A direct action protest in the heart of Westminster has demonstrated the mobility problems that hundreds of thousands of disabled people across the country could face because of government cuts to spending on disability living allowance (DLA).
Scores of disabled campaigners occupied a bus stop, following a meeting inside Parliament that had been addressed by four Labour MPs, and was organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) and the accessible transport charity Transport for All (TfA).
The aim was to demonstrate how inaccessible bus travel can be, and show the huge problems that will be caused by planned cuts of 20 per cent to spending on DLA, which could force hundreds of thousands more disabled people onto the public transport system.
Because the kerb at the bus stop was too high, wheelchair-users were unable to board the bus, while the driver said there was no space inside because the wheelchair bay was occupied by a pushchair, despite Transport for London (TfL) guidelines which say wheelchair-users should take priority.
One disabled activist, Adam Lotun, managed to throw his wheelchair onto the bus and crawl on after it, while another somehow managed to jump in his wheelchair onto the bus.
When it became obvious that the bus was inaccessible, several activists protested by sitting in front of it, while others occupied the vehicle and a second bus that had pulled up behind it. The protest was peaceful and no-one was arrested.
A small group of protesters later moved to a Westminster bus stop which was more accessible and travelled by bus to the nearby headquarters of the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK.
They handed in a letter which demanded improvements and said that disabled people had “had enough of being denied access to buses in the UK; of being treated like second class citizens”.
A TfL spokesman admitted that the driver of the first bus should have asked for the pushchair to be folded away, and added: “It was a training issue that needs to be addressed (with the driver).”
He said that most London bus stops were the responsibility of local authorities, rather than TfL, although councils can approach TfL for funding, while the accessibility of the bus stop targeted by the protest would be raised with Westminster council at a meeting next week.
But he said that because the kerb at that stop was one of just six in London that were on two levels, it would be more expensive than usual to make it accessible.
He said 14,000 of London’s 19,000 bus stops were now accessible, with 63 per cent of council bus stops accessible, compared with 77 per cent of TfL bus stops.
One of the protesters, Roy Benjamin, chair of Merton Centre for Independent Living in south-west London, told Disability News Service that many of his members had not even been able to attend the protest because of inaccessible public transport.
He said many members were concerned about potentially losing their DLA, but also losing benefits that some claimants are automatically entitled to, such as membership of the Taxicard scheme.
Benjamin said: “The reality is that more and more people, if these concessions are withdrawn, are going to be forced to try to get around on public transport and if they cannot they will become prisoners in their own home.”
Christine Chidzomba, a former member of the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network (DAN), who travelled from Birmingham for the protest, was one of those who sat in front of the bus.
On her journey that morning with London Midland, the train company had failed to provide her with the accessible seating she had booked and needed, while she was also unable to access the toilet in her scooter.
She said: “Independent living is something that people take for granted. Disabled people have been fighting since 1985 to get accessible transport, and 27 years on we are still fighting.
“I am really disheartened and saddened that we are back to the drawing board again.”
Another protester, TfA volunteer Richard Pill, who has Asperger’s syndrome, said he had faced discrimination at the hands of bus drivers in his home town of Bedford who did not believe that he and other disabled people under retirement age should have a bus pass.
Faryal Velmi, director of TfA, had earlier told the parliamentary meeting: “We want to make a patient and vociferous case for the right of disabled people to ride on buses, the tube, trains and trams in London and across the country so we can get from A to B, and find work, keep work, enjoy our high streets, spend time with friends and family, travel and live independently in freedom and choice.”
Labour MP Lisa Nandy, who last year secured a Commons debate on accessible transport, called on the government to ensure that future contracts with transport providers guarantee accessible travel.
She said: “This is not the sort of society I want to live in when people cannot get about and conduct themselves with dignity. I am ashamed that we have made so little progress on this.”
Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Maria Eagle, said that the government’s thirst for cuts was seeing “those things that help accessibility being seen as optional add-on extras and luxuries which can be the first thing to go”.
Labour MP John McDonnell called for more direct action protests over cuts to disability benefits and services, and added: “You have gone beyond conversations. They are not listening anymore. You have to be in their face.”
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, told the meeting: “It is great to see disabled people getting organised, vocal and visible. That is exactly what we have got to do if we want to protect what we have achieved over the last 30 years.
“We are experiencing an unprecedented attack on our rights, on our inclusion in society, and our dignity and quality of life.”
21 June 2012