The question of whether equality legislation works as it should was put into focus last week following a highly publicised incident involving the unavailability of a disabled toilet on a train.
The paralympian Anne Wafula-Strike was on a 3 hour CrossCountry service from Nuneaton to Stansted last month when she discovered that the disabled toilet was out of action. Train staff attempted to help by suggesting she got off the train at the next station, but there was no-one at the station to assist her. Left with no alternative, she said, “I just had to do it, I ended up wetting myself. My dignity was taken away. I was humiliated.”
Mrs Wafula-Strike, 47, of Harlow, is a Kenyan born wheelchair racer and a board member of UK Athletics: she has been awarded an MBE for services to disability sport.
She is now calling for train companies to be fined for failing in their duty to provide facilities for disabled people. Fellow disabled athletes, including the television presenter and wheelchair basketball player Ade Adepitan, have backed her call for change.
But just what are disabled people’s rights under the law?
The main piece of legislation that applies is the Equality Act 2010. When it was brought into effect it aimed to harmonise and extend existing equality and discrimination laws, and to provide legal protection from discrimination for disabled people, among others.
The Act applies to all service providers (e.g., train companies) in Britain. The companies are required to ensure that disabled customers are not put at a “substantial disadvantage” compared with people who are not disabled. This involves making what are termed “reasonable adjustments” where needed. It would include giving access to facilities like a disabled toilet – surely a basic human right – and providing additional staff support where required to help disabled customers to get on and off trains.
In their response to the incident involving Mrs Wafula-Strike, CrossCountry trains have blamed the lack of a working disabled toilet on problems that the Company could not have foreseen.
Andy Cooper, Managing Director, said, “Mrs Wafula-Strike’s train had a door defect which had been due to be fixed. We would not normally have pressed the train into service but in recent months two of our fleet of Class 170 trains have hit cows which have managed to stray onto the line. Both trains were so badly damaged that they have required major repairs and been out of service.”
So are CrossCountry trains still in breach of the law? The Company had made the “reasonable adjustments” required by providing a disabled toilet, but because this toilet was unusable – in Mrs Wafula-Strike’s words, it was “boarded up” – it had failed to provide access.
Indeed, problems with accessibility appear to be key. Chloe Timms, who has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic muscle-wasting condition, said, “Anne Wafula-Strike’s degrading train experience is a familiar scenario for those of us who need accessible toilets and either find none or that they don’t live up to the “accessible” name.”
So the issue may be more the lack of enforcement of the law. Ade Adepitan commented, “If there is no punishment and no fines nothing will change. The biggest problem is the people who are enforcing the rules who don’t do enough to enforce them.”
Commenting on Mrs Wafula-Strike’s call for companies to be fined, Sarah Evans, an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, said, “It would be interesting to see if the fines that Anne has proposed would encourage compliance among organisations…”
She added, “As practitioners we are aware that disability legislation doesn’t always work.”