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Research reveals public transport failing disabled

The clue really should be in the name. Public transport, that means transport for the public right? Not transport for some of the public, but transport for all of the public.

The reality, though, is that when it comes to buses, trains, trams and planes, too often disabled people are left behind at the stop, platform or departure gate – if they’ve been lucky enough to get that far!

A new report by Whizz-Kidz (PDF), the disabled children’s charity, has revealed just how life-limiting the failure to provide accessible transport can be. As part of its Get On Board campaign the charity surveyed young wheelchair users and carers in order to get both quantitative and qualitative evidence into how public transport is serving – or not serving – disabled people.

The findings make for grim reading. Whilst on the one hand we have government initiatives like direct payments being introduced to support independent living, on the other we have 77% of Whizz-Kidz respondents reporting that “they experience problems while travelling which mean they can’t travel as independently as they would like to.” That is disgraceful.

Drill into the numbers and a picture emerges of a transport infrastructure which systematically fails disabled users. On the buses, where relatively recent innovations such as low floors step-free entries have been welcomed, users reported that more than half of bus drivers did not give them enough time to secure their wheelchair before the vehicle carried on its merry way. The legally enshrined edict that bus and coach drivers “must give reasonable assistance to disabled people” is thus interpreted in this scenario with minimal practical concern.

Buses were not hailed by disabled users.

Of course to reach that scenario, you need be able to get on a bus in the first place: sadly 42% of those surveyed said that the buses in their locality were not suitable for wheelchairs.


The train also fails to take the strain, despite the assistance programmes promoted by rail operators. Shockingly nearly half of respondents said that even when they’d arranged for assistance when booking, it was not always available come the journey. Perhaps this explains another shameful finding; that 40% of disabled people are unable to board the first available – and presumably intended – train.

The fragmentation of rail service provision also doesn’t seem to help. As one user put it: “I’m sick and tired of the blame game, I don’t care whose fault it is the ramp hasn’t come. I just want to get off the train!


When taking to the skies then, to be fair, the picture looks a little brighter. Most were not denied the opportunity to book the best priced flights and most, 57%, said they did not have any difficulty booking their wheelchair for travel.

However, it’s not all plane sailing, as it were, with three-quarters of disabled air passengers having raised concerns that their wheelchairs would be damaged during their journey. It’s a point Paralympian and Whizz-Kidz patron Hannah Cockroft MBE herself raises in the Get On Board report’s introduction, saying: “….if I have to fly I’m often concerned that my chair may be damaged when it is stowed way on the aircraft!”. On this particular issue perhaps our specially designed travel insurance policy might at least soften anxieties, including as it does cover for the  accidental damage to or theft of wheelchairs and mobility equipment.

Aisle wheelchairs may be hard to find.

Then there’s the iniquities in-flight, with 71% reporting they could not use toilets whilst in the air and 62% finding aisle wheelchairs were not provided by the airline, rendering them immobile for the duration of the flight.

Nearly half also said they were not confident they would be afforded proper dignity and be handled safely when being transferred to their seat.

And automobiles.

Given the depressing picture portrayed above it’s perhaps not surprising that in a 2002 MORI poll being driven in a car proved to be the most used form of transport for disabled people. This finding echoes Whizz-Kidz’ 2015 research, with 54% of those questioned saying they are driven daily by a parent or carer. Just 14% drove independently on a daily basis. Here again, we might help assuage concerns over, say, damage to wheelchairs in transit or protecting expensive vehicle adaptations through our specialist car insurance for disabled people and Blue Badge holders.

It is also perhaps equally unsurprising that taxis performed much better in the survey, with 70% saying they were a convenient way to travel and over three-quarters confident taxis will accommodate their wheelchair needs. Taxis are, of course, a more personalised form of public transport and that may well be a factor in their high scoring, but they are also much more expensive. Achieving independence through accessible transport comes only at price.

What next?

That we, as a nation, can provide accessible and relatively affordable public transport should surely not be in doubt. Where there’s the will, the money and, if we’re being honest, the scrutiny, then it can be done. We know this from London 2012. As Hannah Cockroft ruefully notes:

“During the 2012 Paralympic Games, access and travel for wheelchair users was suddenly greatly improved and I had so many messages from people saying they could get to the stadium and venues on their own, there was easy access via transport and they felt confident getting out and about. Sadly though this improvement didn’t last and reading about some of the experiences used in this [Whizz-Kidz] report, it feels like things have gone backwards in places!”

We suspect that through your own experiences many of you find yourself agreeing with Hannah’s rather depressing summation – and the implication that the authorities and many transport providers pay but lip service to the needs of disabled travellers.

So, here in the 21st century, “public transport” is more of a phrase than an actuality, our networks failing woefully to effectively transport some 11.5 million disabled people in the UK. It’s time that changed.

  • Have you suffered a public transport nightmare? Why not share your experiences with The Hub community?
  • To read the full findings and recommendations of the Get On Board report and learn how to join the Whizz-Kidz campaign, click here.

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