First of all, hello, welcome to 2018. I hope it’s treating you better than 2017 did. For me, it isn’t, but that is something I am dealing with.
Today I want to talk about buses. My parents never had a car, and though I tried learning to drive and even passed the theory test (and that blasted Hazard Perception test), I never got as far as a practical test and getting my dream car. Now I have moments of wishing I had a car, but I have no plans of learning to drive again. So, I have a history with buses. My parents got the bus everywhere, they still do, and so I got the bus everywhere, and well I prefer trains but I still get the bus.
Here’s the problem. I don’t like getting buses anymore, and it’s completely related to being in a wheelchair.
Whenever I could go out, up to the point where I needed my wheelchair full time, I just hopped on the bus. Even on crutches, I hopped on the bus. My friend lived on a different bus route, so I hopped on the bus to one bus stop, got the bus to the bus stop nearest hers, popped in to see her Mum where she worked, and then went to my friend’s. It was brilliant. I thought I could go anywhere by bus, I just had to plan the route!
Where I used to live, the nearest bus to me was less than a 10 minute walk. I lived in a sort of set back cul-de-sac, and two roads away was the main road where the bus was on the corner. The worst part was always having to stand and wait for the bus, and then they brought in the worst most painful bus benches ever, but I still loved getting the bus. Even better, shortly before my Gran died, I got my disabled person’s bus pass that allowed me to travel for free, and she lived in a sort of set back cul de sac on the road opposite the bus stop, which happened to be the next bus stop down from my local bus stop. There was never any issue of me hopping on the bus at my bus stop, and getting off the next bus stop so many yards away outside my Gran’s.
Long journeys, where I was going end to end, I could sit there and listen to music and look out the windows. Short journeys, I tended to know at least one other person on the bus and they always ended up talking to me. Even when I started being a wheelchair user full time, in my manual wheelchair, given the bus drivers could be bothered to lower the ramps down, and even a bus turned up with a ramp in the first place, which let me tell you was hit and miss and on more than one occasion I would have to ring a taxi in a panic when the bus that should have had a ramp in fact turned up with a step with a pole in the middle and a bus driver that didn’t care and I needed to be somewhere in the 15 minutes it would have taken the bus to get me there, it was wonderful to hop on the bus, put my music on, and then get off at the other end. I was independent, I felt free.
The big difference is, the bus drivers who did lower the ramp did so as a matter of course, I told the driver where I was getting off, I could get in the wheelchair space nice and easily, the space was sideways so I could see where I was going, and then I rang the bell like any other passenger and then the driver would lower the ramp and i would get off. Like any other passenger.
Now, the freedom buses gave me just 10 years ago, feel like too much hassle for everyone involved Bus drivers have this attitude now – I don’t know if they mean to, but they do, like it’s a very big effort for them to put the ramp out. I can’t see it going down very well if i said my destination was the next bus stop 2 minutes away, like my Gran’s was. The wheelchair space is very difficult to get in to. There’s a bar in the way which means I have to overshoot the space and then reverse into it, the problem is they don’t give enough room to overshoot it, people have to stand up out of their seats to get just a few extra inches, and it’s a very tight fit to reverse and turn into the space. All because of that bar. And then I’m stuck going backwards. I hate going backwards, I can’t see where I’m going. There’s a chance the windows will be obstructed with advert vinyls. I can’t listen to music because these days I follow routes on my map app on my phone and I have to check between the phone and what I can see outside. It’s virtually impossible to go somewhere I’ve never been before in case, like the other day, my app stalls and leaves me clueless as to when the bus stop I need is coming up.
Also, it’s just very unnerving facing everyone else. Especially if something goes wrong with the bus they think is you’re fault – like an electrical failure after the driver’s lowered the bus to let you on – and double especially when you ring that bell. I refuse to ring the bell now. I get my carer to press the one nearest her and then she stands up and sort of blocks people from getting off so I can very obviously turn out of the space and the bus driver will be able to see I’m clearly wanting to get off at the stop he’s just pulled up to.
The bell, which just used to make the same “ding!” noise the other bells did, has had a few changes over the years. First it was a lower toned buzz noise. I didn’t mind that. It signalled it was the wheelchair user who wanted to get off, but it also didn’t alarm the other passengers when they heard a noise they weren’t used to. Then it sort of trilled, which I quite liked the noise of. Some passengers would look up in alarm but see it’s no big deal, it’s just I want to get off the bus. Now it’s an alarm. I mean it actually sounds like a school fire alarm. People look up in panic, and people don’t realise nothing is wrong, it’s just the noise the button makes at the wheelchair space when they want to get off. I’ve seen the stares of people who wonder what the hell I’m playing at, pressing an alarm. I’ve heard someone say “Is that normal? Is she okay?” to their seat neighbour when I’ve pressed that button. People look at me like I’m on fire, and look annoyed at the fact that I’m actually not. I don’t want to bring more attention to myself that I’ve already had from facing everyone’s direction, but I also always want to say “It’s okay! I’m not on fire, it’s just the noise the button nearest me makes! Please write to the bus company so that they change the noise back to the trilling noise, we all liked that one!”.
The ramps used to be shallower as well, or the buses used to be able to kneel more. Now the ramps are very steep, and there’s no traction. I don’t dare get the bus by myself even if i did know where I was going, because i need someone to hold on to my handles as I go down the ramp so that I don’t fall and tip. I get shrugged shoulders when I point out it’s very steep, pointed silences if I ask if they’ve knelt the bus, casual laughs as if it’s perfectly fine to almost fall off the side of the ramp because I’m coming off the bus onto the steep ramp at an angle and can’t straighten out in time, and jokes made at my expense making out that I can’t drive my wheelchair, when really, it’s because my wheelchair is susceptible to skidding, which it wouldn’t if I could meet the ramp head on and the ramp wasn’t that steep. And also, if there was better traction.
And then there’s the time it takes trying to convince parents that they need to vacate the wheelchair space so that the wheelchair user who has a legal right to that space could get on. Which is doubly annoying when there’s two spaces, one buggy and one wheelchair space, but the parent decided to park their buggy in the wheelchair space first anyway. It all used to be so quick and easy, and only the worst drivers refused to let a wheelchair user on, the most untrained drivers who refused to let a wheelchair user on. Now, it’s all of them who treat wheelchair users as if we take too much time to bother with, it’s everyone who would rather leave a wheelchair user out in the cold than do what their own parents did and fold the buggy before getting on in the first place.
It is every single part of getting the bus that has been made harder for wheelchair users, and if it wasn’t for the fact that sometimes, as in quite frequently, it’s the best mode of transport that can get me somewhere, I wouldn’t be using them at all.
And the sad thing is, if wheelchair users were involved in the design of buses, and trains, I doubt these problems would even exist. But we’re not, and things are not retroactively adapted when we point out a problem which really should be obvious at the design stage. When I was in University the first time, just as ramps were becoming slowly the norm, the one bus I could get on, it had a ramp but my wheelchair couldn’t fit down the aisle of the bus to get to the wheelchair space. I had one of the smallest adult wheelchairs you could get, and it was from the NHS so I had little choice in model. Most adult wheelchairs were 2 inches wider than the one I had, but the company’s response to my complaints didn’t change anything.
That was years ago, so I assume that situation improved eventually, but like here, I doubt it improved for long. I don’t know why the world is like this, I don’t know why people are like this, but it’s exhausting to deal with it and fight against it every single day.