I have written earlier about the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act and Disability – http://lordsoftheblog.net/2016/04/17/a-better-deal-for-disabled-persons/ and http://lordsoftheblog.net/2016/12/15/labour-ditches-disabled-people/ – and concluded that one cannot overestimate the lack of compassion, or just indifference, on the part of some members of the public towards disabled people. The Supreme Court judgment in FirstGroup plc v Paulley, given on 18 January https://www.supremecourt.uk/cases/uksc-2015-0025.html sets out the simple story of what happened when Mr Paulley, a veteran campaigner for disability rights, tried to get on a bus in February 2012. (Yes, it has taken nearly 5 years to get this sorted, and I dread to think what the legal costs were . . .) When the bus drew up to the stop where he was waiting, it transpired that a mother with a baby asleep in a buggy was in the wheelchair space. She said the buggy did not fold down (really?). It was no doubt enormous, as they all seem to be today – when I was younger a buggy folded up with one kick into something not much bigger than an umbrella. She refused to move from the designated wheelchair space. She was reportedly chatting on her mobile as the request was made – Vicky Pollard incarnate! Mr Paulley had to wait for the next bus and missed all his connections.
His claim for discrimination against the bus company raised the interesting question of priorities. The judgment was nuanced, but not altogether clear because there were dissenting judgments that were more strongly in favour of someone in Mr Paulley’s position than the majority were. The overall conclusion, taking into account the realities of the bus driver who is faced with intransigence, was that the company should train its drivers to make stronger representations to the non-disabled passenger occupying the wheelchair space to get them to move, and if need be stop the bus for a little while to add to the pressure on them to do the decent thing. The minority of judges, with whom I am inclined to agree, thought that there should be a law requiring the non-disabled passenger to move, unless of course they too were vulnerable, e.g. elderly with a stick or in some way equally needy. It was thought that if the priority of the wheelchair user was expressed more forcefully, by signs on the bus, or by the driver, the occupier was more likely to move.
A sad story, as one can well foresee that the same sort of clash is likely to keep happening until everyone comes to realise the difficulties of disabled persons’ travel (plenty of reports in the press recently about unhelpful trains) and empathises. Disabled persons have a right to travel and to non-discrimination and it is incumbent on all of us to respect and facilitate that. It could be you one day.