“The Village People have really let themselves go!”

16/4/2015

Richmond – Waterloo – Brixton – St Pancras – Victoria – Clapham – Richmond

My trip today was reasonably smooth. It’s not that there weren’t minor issues, there were, but there were also minor triumphs. The thing that I take away from today however is a lesson in the challenges and bravery involved in hidden disabilities. The challenges and tribulations I face as a wheelchair user are physical ones, obstacles that can be overcome for the most part through changes to the physical environment or with the assistance of other people. My limitations are immediately obvious, well understood by society and accepted as valid almost universally but today I got an insight into the affect Autism can have on someone’s daily life, and how unaware society can be.

The first half of the journey went amazingly well. I nearly missed the first bus, but the driver waited and let me on. I arrived to catch the train with only two minutes to spare, but the Ramp Wrangler at Richmond actually ran down the platform carrying the ramp (no mean feat given the weight of the thing) which meant I caught the train. I was met promptly at Waterloo and although I missed the next bus the weather was good so standing in the sun waiting for the next one was no hardship.

Unusually I arrived at my meeting early which gave me a little time to mingle and prepare what I had to present. I even managed to make contact with someone from the Bus arm of TfL and I think I’ve managed to get hold of a copy of the Big Red Book.

After the meeting, on the topic of accessible public transport, I’d agreed to go on a flash-mob demo at St Pancras station. We wanted to highlight the requirement of booking 24 hours ahead on National Rail services. This of course meant getting from Brixton to St Pancras. For me this was relatively straightforward as both stations are step free. However, I travelled with a young woman with Autism for whom the journey was far from easy.

I obviously have a lot of experience in regards to the requirements of a wheelchair user, and have worked with enough partially sighted and hearing impaired folks to have some understanding of the impact the environment has on their daily experience, but I haven’t before seen for myself the effects Autism can have. Sure I’ve done the reading and had the conversations so I thought I had enough empathy to appreciate the effects it has. It’s true that as I watched her reactions to the various stimuli on the trip none of it came as a surprise, but the true impact definitely made an impression on me. The things that I consider normal and part of tube travel, the noises, entering the tunnels, the closeness of the tunnel walls, all had physiological effects verging on a panic attack. Each time the train stopped people left and entered meaning  the environment changed and caused more discomfort. Although her extreme discomfort was obvious to me, everyone else around us was oblivious, and by crowding her some were even making things worse. Even once we left the train her ordeal was not over. Walking through the tunnels not only meant she was again surrounded by people, noise and bright light, but the even, regular patterns of the tiles on the walls and floors were clearly extremely distressing. I came away from this trip humbled by the bravery that it takes some people every day to take journeys that I take for granted.

CCv4cxBWMAAGpymWe arrived at St Pancras along with a group of others from the meeting. We had a goal, a target. St Pancras has a few pianos scattered across the concourse and we intended to subvert one of them in our campaign to get rail companies to allow disabled people to travel without booking, or to turn-up-and-go. You can see our efforts here. We even attracted the attention of station security staff and the police, although this may have been due to the quality of the singing. The poor guys didn’t know what to do with disabled people singing!

After we were finished I headed off, again with my friend with autism, by bus to Victoria. This trip was much less fraught due in part to there being fewer people and it being overground, but it was still obviously very hard. Even though by this time it was after 7pm, it was also a long, slow journey. As is often the case with disability, travelling takes so much longer than if there are no restrictions on how you get from A to B.

At Victoria we parted and I headed off for a train to Clapham. As is so often the case needing assistance with a ramp meant I couldn’t get the first train, or even the second one. Unfortunately, although I got on the third train it only had 4 carriages so it rapidly got packed. This wouldn’t have been too much of an issue except for the overweight, pushy and unaware passenger who insisted on moving through the carriage repeatedly, pushing people out of his way and bashing me and my wheelchair as he did so.

Although I was now on the home stretch, the universe hadn’t yet finished with me. I got off the train at Clapham easily enough, but when I arrived at the platform for my connection there was no sign of any staff whatever. Even the hut that usually acts as a hide was deserted. Fortunately the guard on my train was kind enough to help me board and I have the number for Richmond so I was able to call ahead to arrange the assistance, which is of course against regulations.

As a final swansong, my final leg on the bus very nearly saw me taken to the depot. Although the ramp worked to allow me on the bus, when the time came to get off it simply wouldn’t deploy. As usual multiple attempts to put it out were interspersed by pulling the bus up a few feet to see if that reset the sensors. Unfortunately that meant that by the time the ramp did actually come out we had seriously overshot the bus stop and I found myself reversing off onto grass and into someone’s garden hedge. I don’t know what I’d have done if it didn’t work, but I fear one day I might find out.

Today was very long, but both educational and fun. Although things didn’t go as well as they should, it wasn’t anything I’ve not experienced before and no doubt will again. The one thing that will stay with me however is a new appreciation for the difficulties of travelling with a hidden disability and the importance of the support given every day by the staff right across the transport network.

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About Alan

I'm an Economist, Geek, Campaigner & wheelchair user who's been using all forms of public transport for 20+ years.
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