In the face of these barriers, there are minimum standards that people with a learning disability should expect. The Equality Act says that transport providers must make reasonable adjustments, to ensure their services are accessible.
If the lift isn’t working at a train station, and there isn’t an equivalent and suitable bus, the staff should provide a taxi to take them to the nearest step-free station. Everyone has the right to appropriate information about transport, including accessible timetables. And councils across England must offer older and disabled people a bus pass for free, off-peak bus travel (there are similar schemes in other UK countries). If people with a learning disability are not receiving any of these things, they should seek advice (see below).
Thankfully, in some areas, what’s available goes beyond the minimum standards. There are efficient community transport schemes. There are Changing Places toilets, suitable for use by people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, at some stations, including Sutton railway station and Swansea bus station. And there is good accessible information available – such as Southern’s tips on rail travel – although much of it is only available online. There are also organisations that send mystery shoppers onto public transport to gather evidence on standards of accessible transport.
Standards do, however, vary greatly depending on where you live. “In London, we’re very lucky that most people are a short walk from a bus stop,” says Lianna Etkind, campaigns coordinator at Transport for All, which campaigns for accessible transport in London. Preparation for the 2012 Olympics also includes plans to make London more accessible.
In London, buses have audiovisual displays, 62 tube stations are step free and there are specialist transport services. Dial-a-ride is free transport for disabled people who can’t use buses, trains or the tube, but it can only be used for recreational trips, while Taxicard offers subsidised taxi travel, for any journey, to those with mobility impairments. There are equivalents in some other areas, but services have suffered after cuts.
Transport for London is just one of a number of organisations across the UK that provide a travel mentoring service, “so disabled people who lack the confidence to use public transport have someone to accompany them on a route and get used to making that journey independently,” explains Lianna. “It would be fantastic if every council was offering a travel mentoring scheme.”
All local councils must offer free bus travel between 9.30am and 11pm. But some extend that time period and some also offer concessionary bus fares for supporters – although cuts have jeopardised some discretionary concessions. In London, the Freedom Pass gives older and disabled Londoners free travel on almost all public transport – at any time on buses and tubes.
More widespread concessions are available if you spend money. Disabled people can get a third off UK coach travel with National Express, if they buy a discount card. Similarly, purchasing the Disabled Persons Railcard entitles eligible people to a third off most train travel across Britain. As with other concessions, including Taxicard, the eligibility criteria for the Disabled Persons Railcard is based on the receipt of benefits. While the recent decision on DLA is positive, how eligibility for concessions will be affected by the new Personal Independence Payment, which will replace it, remains to be seen.
There are definitely improvements to be made. “By law, transport providers have to make reasonable adjustments,” explains Lianna. “It’s about closing the gap between law and lived reality.”
Transport for All also believes that independent bodies can hold the government to account. It would like every council to have a regular mobility forum and the recently abolished Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee to be reinstated.
Mencap recommends disability awareness training for all transport staff but, as Clare Lucas says, “the problem is, as with any form of training, you need to be open to it for it to have any impact”.
But if there’s one reason to be more accessible, it might be this: “The annual cost of excluding disabled people from public transport could be as high as £1 billion,” says Lianna Etkind. “Primarily, it’s a moral argument – everyone should have the right to use public transport. But there is an economic argument – that disabled people are able to get to work or their local high street – that’s a win for all.”
For information on accessible transport, call the Learning Disability Helpline on 0808 808 1111
Find out more about rights relating to transport on the Directgov website