Training people with learning difficulties to use public transport

For people with learning disabilities, using public transport presents particular challenges. But in the south London Borough of Merton, there is a service that helps them travel independently.

The initiative began when Jennifer Batchelor, a day opportunities navigator, identified that travel training would help people with learning disabilities at the centre where she works.

Joe McDonald, manager of the Jan Malinowski day centre for people with learning disabilities in Mitcham, says some of the adults were fearful of travelling on their own. “A lot of our service users were worried about accessing public transport. Some had used it independently and were bullied,” he says.

In November 2007, two travel trainers were appointed by the council and so far they have worked with 23 clients, either in groups of up to four or individually. The scheme now has a waiting list and last year a DVD of the trainers and an advice booklet were produced. These are available free in Merton and other London boroughs.

Increasing confidence

Batchelor says: “It’s about helping people use public transport so they can do what everybody else does. They can go out in the community and their self-esteem and confidence has increased.”

Tyba Mir, who received the training and travels with support, now feels more comfortable making journeys. “It’s great. I like going out and I like getting on the tram to Wimbledon,” she says.

The scheme is a mixture of learning in class and going on journeys where the travel trainers accompany clients. The trainers take the trainee through the stages of the journey, pointing out which buses, trains and trams to take, and providing them with photographs of landmarks on the route so they know when to change or alight.

Audrey Paton is a senior tutor at Merton College who works with adults with learning disabilities and has worked as a travel trainer on the scheme. She explains that, although Streatham ice rink in south London may be little more than a crumbling art deco building to most, it is places like this that help to jolt a trainee’s memory.

“As part of the preparation for the course, I did the journey and tried to look at it through the student’s eyes,” she says. “Things like waiting for the green man at a pedestrian crossing, which is difficult when most people don’t and cross anyway.”

Some trainees will always need a professional, parent or carer with them when they travel. Therefore, trainees are assessed before they go out with a trainer.

Initially, trainers accompany clients for their whole journey but this can taper off over time in line with a person’s ability. This involves trainers following closely behind or only going on part of their trip until they are ready to travel alone.

Paton says travelling in sight but just out of range can be difficult because the trainer may be tempted to step in and help, but it is essential that the client is left to work things out on their own. “They have to be able to do it consistently,” she says. “It’s no good teaching them the motions. They have to be confident in what they are doing.”

Stops for safety

The trainers will always take the trainees one stop further than where they need to alight so that, if they miss their stop when travelling on their own, they know how to return. The travellers also carry a card with the telephone number of a person close to them whom they should call if they encounter ­difficulties, and the name of a place of safety, such as a shop or a library, with which the scheme has made arrangements to help if necessary.

To overcome the fear of bullying, the trainers work with them to ensure they recognise the signs and know how to deal with it, such as not responding and speaking to the driver. Journeys are also planned outside school hours because schoolchildren are sometimes responsible for bullying people with learning disabilities.

So far, no service users have become lost. Paton emphasises that the trainees are only expected to make the journey they are trained for alone because travelling further afield could be dangerous.

“We wouldn’t say ‘right you can do this, find your way to London Bridge’. We have to be realistic,” she says.

Although it’s not an issue in Merton, many councils are cutting transport for people with learning disabilities, mainly because the numbers attending group activities have diminished as a result of more personalised services. In many cases the group uses public transport to fill the gap. As a result, the need to help them access it independently and safely is paramount.

• For a copy of the DVD e-mail:

This article appeared in the 12 February under the headline “Learning the way to journey’s end”

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