As a country we like to think that we are more forward-thinking than the previous generation – whether in attitudes to race, gender, sexuality, creed or disability.
We like to think that on the whole – with some obvious and unwelcome exceptions – society evolves to integrate, not exclude, and to work so that nobody is denied basic chances.
But it’s clear that sometimes we’re not quite there, and today we report one of those cases.
Two brothers from Gosport, who both use wheelchairs, went to Commercial Road in Portsmouth with their carers. However, they were told by seven drivers that they could not travel back to The Hard together, for ‘health and safety’ reasons.
Now, at least, you can say that the drivers on that return leg were consistent. But that consistency isn’t matched by the fact that there was no problem in travelling from The Hard to the city centre, and that their father says they often travel together on the Eclipse buses between Fareham and Gosport.
First Bus, the operator in question, said as its vehicles only come with one dedicated wheelchair space, and that it can’t guarantee the safety of people in wheelchairs if they are not in the dedicated space, the drivers were right to say no. And it’s possible to feel a certain sympathy with First in trying to abide by one set of rules, only to fall foul of another.
But the bigger question remains – why do the designers of buses think that only one wheelchair will ever be carried in each vehicle? Why can’t they be designed to accommodate several wheelchairs if necessary, in space that can also be used by those not in wheelchairs when free? It seems that at the heart of this, at all levels, is a tokenism, which sees firms obeying the letter, not the spirit, of the Disability Discrimination Act – which does not help people like the McDowell brothers, out in the real world.
Both this summer and in 2012 we were all captivated by the Paralympics. That sense of purpose and can-do attitude seen in Rio is perhaps needed here – not by the disabled, but by the rest of us.