Disabled people are having trouble with transport. First there
was Bert Massie, chairperson of the Disability Rights Commission,
who was barred from a flight to Edinburgh (ironically, to speak at
the Association of Directors of Social Services conference) because
his disabilities were regarded as “a safety risk”.
More recently, there was Bob Ross, who was charged £18 to be
taken in a wheelchair through Stansted Airport to catch a £10
flight to the south of France. Also, a group of 11 deaf people were
thrown off a plane at the start of this year because the pilot
thought they ought to have carers with them to ensure they
understood the instructions in an emergency.
Meanwhile 13 people with learning difficulties travelling together
were told to get off their flight because there were only five care
staff with them.
Such discrimination does not only apply to air travel. Two sisters,
one blind and the other using a wheelchair, were stranded in a
motorway service station when the driver of their coach told them
to get off, having already refused to help them or carry their
luggage on board.
In several of these cases legal action has been, or is being,
taken. The most notable case was that of Ross, who has cerebral
palsy and arthritis. Although his action was successful, the
airline is now going to the Court of Appeal and, in the interim, is
levying a “wheelchair charge” of 50 pence on every ticket
But bizarrely, although one of the Disability Rights Commission’s
tasks is to help disabled people challenge discrimination in the
courts, there is little that can be done under the Disability
Discrimination Act 1995 when transport companies are blatantly
This is because the act does not give disabled people the right to
use a means of transport. Although they are protected from
discrimination at transport termini, such as airports and bus
stations, the minute a disabled person boards a bus, train or plane
they have no rights and, in most cases, can be refused carriage.
This anomaly has meant that, while accessible buses have been
plying many routes for years, their drivers can refuse to allow a
disabled person to board without fear of action under disability
People get very exercised about access issues, says Paul May,
campaigns officer for disability charity Scope, when many of the
problems disabled people have with transport are not about access
in itself. He says: “Being physically unable to get on to a vehicle
is an access issue. Being actively prevented from getting on, or
asked to leave once you’re there, is discrimination. Only about 8
per cent of the 8.5 million disabled people in the UK today use a
wheelchair, so for many disabled people the main problem with
transport is discrimination. At present it is not unlawful for
transport companies to discriminate against disabled people – and
that is unacceptable.”
In December, the government published a draft disability bill that
will amend sections of the original legislation. The Department for
Work and Pensions claimed it would tighten many of original act’s
deficiencies and exemptions, including the transport anomaly.
But the draft bill does not introduce the “right to use” a vehicle
in itself, nor does it set out specific forms of transport that
will come under the act’s jurisdiction.
Caroline Ellis, parliamentary affairs manager at the Disability
Rights Commission, says the draft bill removes the blanket
exclusion which the original act gave to many public transport
vehicles. The exclusion itself still applies and will continue to
do so. The draft bill does allow the government to lift exemptions
(at some unspecified point in the future) on individual forms of
But Ellis points out: “The rights not to be treated less
favourably, to reasonable adjustments to policies, practices and
procedures, to auxiliary aids and services, and to an alternative
service can all be applied to transport services by
Ellis acknowledges that “it’s a rather more complicated way of
going about it than we would have taken”, but she says that the
commission believes “this is an acceptable way forward if the
government gives a clear timetable for implementation”. Other
observers say the draft bill is a small step forward but believe it
has left transport providers with a get-out clause at the expense
of disabled people.
Andy Rickell, chief executive of pressure group the British Council
of Disabled People, believes the government is caving in to
pressure from the powerful transport lobby, and argues that there
is a danger that the people who have fought so hard for improved
transport will be dead by the time their efforts pay off.
Disability charity Leonard Cheshire has launched a campaign, All
Aboard, which points out that disabled people could be able to
travel to Mars in 2035 but – if one of the options the government
is looking at goes ahead – will not necessarily be able to board a
train in their local station.
And while many of the high-profile transport problems experienced
by disabled people relate to air travel, aviation and shipping are
likely to be the last forms of transport dealt with. This is partly
because they are both subject to a voluntary code of practice in
relation to disabled passengers. These codes are now under review:
the shipping review should be completed by the end of this year,
and a review of the aviation code should be completed by the middle
of next year. Ellis believes that, as long as disabled people are
part of the reviews, the number of incidents of discrimination will
give the government little option but to introduce new legislation
governing these two sectors.
In the meantime, the draft bill will be subject to a parliamentary
scrutiny committee, which is expected to have completed its review
by Easter. The advantage of pre-legislative scrutiny is that
interested parties can submit written evidence to the committee.
But the bill would have a narrow time window – within which it
could make it on to the statute books. Unless it receives royal
assent during this parliament, the likelihood of a general election
next year would cause further delay – and could see the whole thing
shelved indefinitely. This is not something disability groups are
happy about particularly since the government is consulting on a
date for exemptions to be lifted.
Draft bill’s proposals
- Extends the definition of disability to include multiple
sclerosis, HIV and cancer from the point of diagnosis.
- Clarifies that the current exemption for transport services
extends to vehicles only and creates a power to enable that
exemption to be lifted for different vehicles at different
- Give the public sector a duty to promote disability equality on
to the public sector (similar to the duty to promote race
equality). This could mean that local authorities might be expected
to support disabled people in pursuing cases against providers of
goods and services who have not taken reasonable steps to make
those goods and services accessible.
- Landlords and managers of premises will have to make reasonable
adjustments to enable disabled people to rent property.
- Private clubs with more than 25 members, including golf clubs
and political parties, will be covered by the act.
- Local authorities will have to make provisions for disabled