The wheels on the bus

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I don’t want to alarm you, but your body is closing you down. Every day. Every minute. Right now, you are being betrayed by your own vessel in an act of deception so huge that even when you stare right at it, you see nothing. And it gets worse: You are helpless against it. It is totally and absolutely inevitable and will happen to you no matter what means you seek to protest it.

Those pilates you do on your lunch hour? Useless. That run you try to best every day? No good. The pine cone infused salad you go for over the burger? It won’t save you. Whatever you do, however you spin it, the body you are so fiercely protecting today will have no problem selling you down the river tomorrow – you will get older, and then after that you’ll get old.

Now that we’ve have established that the playing field we’re all on is well and truly level, let’s get to some specifics. I am older, rather than old. But, even at 28 (you’re right, I don’t look it, thanks) I do share at least one characteristic with 76-year-old Ray Bellisario, who came to unlikely prominence in the society pages of the Guardian last week. Like Mr Bellisario, I use a wheelchair to get around. Unlike Mr Bellisario, I don’t use public transport much and after hearing his story I feel (sadly) justified in that decision.

He has announced plans to bring legal action against bus companies in London after being told that he couldn’t travel, even though according to mayor Boris Johnson: “Every London bus is equipped to carry wheelchairs and all drivers are trained extensively in how to help passengers in wheelchairs.”

Being told once that I couldn’t travel on an accessible bus would anger me. Being told a few times would lead me into transit based therapy sessions. But being told 28 times – that’s one for every year of my life – is unfathomable to me, even after plenty of first hand experience of disability discrimination. And yet this is what happened to Ray, over a period of 18 months. That is staggering.

There has, of course, been the familiar trickle of stock responses – Boris Johnson has earmarked what happened to Mr Bellisario as “totally unacceptable” and has ordered Transport for London to investigate the incidents as a “matter of urgency”. Meanwhile, fresh from declaring Remploy nonviable – thus causing strike action and the looming prospect of unemployment for over 1,400 disabled people in 27 of its factories – Minister against for Disabled People, Maria Miller has rather hilariously suggested that a shift in attitude toward the disabled population may be the problem.

Over and above the tepid and transparent Westminster responses there is a far more startling reveal woven into Mr Bellisario’s account – the humane cost of deeply ingrained prejudice. Dangerous preconceptions are being fuelled by inaccurate data, skewed rhetoric and stories that favour ideological agenda over precise journalism.

The issue of the type of mobility vehicle suitable for travel on an accessible bus is a valid one – if it’s too big to fit, then it’s too big to fit. The glaring omission with that argument though is its inverted nature – surely we should be making sure the buses can accommodate the chairs, rather than excluding passengers because the chair (or scooter) is unsuitable for the bus.

The current standard set up features one designated space per bus, and it can be incredibly difficult getting somebody with a pushchair or sixty bags of shopping to vacate it, no matter how disarmingly simple the little sticker on the window makes it seem. Assuming the spot is free, you then have to manoeuvre into it, a process helpfully aided by those who engineered it; presumably deciding it just wasn’t awkward enough, they elected to place an immovable pole in the middle of the space, effectively cutting the amount of available room in half.

It follows too that bus drivers should be better trained – offering weak justifications such as “I daren’t take the risk” for not allowing a disabled person on a bus, or even worse, taking steps to physically prevent them from boarding, is beyond reproach. These experiences are becoming alarmingly commonplace and last month, over 100 disability activists protested outside Parliament, calling for appropriate penalties for bus and train companies when disabled passengers are subjected to failure and neglect.

With the Paralympics looming large, is “I don’t care about your f**king rights” – as Mr Bellisario was told by one fellow passenger – really the message we want to be sending out as the world’s spotlight shines on us?

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