Despite a judge’s recommendations that a bus company makes adjustments to prevent passengers in wheelchairs being unduly disadvantaged, disabled people could still find themselves unable to board, says Helen Dolphin.
Ever since I applied for my concessionary bus pass, I’ve become a bit of a fan of the bus. As long as the ramp is working and it’s not too busy, it’s a very enjoyable way of getting from A to B.
Being a wheelchair user, I am reliant on other passengers moving out of the wheelchair space to accommodate me and my chair. Fortunately, I have not yet experienced the situation faced by many wheelchair users where parents with buggies refuse to move so the wheelchair user is unable to board the bus. But knowing how important this issue is, I have been waiting with trepidation for the decision in the case against the bus company, Arriva North East, which recently took place at Teesside County Court.
In the case, disabled people challenged the bus company’s ‘first come, first served’ policy which it operates in relation to the allocation of wheelchair spaces on its buses. This policy had led to disabled people not being able to board because the driver had not insisted that parents with buggies move to create space for them.
The bus company argued that they were just following government regulations for Public Service Vehicles, which state that it may not be practical for the driver to clear the space if it is already full with baggage or a baby buggy.
But Chris Fry from Unity Law, who was conducting the campaigners’ legal case, argued that these regulations are completely different to the bus company’s corporate duty to make “reasonable adjustments” under the Equality Act 2010. Although the judge did concede that the regulations were different to the duty, he did not agree that the disabled people had suffered a substantial disadvantage or that the bus company had breached the Equality Act.
This judgement was very disappointing for the people bringing the case and also to other disabled bus users as there is still no clear guidance on who has priority in the disabled space. It seems that if someone is already in the space and refuses to move, then they cannot be made to move – even if a wheelchair user cannot board the bus. In some areas, you only need to wait 10 minutes for the next bus. But elsewhere, it can be an hour or it could be the last bus at night so a disabled person could find themselves stranded.
It wasn’t all bad news for the disabled claimants though because the judge did make some recommendations for improvements, including a ‘hotline’ for wheelchair users who want to use the service. The judge also said that Arriva should make ‘adjustments’ to ensure that wheelchair users were not ‘unduly disadvantaged’ when using its buses.
But Chris Fry said that the judgement doesn’t go far enough and that the claimants would be seeking an appeal.
Issues like these can be solved by having two spaces, one for wheelchairs and the other for buggies, and this design is becoming more common on new buses. But without proper guidelines, the wheelchair space could still end up with a buggy in it or the buggy space with baggage in it. So whatever the outcome of an appeal, there is still a need for regulations to ensure that the wheelchair space is kept free for wheelchairs.