The Experience of Disabled People Using Transport in Northern Ireland
A Case Study Report
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Note: Throughout this document we have used the term 'disabled
people' to reflect the Commission's belief in the social
model of disability (ie that it is the barriers that society puts
in place, rather than simply the nature and severity of any
impairment, that truly dis-able people). However, we
appreciate that this might not be the preferred term of some
by Joan Harbison, Chief Commissioner
Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
The Equality Commission is committed to the principle of equality of opportunity for all in our society. Mobility is a major feature of our society and those who do not have access to transport are largely excluded from work and leisure opportunities. While the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) made discrimination unlawful in employment and access to goods, facilities and services, transport was exempt from these provisions. This exclusion continues to have a severe impact on the opportunities for disabled people to exercise the rights given by the DDA, and which are taken for granted by non-disabled people. There is little point in being protected from discrimination at work or in services if you cannot get to work or to the shops, etc because the necessary transport is inaccessible.
Disabled people contact the Commission in large numbers to express concerns about the manner or level of service that they receive - buses failing to stop, taxis charging extra, waiting long periods of time to board ferries, boarding of aircraft being discussed and debated by a number of employees on the tarmac in front of the person are common experiences. At present, to society’s shame, all of these are permitted under the law.
These case studies illustrate the major impact which the exclusion of transport from the DDA has on the day-to-day lives of disabled people in Northern Ireland. They also highlight how training, reviewing practices and implementing clear procedures can greatly improve the level and manner of service which disabled people receive.
The Commission would like to thank all those people who shared their experiences and have allowed us to publish them. These are
their own accounts, they are not judicial cases, and therefore have not been proven in court. They highlight the fact that we have a transport system, both public and private, from which disabled people are largely excluded; and when they are included it is generally at additional cost and great inconvenience to them.
The Commission hopes that these case studies - the people behind the statistics - will challenge our legislators to increase the rate at which this discrimination is being tackled and put an end to the transport exemption from the DDA. Until the Government honours its commitment given to disabled people through its response to the Disability Rights Task Force to remove the transport exemption, the Commission will continue to be prevented from carrying out its role in tackling discrimination in this important area.
And what better time to do this than in 2003 – the European Year
of People with Disabilities.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 gave rights to disabled people in the area of employment and services, but exempted important areas, such as transport and education. Disabled people have found the failure to include transport particularly frustrating as inaccessible transport – both public and private –
remains an important barrier to their full participation in society as citizens.
The requirements of the DDA are being introduced in stages. In October 2004, the final stage, governing physical access to buildings where services are provided to the public, will come into force. This will require barriers to access to be removed, altered, or avoided, thereby removing key obstacles to participation by disabled people. However, many disabled people are asking “What is the point in having accessible buildings, if I can’t get to them?”
The power to remove the transport exemption from the DDA remains with the Government. It accepted, in its response to recommendations made by the Disability Rights Task Force in 2001, that the exemption should be removed. Without legislation in this area, the Equality Commission cannot seek to tackle discrimination against disabled people by transport operators.
The Commission recognises that many improvements in practice have been made by some transport operators. However, whilst disabled people’s rights to equality in transport provision are not underpinned in law, such improvements will continue to be piecemeal and not implemented across the whole transport system.
In order to illustrate this point, and to encourage the development and dissemination of good practice, the Commission has collected a series of transport case studies from disabled people in Northern Ireland. The purpose of these is to go beyond the arguments, statistics and budgets that are often used in terms of transport and disabled people and to bring to the foreground the individuals who are confronted by significant barriers when they try to use the transport system.
However, it should be noted that the case studies were not gathered as part of a rigorous scientific study into the impact of transport on the lives of disabled people. The sample was self-selected and extremely small. The people are real, although their identities have been anonymised. Furthermore, the narratives are accounts of alleged incidents relayed by the participants, but they have not been proven in law.
The case studies outline the obstacles confronting individuals, often in one journey or on many occasions. These are individual stories chosen by the participants. They could have told many more. They were particularly good at following the adage, “To say all that should be said, not all that could be said”.
Legal and policy context
Surveys suggest that around one in five of the population of Northern Ireland has a disability – approximately 340,000 people.
