Now everyone feels entitled to a priority seat

In an ideal world, everyone could use public transport. As a deafblind person, I really welcome the Government initiative to make this a reality.

Raised kerbs, low steps and staff understanding the needs of passengers is essential. But over the years I’ve noticed an increasing number of people being rude. Accessibility depends as much on people’s attitudes, and they really need to change for a truly accessible transport system to be a reality.

Helen Small Helen Lessels

On holiday I experienced better manners

My husband, our two teenage daughters and I recently enjoyed a holiday in Italy where we made frequent use of the local buses. As I clung to my husband’s arm and my long cane while negotiating the foot-high (at least!) step, on and off the local buses, I felt profoundly grateful for the near absence of steps on the buses back in Britain.

I was pleased to see Italian buses had priority seats similar to those on our buses – ‘no difference there then’, I thought. But there was one big difference that I noticed in Italy. Not once did I have a problem securing a priority seat. My family noticed that as we boarded each bus, at least one person, sometimes more, vacated a priority seat for me. This confirmed my suspicion that something is disappearing amongst bus-users in Britain. Common Courtesy.

Where have all the manners gone on public transport?

Feet of a older person sitting on a bus

I am fortunate to live in an area boasting Easy Access buses. Would-be passengers know they’ll be able to board their bus via a low or non-existent step, or by a ramp positioned by the driver. They will be able to settle down in a priority-seating area near the door.

There will be space for wheelchairs, pushchairs, shopping trolleys and extra-large suitcases. People with walking sticks, long canes, dogs (assistance or otherwise) or lots of shopping bags are confident of finding a seat to accommodate them. Anyone with low mobility due to age, broken legs or fatigue from a long day’s work knows they can reach a seat without a struggle. But wait a minute! Shopping trolleys? Tired commuters? Isn’t Easy Access’ designed for disabled people, senior citizens and people with children?

In the early days of Easy Access buses, people still remembered the old-style buses and the new ones highlighted the fact that there were people now using the buses who had previously found it difficult or impossible to do so. The priority seats were always made available for those for whom no other option was viable. Everyone applauded this leap forward in accessible transport.

Then the novelty wore off. Easy Access buses were taken for granted. People became used to being able to take more shopping – more anything – on buses. Attitudes shifted from ‘you need this seat’ to ‘I need this seat too’. People became increasingly disinclined to help others make use of the accessible seats. In short, ‘accessibility for all’ spawned a culture of bad manners.

Easy Access buses had an unintended consequence – now everyone feels entitled

A bus with disabled access sign

Years ago, as a partially-sighted, deaf twenty-something (lipreader and hearing aid user with speech), I used my local buses without much difficulty. The buses then were boarded via two or more steps and a handrail split the doorway in two. Remember them?

As a married thirty-something with our first child in a pram, it was impossible to use the buses, so I only went to places I could get to on foot. Once we progressed to a pushchair, I used the buses again. I would wait at bus stops, holding my daughter and the folded pushchair. I carried shopping and everything I needed (A LOT) in a rucksack. I would clutch my bus pass in any two fingers that were available. I had quickly realised that handling change for bus fares was problematic. Often people helped me on and off the buses and sometimes someone would offer me a front seat.

When the odd Easy Access buses started to appear, life became easier. Sometimes. I didn’t know if my anticipated bus would be a new one. If I didn’t fold my pushchair and the bus was not Easy Access, I suffered a high-pressure few minutes in full view of driver and passengers getting myself into a mess. If it was Easy Access, the available space would often be filled with other pushchairs. In my area, pushchair users were the first to enthusiastically embrace Easy Access. Sometimes the driver would intervene and yell for pushchairs to be folded or refuse to let one on but generally and probably quite sensibly he left us to it. There would be a good-natured debate about who should fold their pushchair with polite offers of ‘I’ll fold mine’ and polite rejoinders, ‘no need I’ll fold mine’.

When our second child took her turn in the pram, I only went as far as the eldest, now two, could be cajoled to walk. When pushchair succeeded the pram I travelled on the buses once more. Nothing much had changed except the obvious increased difficulties of having two small children to watch.

As time went on, Easy Access buses became more common and folding pushchairs became a little less automatic, partly because more people had shopping bags suspended from the handles. To me, it seemed like people became a little more reluctant to cooperate.

And then I lost most of my sight. I had a long cane and a carer and children aged three and one. The logistics of getting on a bus were trickier. I could still carry a rucksack and fold the pushchair with one hand while my carer concentrated on guiding us all to seats, which had of necessity to be as close as possible to the door. People could clearly see our predicament and were willing to help.

People didn’t understand my need for a priority seat

Sign on bus stop reads "Priority seat - for people who are disabled, pregnant or less able to stand

Once the children did not need pushchairs ALL the buses became Easy Access. Inevitably. Sods law! With my long cane, with the help of my companion I could use any seats, but it was safer and more practical to sit in the priority seats. The further we moved up the bus the greater the risk of the bus moving before we were seated. People did not always understand my need for a priority seat. In addition these were being used more: shopping trolleys, senior citizens and wheelchairs. My carer and children sit elsewhere when necessary. What was not so obvious to people was the difficulties I experienced in hearing in the noisy bus environment, particularly now I could not lip-read.

In due course, my stick was replaced by a Guide Dog. Only the priority seating area had the space to accommodate me and my Guide Dog safely. I only needed one seat as she would sit comfortably between my legs.

And gradually, just gradually over the years, I have had more difficulty in getting an Easy Access seat. People are slow to move. Perhaps they have forgotten the reasons for having accessible transport. I have been asked to move for a pushchair. I was with a companion sitting elsewhere as it happened. To avoid a fuss, I did move with her help to a seat someone else vacated. I have rarely seen pushchairs folded even for other pushchairs. I have seen people read newspapers in the Easy Access seats, oblivious to all going on around them. How strongly should one insist on having an Easy Access seat?

Drivers have tried to help those needing priority seats by asking other people to move but they cannot enforce such requests. How could they? I feel I can’t do more than ask politely a couple of times if someone can move as perhaps they feel their need is greater than mine and perhaps it is. How could I know? And I can’t object too much if I am asked to move as then I become rude and inconsiderate myself.

There’s no need for rudeness

My focus has been on people using priority seats and not vacating them for those who need them more, but that is not the whole picture. Buses are busy and when they are filled to capacity, equality in using transport may unfortunately mean equality in queuing. No, not unfortunately. Full participation in everyday life is exactly what I would like.

Inaccessible luggage racks, which are almost impossible to use unless you are a finalist in a weight lifting contest, mean that there is no option but to place large items in the priority seating areas.

As the old saying goes – “nature abhors a vacuum”. Demand for the Easy Access seats will continue to rise and there will never be room for everybody all of the time, but there is no need for rudeness. Common courtesy and a simple consideration for the needs of others will promote the most efficient use of the available space.

Rude accessibility is not the route we want to follow. True accessibility depends as much on people’s attitudes as on the physical environment, laws and regulations.

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Read Helen’s blog, Deafblind Mum Lifestyle.

Author: Helen Small

Helen is the author of the blog "Deafblind mum lifestyle" where she writes about the lifestyle of a wife and mother takes on an intriguing twist when she becomes deafblind.

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