A disabled woman – who is risking her health by working in a pharmacy during the coronavirus pandemic – was refused assistance to board a train three times by rail staff as she tried to travel to and from work.
Rail company Southeastern has now launched an investigation, but it has already apologised to Osayuki Igbinoba (pictured) and said it understands her “utter disappointment and dismay” at what happened.
On the third occasion, one member of Southeastern staff blamed his reluctance to help her on a colleague who he claimed had caught the virus after helping another wheelchair-user.
He and two colleagues assured her on Sunday (5 April) that they were following instructions from Southeastern and had been told they would be disciplined or even sacked if they provided physical assistance to disabled passengers.
Igbinoba, who uses a wheelchair herself and is a double above-knee amputee, said this was “shocking and discriminatory” treatment, and added: “Disabled people are not the source of the coronavirus and we have been stigmatized.”
She told Disability News Service: “It hurts to be discriminated against and denied ramp assistance, whilst I’m going to work on the front line to help others and save lives.”
She had received similar treatment at the same London station – London Bridge – the previous Sunday, when traveling home to south-east London from her work in East Croydon.
A member of staff had refused to bring her a ramp so she could board the train and told her that she and her colleagues had been instructed by their manager “not to assist disabled passengers because of social distancing”.
After a long discussion, staff agreed to bring the ramp but another Southeastern employee initially refused to touch the handles of her wheelchair, before eventually agreeing to push her up the ramp and onto the train.
The previous week, Igbinoba had been refused assistance when travelling from her home in Abbey Wood to London Bridge.
Staff at Abbey Wood told her they had been told by staff at London Bridge not to bring the ramp to her because they would refuse to assist her off the train when it arrived at London Bridge.
Instead, she had to be helped onto the train by her mother – who was there because they were both unsure how rail services would be running during the lockdown – and a fellow passenger; she also faced problems when she boarded the train to East Croydon at London Bridge.
On each occasion, Igbinoba, a third-year pharmacy student at Kingston University who works part-time as a pharmacy adviser at Boots, was not able to book assistance in advance because of the irregular and changeable transport services in the capital during the COVID-19 crisis.
After she complained about the first incident, Southeastern apologised, insisted that its staff would be given a “refresher” on the company’s policy, and told her they were “confident” she would not have “a repeat of refusal of assistance due to social distancing”.
But four days after that email apology arrived, staff at London Bridge again refused to provide her with assistance to board a train.
This time, on the evening of 5 March, staff only agreed to provide the ramp after Igbinoba’s mother – who had accompanied her again because of her “terrible experiences” – threatened to pull the emergency lever when the train arrived if they refused to help.
Igbinoba said work at the pharmacy had been “busier than ever” on Sunday, so it was particularly painful to be denied ramp assistance for the third time.
Kirsty Hoyle, chief executive of Transport for All, said her organisation was working to ensure that disabled people do not face discrimination when they need to travel during the crisis.
She said: “Transport for All are working hard to ensure that disabled people who need to travel can and that social distancing measures do not further isolate and discriminate.
“We ask all train operating companies to state clearly their policies and to enforce these with the rigour that they would at any other time, ensuring no one who needs to travel is left out.”
Igbinoba’s concerns came as transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris wrote an open letter to the Rail Delivery Group – which represents the companies that run Britain’s railways – expressing concern about “a few” incidents in which disabled passengers have been refused assistance at rail stations.
He said: “I feel strongly that social distancing measures should not limit access in this way and would request that staff have access to clear guidance to ensure they can support all passengers using our railways.”
He said the Department for Transport “will be working closely with the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) to investigate any reports of failure to provide assistance to disabled people during the COVID-19 outbreak”.
Meanwhile, the RMT transport union issued a statement yesterday (Wednesday) saying that its members should stop work on safety grounds if their employers do not provide them with the necessary personal protective equipment.
A spokesperson for Southeastern said in a statement in response to Igbinoba’s concerns: “We’re taking these incidents very seriously and have launched a full investigation into what happened.”
He said the company’s assisted travel service was working as usual, a claim Igbinoba disputes, after being refused assistance three times.
The spokesperson said: “If your journey is essential and you need assistance to travel by train, our staff will continue to provide help so that you can get to your destination safely.
“Our staff have been advised how to safely provide assistance during the coronavirus pandemic, including social distancing and following the government’s hand hygiene advice.”
The Southeastern spokesperson said that it was not a “requirement” for disabled passengers to book ahead, but strongly recommended them to do so by contacting the company, either by booking ahead on the website or by calling its helplines*.
Igbinoba said she did not believe that disabled passengers should have to book assistance in advance.
She said: “Why can’t we travel in the same way as everyone else? In the past, I have booked assistance and it has not made any difference.”
*Telephone: 0800 783 4524, or textphone: 0800 783 4548
**Links to sources of information and support during the coronavirus pandemic include the following:
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