Tonight I witnessed a shockingly casual act of discrimination against a man in a wheelchair from an employee of Stagecoach Warwickshire.
I was heading home from the University of Warwick campus, where I’d been to watch some fantastic live music. I arrived at a bus stop absolutely crammed with students and the odd academic – many intending to head to Leamington Spa for an evening out, others heading home from the night.
This crowd caught the (slightly delayed) 22:50 bus – the last one due for an hour. Students pushed and shoved in order to ensure they wouldn’t be left standing in the cold wind and rain. This isn’t an unusual situation; the bus service is frequently abysmal during university term times. Passengers boarding at the Arts Centre bus stop can often expect to miss several buses due to overcrowding. This isn’t such a problem in the early evening when services are more frequent, but is unacceptable at a time of night when only one bus is running every hour.
One of the people waiting at the bus stop was a wheelchair user. A large number of individuals pushed in front of him, but eventually he found his way to the front of the queue – only to be turned away by a Stagecoach employee who was managing the flow of people onto the bus.
I witnessed the argument that took place as the man was turned away. The Stagecoach employee informed him quite firmly that he was not allowed on the bus. When pressed for an explanation, he stated that there was only one wheelchair space on the bus, and that this was already occupied by another wheelchair user.
The man and his friends pointed out that there was actually space for more than one wheelchair on the bus. They put several options to the Stagecoach employee. These included placing the second wheelchair alongside the first (upon later alighting the bus, I observed that there was clearly space for this), putting the wheelchair in the space normally reserved for pushchairs, or otherwise temporarily storing the chair whilst its owner moved to sit in one of the chairs set aside for disabled users.
The stagecoach employee rejected all of these suggestions. He insisted that this type of bus could only carry one wheelchair at a time, for insurance purposes. This was because the law requires that certain things should be present: e.g. a specific amount of space, a handrail etc. There was only enough of this for one wheelchair. The crux of his argument was that by taking the wheelchair user onto the bus, Stagecoach would be breaking the law, invalidating their insurance and endangering lives through overcrowding.
Eventually the wheelchair user and his friends left, quite understandably frustrated.
The Stagecoach employee then proceeded to let abled people onto the bus until it was completely rammed. The official limit for individuals standing (according to a nice big sign on the bus) was 17, in the case of no wheelchair and minimal baggage being present. I noted plenty of baggage, a wheelchair, 28 people standing and three people sitting on the stairs. The bus was quite clearly over capacity, and dangerously so.
The hypocrisy and ableism of the Stagecoach employee was utterly blatant. It was clearly more than his job’s worth to break a rule by asking some people to move around a little to allow a wheelchair onto the bus, potentially leaving a small number of abled individuals at the back of the queue unable to board. Instead he turned away a disabled man and his friends, choosing to break a whole load more rules by allowing abled individuals to cram on board.
There are also a couple of wider issues here. The first is that Stagecoach services between the University of Warwick and Leamington Spa are not fit for service.
It is not good enough that people at the main bus stop on a university campus are regularly left standing as already (over)full buses drive past.
It is not good enough to run one service an hour late at night when existing services do not have enough room for existing passengers (many of whom have bus passes, meaning that they have already paid for the service that is not being provided).
It is not good enough that Stagecoach buses have room for only one wheelchair, particularly given the above issues. If two people using a wheelchair happen to turn up to catch the same bus, then one of those people won’t be getting a bus. This is absolutely unacceptable.
The second issue is that legislation supposedly written to ensure that disabled individuals have fair access to public services is being used to actively discriminate against people. It takes a very special kind of ignorance and privilege to officiously cite equality laws when refusing someone a service on the grounds of physical difference. Of course, disabled activists have been writing about this kind of thing for years. But it’s about time more of us paid attention.