Tuesday 24 April 2018

Comment: Taking the train is a lottery for wheelchair users and it's not good enough

Suzy Byrne is co-chairperson of a new disability rights organisation - Disabled People of Ireland
Suzy Byrne is co-chairperson of a new disability rights organisation - Disabled People of Ireland

Suzy Byrne

Recently after attending a disability event at the Aviva Stadium I went to the Lansdowne Road Dart station to take the Dart back into town. I need assistance to get on the train in my scooter as the platform is not level with the train door so a staff member is required to put a ramp down. 

There was no sign of any staff member at the station and I told the person who was walking to the station with me to get on the train and I would wait until someone appeared. She was embarrassed for me and I as usual tried to brush it off and said I would be grand. Thankfully the driver popped his head out the window and said he would put me on the train. 

We then began to look for the ramp.  Both the train and the traffic stopped at the level crossing were delayed for a few minutes and the signal centre had to be informed probably delaying other trains up and down the line.

I was lucky that I got on the train and there was someone there to take me off when I arrived in Connolly.  I can’t fault the staff who assist me when they are there - I’ve taken countless local and intercity journeys over the last 10 years where staff have provided me with excellent and friendly assistance ensuring my right to travel. 

Sadly their employers and the Government who fund the service and make the laws do not seem to be as eager to ensure the right of me and thousands of others to travel when we want to.

Train travel for wheelchair users and others who need assistance has been a lottery in recent years.  Stories about people who were forgotten about and left on trains are shared amongst friends and on social media.  For myself and many others taking public transport becomes a very stressful experience as one worries if someone will be there to take you off at your intended stop.

The requirement to give 24 hours notice at all stations means that people can’t decide to so something on the spur of the moment or even change their plans to take an earlier or later train home.  This prevents people with disabilities from taking up educational or work opportunities or having a social life.

Lifts and ramps installed in train stations are no use to us if there is nobody there when we want to take the train. No other passenger is being asked to give notice of their intention to travel - it’s not fair.

The National Disability Inclusion Strategy launched by Minister for State for Disability, Finian McGrath, announced earlier this year that there would be a pilot project for the DART for mobility impaired customers requiring assistance that would see the notice period reduced from 24 hours to 4 hours.

Recently Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, confirmed this project would go ahead. Most people travelling on the DART who require assistance have not had to give 24 hours notice as many stations had staff who could assist you.  Next year fewer stations will have staff there which means that more of us will have to give 4 hours notice before we travel.

There are to be roving staff members travelling between stations to help us rather than present at all stations.  And we will still be stressed by the worry that we will be forgotten about when we reach our destination. This is not an improvement by any means and the government and Irish Rail should not be allowed to tell us that it is.

Bus travel is extremely difficult also for those who want to use Bus Eireann to travel nationally. 48 hours notice is often required and that does not guarantee you an accessible bus or drivers trained in how to ensure your safety. Also many towns do not have accessible bus stops meaning people in wheelchairs cannot get on or off a bus - an issue for local authorities so Bus Eireann say it is nothing to do with them. 

While all Dublin Bus vehicles are accessible disabled people trying to use them often report difficulties when ramps are not working or parents with buggies refuse to fold them up to grant access to a wheelchair user.  Dublin Bus ran a campaign recently asking passengers ‘Not to Buggy’ in wheelchair spaces. Sadly wheelchair users frequently report a growing antipathy from fellow passengers in trying to access the bus.

Added to this a grant scheme for the most disabled - the Mobility Allowance - was scrapped for new entrants in 2013 and the government have dithered in introducing a successor.  For those who cannot use buses or trains or need to take a taxi to get to public transport they have no additional funds to help them pay for taxis or other accessible transport.  Many living in residential care settings have very little money available to pay for transport so they go nowhere at all. There is a cost to disability and no additional allowances to cover these costs. 

Equality legislation says that service providers have a public sector duty not to discriminate and also must make a reasonable accommodation to meet our needs. Having to give notice before your travel should not be seen as reasonable.  The government and the services they fund must do better in ensuring equality for all public transport users.

Suzy Byrne is co-chairperson of a new disability rights organisation - Disabled People of Ireland - www.dpoi.ie

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