Why disabled travellers need a legal charter – Charlotte Nichols

THIS week our Paralympic heroes return from Tokyo, basking in glory and adorned with medals after a stunning fortnight of gruelling competition and thrilling battles.

Paralympian champion Hannah Cockroft has previously highlighted the difficulties that disabled people face when using public transport.

Yet, amid all the cheers, many will also be greeted by the same barriers that disabled people face day in and day out.

More than one in five of our constituents live with a disability — more than 14 million in total. Disabled people deserve every opportunity to live their lives to the full, but they face particular challenges simply getting around.

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Our public transport system is poorly integrated and can be a frustration for many of us, but far more so for disabled passengers.

Charlotte Nichols is Labour MP for Warrington South and tabled the Transport (Disabled Passenger Charter) Bill to Parliament.

For disabled passengers, predictability is at a premium and up-to-date information is essential, as they may need to plan well in advance for even a relatively simple journey.

To provide a snapshot, here is the experience of Charles, as related to Scope, the disability equality charity. He said: “Like many disabled people, I rely on public transport. Travelling can be a frustrating part of my day, especially as someone who has a limited amount of vision remaining.

“I’m the proud owner of a guide dog called Carlo. He’s very excitable and eager to be outside for walks and adventures. Carlo fundamentally gives me my freedom and ability to visit new places, but without public transport, we’d both be stuck.

“My biggest challenge with public transport is the amount of time involved with planning. A trip can take me double, or even triple the time to travel. Not to mention, having to leave almost an hour early in case of the usual delays or cancellation of services.”

Disabled people continue to face daily difficulties with public transport, according to Labour MP Charlotte Nichols who wants the law changed.

Beyond the necessities of using public transport, for many disabled people, it is a point of pride to be able to do so, a demonstration and unlocking of their ability to lead independent lives. We should be determined to make our transport as accessible as possible.

However, according to a 2019 survey of disabled people for Scope, 30 per cent said that difficulties with public transport had reduced their independence, and as many as four in five said that they felt stressed or anxious when planning or carrying out such a journey.

It is worth emphasising that the survey was pre-Covid, so did not even take into account the additional fears that disabled people will have faced in travelling on public transport over the past couple of years – not least those unable to wear masks, who have often been unreasonably challenged about this.

There has been much legislation and regulation to improve disabled people’s rights over the past quarter-century, but many of those well-intended rules have added up to a patchwork of rights across different modes of transport, both for accessing travel and for raising complaints when disabled people have been let down.

If complaints are not made, we cannot know whether existing regulations are being properly followed or enforced.

The Office of Rail and Road’s annual rail consumer report 2019 stated that an average of a quarter of disabled passengers had not received all the assistance they had booked, which had left them frighteningly stranded, or humiliatingly relying on asking for assistance from fellow passengers.

However, we deserve to know the accurate numbers to improve this unacceptable situation.

Problems or distressing circumstances can arise across all sorts of types of transport, including fear of being overcharged for a taxi journey, not knowing whether a parent with a pushchair will make space for a wheelchair on the bus, or pre-booked assistance not turning up to help a disembarkation from a train.

According to Scope’s survey, one in six disabled people said they had not complained because they did not know if they had the right to do so. Disabled people deserve better.

This is why my transport Bill would bring together the pre-existing rules into a passenger charter for disabled people. This would be a simple, accessible document covering all modes of land transport and setting out exactly what disabled passengers can expect, no matter where or how they are travelling.

A single document would also expose where there are currently irregularities, gaps in provision or other anomalies that can be addressed.

I hope that the Government will agree that this is a simple, inexpensive step that we can take to improve the quality of life of disabled people.

Labour MP Charlotte Nichols tabled the Transport (Disabled Passenger Charter) Bill. This is an edited version.

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