So, I’ve been building up to this post for a while now, since the local bus company in my town thought it appropriate to exchange an intercity bus link between two hospitals, a spacious bus with a low step onto it and with multiple spaces for wheelchairs, Zimmer frames etc., to a barely accessible coach with only two accessible downstairs seats, stairs about a foot high each to get upstairs, when it’s a service that only runs once an hour.
Since I started volunteering with RNIB in the hospital in the next city, I’ve used the intercity hospital link bus every week to commute. It was so convenient for various reasons; my local hospital is just up the hill for me, so it’s not far to go to the bus stop; there’s enough space for me to stay in my wheelchair if I want and also for others in chairs or with frames or buggies and so on; getting on and off the bus was easy for me as it was a low step, so I could get out of my chair and gently bump it up, or stay in it and have my sister or mum (if they have dropped me off) or the driver get me on. It stops at the hospital in the next city so I don’t have to travel far to get into the department. For a few weeks, it was absolutely ideal.
One day my mum took me up and it was a different bus there altogether. Instead of the style of the local city buses, it was a double-decker coach with a different route code on it. I asked Mum to ask the driver if he was replacing the hospital link that day and he informed us that it didn’t exist anymore. Basically, a coach service with a route throughout most of Scotland had been changed to include this route. The company has lauded the coaches because they have better Wifi and comfy chairs… Yes, the seats are much comfier, I’ll grant, but I’d rather have a bus I can access rather than a padded seat… And I say this as someone with impacting hip joints that give me a lot of pain on sitting down!
The coaches that have been used 99% of the time, and I think this is the new type and the exception was an older one, has quite a big step to get onto in the first place even with the suspension lowered. Then there’s the backrest for the wheelchair right next to the driver’s box and so there isn’t a lot of space to get in and pay. The only two accessible seats without taking stairs are situated directly behind the driver’s box; there’s not much space in them at all, especially when you have sticks to deal with. I was traveling with a man who had a prosthetic leg one week, and there was not enough space for him to have his leg up; he had to sit on the side with his leg hanging into the aisle. Also, the floor space is so high that a man who I regularly sit beside on the journey can’t actually lift his legs high enough to sit straight ahead, so he too has to sit hanging off the seat. On the older coach, there were stairs to get on regardless, and to get on in my wheelchair, I had to take the very slow chair lift, which was frustrating and quite embarrassing. Everyone’s waiting to get going, and we have to wait while I board the bus and have my chair strapped in and so on. Whether people are thinking along those lines or not, I did feel like a spectacle and it was fairly humiliating. Disabled people just want to get on and off the bus reasonably quickly like anyone else.
With the service only running once an hour, it means that we can afford even less to say “Oh, it’s o.k., I’ll get the next bus.” I’ve actually had to go up the stairs at least twice. It was very difficult, painful, and awkward. The first time I was already in the access seat next to an elderly man, but a woman came on with a shattered ankle, and I felt that out of the three of us, I had the best chance of getting up the stairs. It was either that or say to the woman “No, sorry, you’ll have to wait another hour for the next bus”. I know I didn’t strictly have to, but I didn’t exactly have a good choice either way. The second time I think a couple was already in the seats, and I didn’t want to presume and ask them to move. However, a few stops later, they did come upstairs for someone else to get the access seats, so maybe I should have asked, but I don’t know if they only came up as I had because they felt someone else needed it more. Unfortunately, I’m getting to the point where I am just going to have to tell people sorry, I can’t move. It’s none of our faults but someone has to lose out.
I have to say though, the drivers have been faultless. Whether making sure I’m managing to get on board and in the seat, loading and offloading my wheelchair in the luggage space (which I do every time now, as frankly it’s just easier and I realize I’m lucky to have this option because I can get out of my chair, which some can’t), or getting me on the chair lift as the one driver did. Fellow passengers have also generally been so helpful; when I get out of my chair and leave it folded outside, people sometimes realize what’s going on and offer to put it in the luggage hold for me, or someone in front of me will let the driver know. I’m getting to know quite a few of the drivers now as it’s the same crew on shifts and I guess I’m fairly distinctive as passengers go!
I know many of the drivers have not been happy about the change, and they do realize how hard it is for passengers with mobility issues. Unfortunately, they can’t really discuss it in depth with us passengers as they could lose their jobs. A few weeks ago, someone told me that there was going to be a meeting about the coaches because so many passengers had complained, but unfortunately it seems nothing has come of it. A few days ago, I read that the bosses aren’t worried about the concerns as they’re making more money on this service than ever… Lovely ableism there of dismissing the concerns of disabled people trying to access a bus to a hospital because they apparently have enough abled passengers paying for comfy seats!
I just feel very dismissed. It’s despicable that a bus company thinks it’s acceptable to have only two accessible seats on an intercity hospital link bus that only runs once an hour. It’s used a lot by pensioners as well. It’s utterly ridiculous to assume that only two people with mobility issues, visible or invisible, will need this bus at any one time. And frankly I don’t have many polite words for the company that thinks the concerns aren’t valid or worth acting upon because abled people without access issues are managing to use the bus… Unfortunately, I’ll have to deal with it each week in the foreseeable future and hope that greedy companies will start listening to our needs. It doesn’t alienate abled passengers to include access for disabled ones, but it certainly alienates us by restricting our access and not listening to our complaints. Life in an ableist world, eh?