not sure why staff do not offer to help customers in and out of the building …
Is it that they are not allowed due to insurance issues or fear of being sued if things go wrong?
Is that their boss says their job is to serve behind the counter and nothing else?
Is it that they are worried about upsetting or offending a person that does not want help?

Whatever the reason in my opinion it is just not good enough – if buildings are difficult to access then help should be provided as part of reasonable adjustment. Also in my opinion, most people would prefer to be asked and to be able to politely decline offers of help, than to be left to struggle or unable to do things.

Once out of the café, I made my way to the Travel Assist desk as I wanted to check that arrangements were in place for my journey home the next day. I discovered that they could not tell me as they get an email very early in the morning with all the travel assist requests. I explained to the person I was talking to what had happened when I arrived at Marylebone and he said he would look into it. He also said that they would ensure I had assistance for my return journey. Given that I could do no more until I got home and could email people about what had happened, and given that I could do nothing more to ensure I had assistance for my return journey, I decided that as still 2 hours before I could check into my hotel, I should have another coffee – and this time there was room in the café with the ramp.
I managed the ramp up into the café, and ordered a coffee and as a treat to myself a piece of cake. I found a table but had to struggle to move a chair out of the way to make room for my rollator. On the positive staff did bring my coffee and cake to the table, which was helpful as I cannot manage a tray.
As I was finishing my cake but had only had 2 sips of my coffee I could hear a strange alarm type sound complete with some words being said which I could not hear properly. It was clear other customers were as unaware as I was because to start with no one did anything. Then other customers started to leave and the staff said in a normal quiet voice that we needed to evacuate the building. I was not offered any assistance, and in fact while I struggled to go down the ramp (going down ramps is very difficult for me) 2 members of staff stood at the bottom of the ramp and did not ask if I needed help and just watched me struggle.

In my opinion this was not acceptable, help should be offered as a matter of course in an emergency (and really in any case). What would have happened if I had fallen and blocked the exit for others? Also as hearing loss / deafness is often an invisible disability staff should be aware of the need to ensure people are informed of emergencies. Those with visual difficulties, or young children may also have needed help. I think staff should have ensured every customer was aware we had to leave the building – maybe speaking louder / maybe holding up a sign to say leave the building. I also question if staff would have known what to do if a customer such as one with Autism had panicked.

I will be emailing the café owners as I think their staff need more training to help them be more aware of support customers may need.

Once I had exited the station I sat outside on my rollator, however although I could see fire engine and ambulance I had no idea what the emergency was. I decided that if it was a serious incident unfolding it would be best to move away from the area as due to my difficulties I could become trapped or at the very least ‘in the way’. So I got in a taxi and made my way to the hotel – even though almost 2 hours early.
I was lucky as my room was ready and I was allowed to check in early. Once in my room, my first thought was to put the kettle on as my previous coffee remained unfinished in the café at Marylebone. I unpacked and had a shower – discovering that the bathroom floor had been repaired but was now a trip hazard. I went to make my coffee but the water was cold, on investigation I realised that the kettle was turned off at the socket. Not usually a big issue but in this case the socket was at floor level and at the back of a unit. I could have asked for help but that would have meant getting dressed and going back to reception both of which would have tired me even more, so I struggled by holding on to the unit to bend and switch the socket on.
Of course if I had been with another person the socket would not have been an issue and the bathroom floor less of a worry BUT I was on my own and this was known via my booking. In my opinion things like where kettles are plugged in and state of floors should be suitable for disabled customers safety and comfort, especially when staying in an accessible room.

The rest of my stay at the hotel went smoothly. I did complain when I checked out and will follow up with an email. My complaints were only about small things but for me they were big things.

My colleague came to the hotel as arranged and provided support to, and throughout the conference. The organisers had reserved seats for myself and my colleague at the front of the conference hall, which was well intentioned but actually caused difficulties because once the hall was full, I could not get back out (which I needed to do to use the toilet) and so ended up very uncomfortable and anxious in case of toileting mishap until the planned refreshment break. After the break we sat on chairs at the back of the room near the exit for my convenience. I was glad I had the support of my colleague because if I had been alone it would have been difficult to access refreshments. I know space is at a premium at such events but more thought needs to be given to how disabled guests will be able to move around and in particular how they would be able to exit the building in an emergency if tables and chairs are barriers to free movement.

Once the conference was over, I took an Uber back to Marylebone and checked into the Travel Assist desk. Good news they were expecting me and within a very short period of time I was being taken by the ‘buggy’ on to the platform for my train. I mentioned that I needed to be in coach A where the accessible toilet was (as per my booking and email confirmation). However there was a problem, I could not travel all the way to Kidderminster in this coach because the platform was too short and this carriage would be locked. The Travel Assist staff member did his best – one option was to travel in coach A as far as Birmingham then change train. This was not possible for me and was the reason why I had booked direct trains even though the times were not ideal. In the end I was put in a different coach right next to a ‘normal’ toilet, this was far from OK but better than no toilet or having to change trains. Using the toilet was very difficult and exhausted me even more just from the effort of leaving my seat and walking the few steps without my rollator.
I was told that there would be no station staff available at Kidderminster, although train manager would do his best to support me. Luckily my planning for my husband to collect me from the train meant I did have support to get off the train and to exit the station. To be fair to the Train manager, he did appear just as I got off the train (with my husbands support), and checked I was OK

In my opinion it is not good enough to be told you have been booked a seat near the accessible toilet and then told you can’t sit there, I just about managed but others may not have been able to manage. I have to question why the only accessible toilet on a train was positioned so that could not be used for the whole journey, surely as they knew where I was travelling to they could have ensured the coach was positioned in the middle of the train length. In fact should that not always be the case so disabled passengers, people with bikes or pushchairs do not have to make compromises?

My experiences on this trip have shown that even with carefully planning you cannot plan for every eventuality, but also a lack of training for staff, a lack of understanding and even empathy can cause small issues to become big issues for disabled people who are travelling alone.

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