In 2012 a wheelchair user was prevented from boarding a bus in Leeds because the designated wheelchair space was taken by a mother who refused to move for fear of waking her sleeping baby.
When the woman refused to move the wheelchair user was given no other option but to wait for the next bus.
Unfortunately the next bus didn’t arrive for an hour and ended up taking him to the wrong side of the city. Sadly this proved to be the last straw and as a result of the incident, he lost all his confidence and didn’t take another bus for several months.
The question is did he have more of a right to the wheelchair space than a mother who was afraid to wake her sleeping child?
The law says wheelchair users do have more of a right as disabled people are a ‘protected group’ under the Equality Act 2010.
This means they have a legal right to protection from discrimination and access to facilities such as public transport. The same protection is not given to parents travelling with pushchairs, simply because they have the option of folding their pushchair away and sitting with their child on their lap.
At the time of the incident First Bus (the bus company involved) had a ‘first come, first served’ policy, which meant that although the driver could ask the woman to move, he could not force her, relying instead on the goodwill of passengers to give up their space should a wheelchair user need it.
The man in question was so upset by his ordeal that he launched and eventually won an 18-month legal battle against First Bus. In September last year a judge at Leeds County Court ruled that the firm's policy of ‘requesting but not requiring’ non-disabled travellers to move was unlawful discrimination, in breach of the Equality Act 2010.
The judge ruled that the man had been put at a ‘substantial disadvantage’. However, if the next bus had arrived more quickly then there is a real chance he would have lost his case as he would not have been at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ to other travellers. It was the inconvenience of having to wait for the next bus, on top of the obvious stress and frustration incurred, that led to the judge's decision.
First Bus has since appealed the decision, and the precedent setting case has now reached the Court of Appeal. The company are arguing that by providing the bays, they made reasonable adjustment to allow wheelchair users access to their buses, and that it was not a requirement for the driver to move the mother.
First Bus want legal clarity on whether this should be a driver's role. Should they lose the case, the result would mean drivers are legally obliged to move non-disabled people from bays if the space is needed by a wheelchair user. The same rule would then stretch to all bus companies as well as trains across England and Wales.
The issue here should really be about equality of access for everyone. Being a wheelchair user myself having suffered a spinal injury as a teenager, it is incredibly important simply knowing I have the ability to travel with the same freedom and choice as everyone else.
Bus travel as we all know isn’t always as pleasurable as we would like and I can understand how stressful it can often be for parents having to manoeuvre non-collapsible pushchairs laden with kids and shopping onto crowded buses and trains.
However, these bays were designated as wheelchair spaces. They were introduced as a result of Disabled People's Direct Action Network's (DAN) ‘We Will Ride’ campaign, which saw disabled activists chain themselves to inaccessible buses and trains in the 1990s. Put simply, if there is no available space, wheelchair users cannot travel.
I believe the onus should be on bus companies to provide suitable transport for all. If First Bus lose their appeal it will be a landmark decision for disability rights.
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