On January 18th wheelchair user Doug Paulley saw the end of a five year legal battle. He wanted legal clarification around who had the right to use the wheelchair space on the UK’s bus network, and after other legal rulings on the case the Supreme Court gave a final judgement. While the court ruling seemed fairly clear, the world of social media saw a mixed reaction with many people being angered or confused by the outcome. I am a full time wheelchair user and work as an access and inclusion consultant specialising in public transport and thought I would explain how I believe the ruling may impact on the traveling public.
Some buggy users claim they can continue to use the wheelchair space, as the Supreme Court ruled that bus companies do not have the right to forcibly remove anyone who refuses to move if a wheelchair user needs to travel on the bus. I doubt that many people expected a court to rule this way, as forcible removal may lead bus drivers and members of the public to be placed in danger, if the situation turned violent. The truth is that the ruling does not give permission to continue using the wheelchair space as a shared space for all. The court ruled that the space is definitively the wheelchair space, is part of the legally required access provision of buses and that priority for wheelchair users must be “vigorously pursued” by bus companies. Basically the wheelchair space is there for the use of wheelchair users, and any other travellers should only use the space if they agree to vacate it if required. But how might bus companies enforce the ruling?
Drivers will be expected to stop the bus, leave their cabin and talk to the buggy user. They should also include wheelchair user in this discussion. Why? The ruling stated that the wheelchair space should be vacated unless it was reasonable not to, so by including the wheelchair user it will ensure a more informed discussion. For many wheelchair users the wheelchair space on most buses is far bigger than is needed to facilitate their wheelchair. So it is more than possible for both a buggy and a wheelchair to share the space. If a buggy was moved to allow the wheelchair user to manoeuvre into the space, the buggy could then easily be slipped back in to the area remaining. Most bus companies are claiming that this will be the expected outcome in most situations.
If people refuse to do this, the law would see this as unreasonable, unless a viable excuse could be given. Again the inclusion of the wheelchair user in the process may help. If the refusal, for example, is because the person with the buggy is heavily pregnant, with two other small children and feels it is just beyond her abilities to fold or move the buggy, the wheelchair user may well be magnanimous and say “it’s OK, I’ll get the next bus”. Disabled people can give up their seat just like non-disabled people. Despite it legally being our space, we aren’t ogres and can see that sometimes people may need it more than we do. The driver should also assist with the process of moving or folding the buggy whenever they can. This give and take is what is meant by the word “reasonable” in equality law.
What may not be clear to those parents who flatly refuse to move is, if they do not act reasonably it may impact on their ability to use buses at all. Not all wheelchair users can travel by bus. If their wheelchair is too big or heavy they are barred from traveling. This is a factor considered by many disabled people when deciding which type of wheelchair to use. If buggy users continuously refuse to move, claiming the buggy does not fold, the bus companies may implement rules on which kind of buggies can travel by bus. Non-folding or oversized buggies or prams may end up with the same restrictions that scooters and large wheelchairs do. Without travellers acting reasonably this may be the only solution open to bus companies.
What would be much better, obviously, is if parents and disabled people worked together with bus companies to roll out a new space on bus fleets designed for buggies and prams. My best advice would be for bus companies to promote methods of facilitating this process of working together to find solutions that ensures the bus network is open to all who want to use it. The embodiment of reasonableness eh?
By Mik Scarlet