It’s 8.30am, and I emerge bleary eyed and frowsty from the plane
after an overnight flight into Gatwick from Florida. Being blind,
I’ve booked assistance and all I want is a simple, trouble-free
scoot through customs and baggage and into a waiting car. I reach
the bottom of the steps and there is a man waiting – with a
wheelchair! Well, not really a wheelchair, more like one of those
four or five-seater buggies designed to carry a consignment of
So what’s wrong with that I hear you ask? You’ve got your help! You
can be efficiently whisked through all those boring formalities
everyone else has to queue up to complete. Well, there is one very
big thing wrong with it and I don’t believe I’m being picky or
ungrateful in pointing it out.
My life of independence has been based on walking independently and
that is how I wish to leave the airport – not carried as part of a
job lot of disabled people. It feels as undignified for me to be
perched on top of a buggy as it does to many wheelchair users when
they are picked up like a sack of spuds and carried down a flight
If a building is inaccessible to a wheelchair user, that cannot be
put right in a moment. But for me all that’s required is for
someone with a pair of eyes to lend me an arm and convey me to my
desired destination quickly, efficiently and with my sense of self
intact. And yet, do you think we can get this idea through to the
airlines? It may seem ironic just at the moment, as Ryanair is told
that it must provide wheelchairs for those who need them, but
therein lies the point – it is for those who need them.
I have heard the airlines’ arguments: we’re short of staff and it’s
more efficient for our helpers to carry all of those with “special
needs” in one group. I would just ask one question: would they then
expect a 10-year-old child, say, who is in their care, to ride on a
buggy (he or she might like to but that’s another issue)? It is the
concept that we are part of a consignment, another load of baggage
to be conveyed through the airport, with as little trouble as
possible. That’s what sticks in my craw.
Paradoxically, it is my perception that this kind of thing has
happened more since the advent of anti-discrimination legislation
as companies attempt to carry out what they see as their legal
obligation. In the past what would have been far more likely is
that someone – a crew member or perhaps a passenger – would lend
you a friendly arm in a far more informal way. But now we have
become part of a procedure and we are expected to conform to
So what am I suggesting? Of course we need the legislation to
ensure that all forms of transport are built with certain
accessibility standards incorporated in them. But the part of this
that you cannot legislate for is the way in which transport staff
understand, or fail to understand, disability. And this is where it
is all still going wrong.
I think a far more intelligent attitude to customer care in general
is needed. We want an end to disability awareness training being
regarded as a rather inconvenient and eccentric little add-on
during which staff ride about in wheelchairs, wearing blindfolds
and with cotton wool stuffed in their ears. Instead it needs to be
a central part of customer care training. If staff were helped to
understand the complexity and individuality of disabled people it
might help them to understand the individuality and complexity of
the rest of their customers.
Much so-called customer care, whether of disabled people or not, is
based on shifting as many people about as quickly as possible.
Customers tend to be treated by staff like cattle who have had the
temerity to want to come and use MY plane or MY train.
One final thought. I’m not entirely convinced that it is disability
awareness training that people need as that is rather a bogus
specialism. What they need is training in treating people as
individuals all with needs of their own.
If we managed to get that right I suspect disabled people would
benefit, along with everyone else and all our “special needs” might
then be met.
Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs