Like any abled-bodied person with their head in the sand, I thought all wheelchair users problems were solved when I saw that more and more London tube stations are becoming step-free from street to train or from street to platform. Obviously, not all the issues, but certainly a step in the right direction. Seeing the new symbology on the map is just about as much thought as I put into the issue… until recently.

My mom is a wheelchair user and accessibility at home has never been a big issue as we drive everywhere, her chair is manual (meaning the driver can push, lift and wiggle the chair into tight spaces as needed) and the U.S. infrastructure is a lot more recent than in the U.K., especially in Arizona.

I accompanied an electric wheelchair user to a concert in London, taking public transport from Brighton. Here’s how it all went down:

As you may know, I’m a healthcare assistant. Basically, I go to clients’ houses and help them with whatever they require, which could range from administering medication, getting ready for the day, making meals, etc. One of my clients, let’s call them Jordan (a nice, gender neutral pseudonym as to not breach any privacy concerns), had tickets to a Foo Fighters concert, but their friend/ companion could no longer make it and was struggling to find someone to go with them. I half-jokingly said I’d go with them and their eyes lit up. I was only half-joking because I wasn’t sure if my company would let me. I’ve never done anything like that before and my company is quite thorough in my responsibilities and boundaries; nothing like this has ever even come up. After I voiced my concerns to Jordan, I said I might not be able to go, but someone else from out company might, but they insisted I go as they thought I’d have the most fun. I was flattered and my company was surprisingly okay with it. After a few e-mails exchanged about minute details, we were on our way the following afternoon.

Jordan and I set off from their house in Brighton headed towards the Brighton train station. As they sometimes have limited fine motor skills, I walked alongside steering the electric wheelchair, walking us to the bus stop. Luckily, a bus came quickly that took us directly to the station. The bus can lower itself quite a bit to match the level of the curb for those with limited mobility. Furthermore, it has an “ironing board”: basically a fold out ramp, that takes seconds to engage. The bus was actually the most pleasant experience of the journey. The driver was friendly and really took initiative making sure Jordan was settled before taking off.

Then, we took a Thameslink train from Brighton to London Bridge. Getting a ramp at Brighton station was easy as we made our needs know to rail officers as we went through the barricade, but once we arrived at London Bridge, there was nobody waiting for us with a ramp as they should have been. It took several minutes to get someone’s attention to put a ramp in. All in all, not the worst thing that happened all day.

Then… the tube. The Jubilee line going east was meant to be step free from street to train at our stops: London Bridge to Stratford. First of all, the elevator was a battle to find, there were absolutely no sign postings. I’m glad Jordan had a rough idea where it was because I hadn’t the foggiest. Then once we got to the platform, it was certainly not step-free from platform onto the train. This is a rough design of Jordan’s chair. As you can see, the larger middle wheels are the power wheels and the smaller front and back four wheels provide the steering. There was about a 6-inch horizontal gap and about a 4-inch vertical gap between the platform and the train, which may not seem like a lot, but with such small wheels, we were both afraid they would get stuck and cause delays. After examining different carriages on the passing trains, we realized there was no easy point to board and went to the call point. I requested a ramp on our platform, to which their reply was, “You don’t need a ramp, it’s step free.” You know what, you’re right, thanks for that! (Sarcasm doesn’t really come through in text, does it?) Anyway, after insisting for several minutes that we couldn’t board the train, we got a ramp on the platform. Right before we boarded the train, I made sure to tell the rail officer to relay the message that a ramp was needed on the other end at Stratford.

Once we got to Stratford, surprise, there was no ramp waiting. I shouted for a rail officer and it took them ages again to find a ramp as they didn’t have one handy at this “step-free” station. Even though Stratford is at the end of the line, people were boarding the train to go back the way we came, and since we were still stranded on the train without a ramp, everyone had to de-board for another train leaving earlier. I could see the embarrassment in Jordan’s face. They shouldn’t have had to go through this. I made it exceedingly clear that we needed a ramp again at 2030 after the show, but I wasn’t optimistic in their service at this point.

At least our experience at the venue was really pleasant. We ran into no trouble and enjoyed the show! An accessible shuttle took us from the train station to the venue (London Stadium) that had plenty of lifts, accessible toilets and seating. Jordan seemed pleased.

We left the venue to get back to the tube station at about 2045 with, surprise, no ramp. We were again told that we “don’t need one because the station is step-free”. Jordan’s chair is not manual in anyway and even it if were, it would take a Hulk to haul their 200-kg train on board. I insisted we need a ramp and after 15 minutes, there was still no ramp. Jordan decided to take their chances with the gap and with the help of about four men, we were able to board the tube. Back at London Bridge, the gap was quite small, so Jordan was able to make the jump. It was a bumpy ride and Jordan shouldn’t have had to compromise their comfort for the convenience of everyone else when this station should have been accessible in the first place, but they were so fed up at this point, they just wanted to go home.

Little did we know, our problems were far from over. The direct train to Brighton was cancelled, but we were hoping to hop on one of the several other trains south and change at East Croydon to catch a different train to Brighton coming from London Victoria or St. Pancras. Again, it took about 10 minutes to find staff to help us with a ramp to board the train. Then, our train got cancelled. It took another 10 minutes to find staff to get a ramp. Then, the train got reinstated, so it took another 10 minutes to get a ramp. At East Croydon, there was staff readily available on the platforms, so the train transfer was smooth and upon our arrival to Brighton there was somebody waiting at our carriage door with a ramp in hand: how every leg of the journey should have been.

About 20 minutes away from Brighton, I booked an accessible taxi for 140, saying both “one-forty” and “twenty to two” on the phone. We arrived right on time, but our driver got impatient during the 3-minute walk from the train to the taxi rink and left without us. We had to wait another 20 minutes for an accessible taxi. Once Jordan was in, the rear door couldn’t close: an extension on the chair that could not be easily removed was obstructing the door. After shifting around the chair in the taxi, we were finally able to get it to close, but Jordan’s feet were quite squished. Again, even in something that’s supposed to be wheelchair-friendly, Jordan finds themselves compromising comfort thanks to inflexible accommodation.

Finally, we were home and I helped Jordan into bed. Although the hurdles public transit kept throwing at us, they insisted they had a really good time at the concert and it was well worth it. I’m glad I could accompany them and I’m even more glad I kept my cool (well, at least on the outside).

Now, the final evaluation:

  • The buses in Brighton are quite wheelchair-friendly from our experience. The ability to lower the bus and engage the ramp quickly makes boarding a breeze and there was sufficient space on the bus for Jordan’s large chair.
  • National Rail infrastructure is wheelchair-friendly enough, with plenty of space for a large chair and seats for a companion, but lack the platform staff to back it up.
  • The tube was by far the worst part of our day. “Step free” stations were not step free and the staff were rude, if they were about at all.
  • Taxis seem to be wheelchair-friendly enough, just make sure you know what kind of taxi is required for the specific kind of chair being used (i.e. I should have requested a bigger taxi) and call ahead of time.

My three biggest takeaways from this experience are:

  • Don’t tell wheelchair users what they do/ don’t need. Every wheelchair and every user’s capability is different.
  • Talk to the wheelchair user, not the companion. Although Jordan is quite soft spoken, they’re more than able to speak for himself if the staff had an iota of patience or respect. While some wheelchair users are happy to let their companion speak with/ for them, don’t assume this is so.
  • And finally, we have a long way to go before the world is accessible to all. Try to take notice of the little things next time you’re out somewhere that claims to be accessible. I’m proud of Jordan for going out and demanding to be seen and accommodated to even though it can be hard.

Photo by Josh Wilburne.