A bus company forced to change its policies after a ground-breaking Supreme Court access case has been accused of treating disabled peple and the legal system with contempt, after it revealed the measures it has taken to comply with the judgment.
Last month, disabled activist Doug Paulley and other campaigners celebrated (pictured) after the Supreme Court ruled that First Bus had breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act through its “first come, first served” policy on the use of wheelchair spaces.
It was the first case of disability discrimination in service provision to be heard by the country’s highest court.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously 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.
Until yesterday (Wednesday), First Bus had not revealed what action it would take to comply with that ruling.
But First Bus has now emailed Disability News Service (DNS) with its new “conditions of carriage” and said it was taking “immediate action to brief our 13,000 drivers across the UK about the changes”.
Those new conditions of carriage reveal that the company has changed just one sentence.
The relevant section of the old version stated: “If someone in a wheelchair wishes to get on and there is space elsewhere on the vehicle, customers will be asked by the driver to vacate the space, including repositioning small prams or mobility scooters where possible and folding any buggies and storing these in the luggage space where available.”
The new version states: “If someone in a wheelchair wishes to get on and there is space elsewhere on the vehicle, customers will be required by the driver to vacate the space provided it is reasonable for them to do so, including repositioning small prams or mobility scooters where possible and folding any buggies and storing these in the luggage space where available.”
It means the company has changed just one word and added nine others as a result of the Supreme Court judgment.
After being shown the new wording, Paulley said First Bus was “treating disabled people and the legal system with contempt, doing the minimum possible, trying to duck the issue, and in general behaving like ignorant, incompetent prats.
“I’m unsurprised and was resigned to such, so I’m not disappointed, but as usual, they’ve failed to do anything worthwhile or with integrity.
“I’ve come to expect nothing more from First Bus.”
He said the new First Bus conditions had “about as much oomph in them as a tickling stick”.
Paulley compared First Bus’s new conditions of carriage with rival bus company Stagecoach’s much stronger terms, which say that small prams and unfolded buggies can use the wheelchair space “only when it is not required by a passenger in a wheelchair or approved mobility scooter (passengers in wheelchairs have absolute priority by law)”.
Stagecoach also says that customers are “required by law to ensure that the designated wheelchair space is made available if a customer wishes to board with a wheelchair”.
The Stagecoach version also adds: “You are required to co-operate in allowing proper use of the designated wheelchair space by vacating this space if it is required by a customer in a wheelchair.”
Meanwhile, Paralympian Anne Wafula Strike has described a pledge by the rail industry that it will improve information on whether accessible toilets are out of order as “a step in the right direction”.
The announcement came only a few weeks after the Guardian reported how Wafula Strike was forced to wet herself on a CrossCountry train because the accessible toilet was out of order.
She said she had been “robbed of her dignity” but had decided to speak out in the hope that it would bring about improvements for other disabled people.
Following her decision to speak out, rail minister Paul Maynard, himself a disabled person, held talks with the rail industry, and yesterday the Department for Transport announced that work to improve access to accessible toilets on trains and at stations was now “underway”.
A spokesman for the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), which represents train operators and Network Rail, told DNS that as a result of those discussions it would now “map” all of the accessible toilets at train stations and put that information on the National Rail Enquiries website.
It will also ensure that if a disabled passenger books assistance through the Passenger Assist service, she will be told before she boards the train if the accessible toilet is out of order.
The RDG spokesman said the industry was also looking at the feasibility of informing passengers if an accessible toilet was out of order through the electronic customer information screens at stations.
Told by DNS of the measures that had been agreed, Wafula Strike said: “It’s definitely a step in the right direction but they need to tell us what happens next if the toilet isn’t working on that particular train you are planning to get on.
“Do you turn back and go home and miss your meeting, work, etc?
“What measures have they put in place to ensure the journey isn’t aborted?”
She said she feared that rail staff would just take the “easy option” and “turn away disabled passengers because a toilet is out of order”, rather than take the more difficult option of ensuring that accessible toilets are “maintained and in working order”.
Maynard welcomed the RDG pledges.
He said: “I take the issue of accessibility on our railways extremely seriously and these commitments from industry are just one step forward to improve things.
“It is vital that all people, including disabled passengers, are able to use public transport and I will continue to push train companies on this matter.”
Later this year, the Department for Transport will be publish an accessibility action plan, which will address access to all forms of public transport.
In a third significant development on accessible transport, the Association of British Commuters (ABC) has lodged an application for a judicial review of the government’s failure to provide an accessible service for disabled passengers across part of England’s rail network.
ABC says transport secretary Chris Grayling has failed to enforce the terms of the Southern Rail franchise, which covers parts of south London and southern England, and is therefore discriminating against disabled people.
It is seeking a judicial review of the Department for Transport’s handling of the Southern Rail contract on four grounds, three of which relate to alleged discrimination experienced by disabled passengers.
ABC says that many disabled passengers on Southern services no longer have the confidence to use the rail system, as a result of excessive overcrowding, cancellations and a failure to provide assistance, even when booking in advance.
ABCs court action has been crowd-funded, and it will seek further crowdfunding resources if the high court gives the go-ahead for a judicial review.
Faryal Velmi, director of the user-led campaign group Transport for All, said: “It is totally unacceptable that Southern Rail have been allowed to treat disabled passengers as second class citizens.
“Transport for All has heard time and again from disabled transport users who feel Southern Rail’s network is now a no-go zone; impacting on people’s ability to work and often leaving them increasingly isolated.
“The Department for Transport and rail industry must act urgently to prevent the basic rights of disabled passengers being flouted in this way.”
Pictured: Doug Paulley (left) and his solicitor Chris Fry in front of the Supreme Court after the ruling, surrounded by supporters from Transport for All