Parts II and III of the DDA placed duties on employers and service providers respectively not to discriminate against disabled people by failing to make reasonable adjustments or treating them less favourably than others. Transport was exempt from Part III of the Act, which concerns access to goods, facilities and services. However, the DDA did place a duty on transport providers to make reasonable adjustments to timetables, booking facilities and services in rail and bus stations and at air and ferry ports. While transport is exempt, Part V of the act permits the Government to set standards of access for buses, coaches, trains and taxis, but so far little has been done. To date, minimum standards have been set for new bus and rail vehicles, and public hire taxis must accept assistance dogs.
In addition to campaigning for the removal of the transport exemption from the DDA, the Commission is lobbying Government to:
; Set an end date for refurbishment of existing railway carriages
to make them fully accessible.
; Monitor the effectiveness of legislation in respect of the
carriage of assistance dogs in public hire taxis and extend the
provisions to private hire taxis.
; Set standards for the accessibility of taxis.
; Put the Transport Advisory Committee, which advises on
disability access issues, on a statutory footing, so that relevant
Government Departments and major transport providers are
required to consult them prior to drawing up policies and plans
in respect of transport
; Extend concessionary fares to Northern Ireland for all disabled
; Remove the blanket ban on driving licences for people with
In reading these case studies, a number of themes emerge over and over again in different contexts. People understand the under-investment that there has been in our public transport system; that fully accessible boats, planes, trains, buses and taxis are expensive and require planned investment over time. However, disabled people neither understand nor accept the negative attitudes with which they are confronted: the failures in communication, the lack of awareness, the lack of training, the inadequacy of procedures. In short, disabled people do not understand why transport providers, and indeed society, accept levels of abysmal customer service - levels of service which would not be tolerated for other people. They do not understand why this degree of exclusion and discrimination is allowed to continue when many of the remedies are not expensive and are already available.
These case studies focus on the level and manner of service which disabled people receive when using the transport system in Northern Ireland. They do not deal with physical access, which can entail substantial investment. Nor do they focus on any one mode of transport, or on any one provider.
Time and again the people we spoke to said:
; “The drivers were OK, but the procedures weren’t there”
; “The people on the ground tried to be helpful, but the system
; “It’s the inconsistency of service - no matter how much I plan
from one journey to the next, I can’t be sure that it’s going to
There is encouragement in these case studies too. Evidence, albeit anecdotal, that effective solutions are available and that good practice is recognised and praised by disabled passengers. This recognition takes the form of continued custom and the best advertisement of all – recommendation by 'word of mouth'.
Even within the limitations of the physical designs, which we have at present, the elements that improve service are clear:
; Effective staff training
; Clear procedures
; Clear information
; Reliability, or at least an explanation when things go wrong.
All of which are basic elements in good customer service.
It is the hope of the Commission that these case studies will challenge everyone who reads them. In many ways they are for those members of the public who do not have to rely on public transport, or who have a choice. It is important that we all work together for the rights of everyone in our society. If the transport networks do not exclude you, ask yourself a few questions:
; “Would I put up with this level of inconvenience?”
; “Was I aware that my neighbours and other citizens in
Northern Ireland have to put up with this inconvenience
; “Is this situation acceptable?”
; “Do I want a Northern Ireland where every person has access
; “Is this part of the reason that disabled people are excluded
from work and leisure and other everyday activities?
The Commission would like to thank the individuals who gave up their time to take part in these case studies and for their permission to publish them. We agree with them that a fully accessible transport system would mean a better experience of travelling for everyone, and lead to a more inclusive society.
Paul has Motor Neurone disease.
“My local station is fine and the staff are brilliant. Even if I take the train to one station and then want to make another journey the staff there are brilliant. They offer help and help me on to the other train or wherever I am going on to.
“I find that the general public are becoming more helpful too, more
willing to offer assistance. Now that we have some accessible transport, there are more people with disabilities out and about, and the general public are meeting and seeing more disabled people and so are becoming more comfortable in offering assistance.
“Our scheme (the Omnibus Project) is successful, because we have someone who lobbies for us, but every town in Northern Ireland doesn’t have such a person. It really takes someone to say, “I have had enough, I’m not accepting it anymore.”
“All the plans, all the words, I am fed up with it, we go to meetings we say our piece and then we get this back [he waves a report in the air]. They are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds consulting people, but there is no real evidence to suggest, “It will
happen”. No instead it’s, “When we get funds it will happen.”
“All I get are minutes of meetings; it’s very frustrating.
“Things have to change, the talking has to stop, we need it done now!”
“Things have to change, the talking has to stop, we
need it done now!”