A disabled campaigner has secured an “important victory” that has forced a transport company to bring in new measures to protect the rights of wheelchair-users to use buses.
Wheelchair-user Nina Grant, from north London, began legal action against Arriva after repeatedly being left on the pavement by drivers who made no attempt to ask parents to move their buggies so she could board the bus and use the wheelchair space they were blocking.
This was a breach of principles established in a legal action taken by fellow disabled activist Doug Paulley, which resulted in a ground-breaking Supreme Court victory in January 2017.
That case established that bus companies operating a “first come first served” policy on the use of their wheelchair spaces were acting unlawfully.
But more than three years on, many wheelchair-users believe too little has changed, that parents with buggies often refuse to move from the wheelchair spaces, and bus drivers often refuse to make any attempt to persuade them to do so.
Grant managed to obtain CCTV footage from onboard cameras which showed one driver failing even to open the doors when she wanted to board a bus.
The driver said there was no point opening the doors because there were buggies in the wheelchair space and the parents would not move.
But the Paulley court victory established the principle that disabled passengers have a right to priority access over the wheelchair space on a bus, and that a driver must do more than simply ask a non-disabled passenger to move.
Now Grant – with assistance from solicitor Chris Fry, of Fry Law, and barrister Cathy Casserley, from Cloisters chambers – has secured a court order that will hold Arriva’s drivers to account for their actions.
Arriva has made a legally-binding pledge to improve accessibility and ensure “comprehensive” disability equality training for all new drivers and refresher training for existing drivers, with all drivers having to reach a basic level of competency before being allowed to drive a bus.
At the end of each shift, every driver will have to file a record of each occasion when they refused access to a wheelchair-user.
The legal case was supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), as part of a project launched last year to provide funding for disabled and older people to take legal action when they have faced discrimination on public transport.
Grant said the court order was about holding Arriva accountable to disabled passengers and would ensure the company policed how priority access for wheelchair-users was being applied on its buses.
She said: “Drivers need to know that their behaviour matters and will be scrutinised at the depot.
“I am grateful to the EHRC for their support in bringing this case. Without their help I could not have taken the risk of bringing the claim.”
Paulley welcomed the “important victory”.
He said: “I regularly heard (before the pandemic) of buses leaving disabled people at stops because the spaces are occupied by non-disabled people’s prams, without the driver even asking the occupants to move.
“This is clearly discriminatory and has a massive effect on the people left behind, both practical and emotional. It shouldn’t happen.
“Bus companies should be doing more to make sure that space is available for disabled people.
“Drivers must comply with their obligation to request and instruct non-disabled people to vacate that space if needed by a disabled person, as established years ago in the First Bus case.
“It’s a disgrace that this happens so frequently, that it happened this time, and that it’s down to individual disabled people taking legal action to enforce their rights.
“I hope this case causes bus companies to reconsider.
“Well done to Nina, Cathy Casserley and Chris Fry for taking this on, seeing it through and refusing to let it go unpunished; and for achieving a positive result that should make a major difference for disabled people.”
Fry said: “This agreement shows that Arriva is committed to tackling the ‘garage culture’ where drivers believe that there’s simply no point in challenging people to move from the wheelchair space.
“There needs to be a way for bus companies to find out what’s happening at street level and to better support drivers.
“This mediated outcome shows what can be achieved without expensive and lengthy litigation.”
Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said: “Equal access to transport is still a very major issue for disabled passengers, despite the progress made over the recent years.
“We expect all bus companies to take proactive steps so access to wheelchair spaces becomes a reality for disabled passengers, improving the everyday lives of disabled people for the long term.”
An Arriva spokesperson said: “Arriva is committed to ensuring that its bus services are fully accessible to disabled [people] and wheelchair-users.
“Our driver training, internal policies, on-bus signage and conditions of carriage have for many years made clear the legal priority which wheelchair-users have over designated wheelchair spaces and the standards we expect of our employees in providing assistance to wheelchair-users.
“Any complaints from wheelchair or disabled users are treated with the utmost seriousness, promptly investigated and, if a breach of policy is identified, we do not hesitate to take action to address this including, where appropriate, disciplinary action.
“Despite these existing measures, the service experienced by Ms Grant on this occasion clearly fell short of our high standards and as a result we were happy to agree the measures described to provide her and other wheelchair-users with further assurance that we take the accessibility of our services extremely seriously.”
Picture: Nina Grant (front row, second from left) at a protest on the rights of wheelchair-users to use buses, outside the Department for Transport in January 2019
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…