Using London transport in a wheelchair is akin to buying a lottery ticket, great things are promised but you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen.
The chances of winning are fairly slim (13,983,816 to 1), yet you still buy a ticket, because five months ago, you won ten pounds. Despite the improbability, a little voice still whispers that this could be your day. Sadly, it turned out this particular train journey to Waterloo from Teddington wasn’t going to be a winner. It had all started so promisingly; at Teddington the guard happily put the ramp out, and even offered to wait around at Waterloo in case the station staff did not arrive to help me off. “I’ll call ahead,” he said, “but I’ll check everything’s in order when we arrive, because I know the system doesn’t work half the time”. It didn’t this time either. Nobody knew a thing about me when we arrived. Had the guard not been so willing, I would’ve been left shouting for help.
You see, as a wheelchair user you’re meant to book 24 hours in advance, for a specific train. I’m not really sure how this is to be expected of anyone, let alone a young 23-year-old journalist with commitments in central London. To make the situation even more ludicrous, many local stations, including Teddington, do not employ platform staff – so the guard would have to help me anyway. And then there’s the small fact the system doesn’t always work, as the outbound guard admitted.
There have been times both the guard and the station staff have failed to help me off, and because it isn’t the final stop, time runs out – leaving me stranded – traveling somewhere completely different. Thankfully, I’m able to use my voice, but what if my disability meant I couldn’t? Back to the night in question. I was in good spirits after spending the afternoon with some course mates from City University’s Newspaper Journalism MA. These feelings soon faded when, at Waterloo, my request for help to board was treated with utter disdain by the guard. “Have you booked assistance!?” he barked. “No” I explained, because I didn’t know what time I would be returning.
This was lost on the guard, and suddenly I became aware he wasn’t speaking to me, but to my carer. “He needs to book, you need to use the system”. In the end I had to resort to waving my arms (right in front of his face) to get his attention. I explained again that, in my considerable experience as a wheelchair user, the “system” failed me more often than not, and that in fact he would need to help me off at Teddington regardless, since there are no staff.
His response came with a flick of the hand: “put him on board now”. It’s been a long time since I was treated like cattle. Ten minutes into the journey, he returned, prodding his phone in front of my face and showing me how to book assistance online. Trying to remain calm I explained I knew what to do, but that it’s the process which fails. By now you’ll probably have recognised a pattern in our conversation. To cut things short, the discussion ended with the guard shouting that “people like me” hold the rail service up, and that I need to book a day in advance. I explained that like everyone else, my day is subject to change. “You need to change your attitude, use the system,” he replied.