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Too often transport accessibility is an afterthought – we must listen to disabled voices

(Alamy)

3 min read

Our neighbourhoods aren’t designed for disabled people. It’s about time we started listening to them.

Often as rail and aviation minister, I would go on visits where everyone almost sought to over-compensate with what they thought my accessibility needs were. It wasn’t a lack of concern, but perhaps too much over-thinking. What was lost was the fact that like every other passenger with a disability, I just wanted to get from A to B with the least fuss possible and be in charge of what actually happened to me.

This is something disabled people face constantly. For example, for some people, being picked up by a golf buggy when arriving at a train station may be tremendously helpful, but it certainly is not a default provision for anyone who just ticks a box. We need to talk to disabled people and hear what would make their life better, rather than make decisions for them – true in so many areas of policy.

I just wanted to get from A to B with the least fuss possible and be in charge of what actually happened to me

There are nearly 15 million disabled people in the United Kingdom. If you’re not disabled, chances are you know someone who is. This isn’t just about smarter policy, this is about our friends, relatives and neighbours being unable to participate in everyday life, as they struggle to take their children to school, see their GP, or even just nip to the shops to buy a loaf of bread without having to pay for a taxi.

When policymakers and planners make crucial decisions about our streetscapes and transport systems, the voices of disabled people often go unheard. As a result, streets are regularly inaccessible and unsafe. This has led to disabled people taking 38 per cent fewer trips than non-disabled people, limiting the degree to which disabled people can participate in society. Understanding why this is the case is fundamental. One bad experience can mean someone discounting a particular mode of transport for ever more.

I recently hosted the parliamentary launch of the Disabled Citizens’ Inquiry report, a substantial piece of research conducted by Sustrans and Transport for All. The project shone a light on the barriers faced by disabled people when walking or wheeling, but it also went further. By working with disabled people to develop policy solutions to address these problems, it gave them a voice.

It was powerful listening to the participants share their testimonies. They raised many different problems, among them vehicles parked on the pavement or the difficulties in accessing a mobility aid. Dennis, for example, was without a power chair for 15 years, but when she was able to get one she was able to do simple things, such as talk to her neighbours or buy a pint of milk independently.

One of the key policy recommendations of this inquiry is for local and central government to set up paid expert panels of disabled people to inform walking and wheeling policy decisions at those crucial early stages of the process, and throughout.

The needs of disabled people vary greatly, but almost all inquiry participants felt excluded and expressed frustration that they did not have meaningful opportunities to raise concerns about accessibility and safety in the early stages of the policy process.

The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) has been doing great work advising the government on the needs of disabled people, particularly on rail travel. However, it does not have the resources to be involved in walking and wheeling policy at the level required.

In the absence of disabled voices, accessibility becomes an afterthought, with decisions guided by assumptions. We must do better; we must start listening.

 

Paul Maynard, Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys

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