Annabelle Baugh comments on accessibility in travel with her personal experiences living in the UK. Find out how you can support better practices as a tourism service provider or fellow traveler.
Up until five years ago I was fit and healthy and never imagined that I would be in a wheelchair. My transition from walking around to not being able to travel without a mobility aid happened in a day.
I had been limping a little with a painful hip for about a week but thought it wasn’t anything serious. You see, since I was 18 I have seen an osteopath on a regular basis as my hips are not aligned, so I had been in worse pain before.
Ignoring the pain and my limp, I felt my leg go beneath me when I was walking down the corridor at work. After a few deep breaths, I tried to stand up but intense pain took my breath away. Unable to walk at the hospital, I was put on a trolley and waited for an MRI scan. They gave me a frame after the scan to help me walk and encouraged me to move around before sending me home.
I was able to walk up to 30 metres without too much difficulty with my frame for approximately another 14 weeks.
After that period, I found the length I could walk without a lot of pain started to reduce gradually. A month or so later, I was at the stage when — if I wanted to walk any further than approximately 10 meters — I needed to use a wheelchair.
Challenges of Accessibility in Travel
It wasn’t until I needed to get a train to meet a friend for a coffee that I first started to appreciate how difficult traveling with a wheelchair would be. Trains have always been my preferred method of travel and I have never learned to drive.
As an able-bodied person, I never considered that someone in a wheelchair may not be able to get a train to some stations as there is no wheelchair access. Without checking, I would be able to disembark the train and get into the town without a problem.
I happily wheeled my chair onto the platform and, with a little help from a friendly man, boarded the train without incident.
However, it wasn’t that simple at the other end. I got off the train easily enough and felt cheerful as I went to leave the station.
That’s when I found out I was trapped.
There was no wheelchair access out of the station and there was no way I could get up a steep flight of stairs with my wheelchair. I was well and truly stuffed.
Panicking, I called my friend who came and met me on the platform. She had checked that there was wheelchair access at the next station and, 15 minutes later, we were both on the next train. Refusing to let it ruin my day, we got off the train at the next station and went to the nearest coffee shop.
With my coffee in my hands, feeling relieved, I started to cry with tears of anger and frustration. How could this happen? I thought it was the law that wheelchair access had to be provided.
Later that evening, back at home, I decided to check which train stations that I might use had wheelchair access.
I was shocked some of the stations that had access had closed it off as there was no one to staff it and other stations had no access at all!
Shocked, I looked up disability law about providing disabled access at train stations and in retail establishments.
Read next: Why I Finally Wore My Hearing Aids Traveling
UK Transport Regulations
In the UK, providers of train, bus, and coach services have a responsibility to provide rail replacement vehicles with disabled access. The rail regulator can pursue criminal prosecution if this is not complied with.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) issued new accessible transport guidance in July 2019, specifying providers are required to ensure they have made “reasonable endeavors to secure accessible rail replacement services and taxis”.
However, while providers of train services have a legal requirement to ensure all rail replacement vehicles must be accessible, there is a caveat that enables providers to use a loophole; the ORR has added to this ‘with a few minor exceptions’.
This makes it difficult to enforce the law. Even when the law has not been complied with, there have been no prosecutions in more than 20 years.
UK Equalities Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010, states that ‘reasonable access’ must be provided to enable easy access into buildings for disabled people. The issue is how is ‘reasonable access’ specified under the law and how is it enforced? Currently, the law states it is the responsibility of the service provider to ensure ‘reasonable’ adjustments are made to make the building more accessible.
Accessibility in travel and in construction can mean adjusting:
- The entrance by providing ramps and handrails
- Providing automatic doors and widening doorways for wheelchair access
- Installing lifts
- Provide disabled toilet facilities
- Provide auxiliary aids and services
Yet the ‘reasonable’ adjustments to buildings outlined by the Equalities Act 2010 are still not being enforced 10 years later.
On a more positive note, builders of public buildings are required to ensure they have wheelchair access. This is all very well, however, it does not improve the lack of accessibility in older buildings that have not complied with the law to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ due to the loopholes that mean successful prosecution is extremely difficult.
Advice for Service Providers
Please consider how you would feel if you were unable to access a service due to a disability.
I would advise every service provider to hire a wheelchair and designate a member of staff to try to access the service provided and ensure it is easy to navigate in a wheelchair.
Change manual doors to automatic opening doors. Check doorways are wide enough for wheelchairs to pass through and, if areas of the building are difficult to navigate, try to move essential services to another area.
Where corridors are too small for a wheelchair, remember there will be individuals who can walk short distances, like myself, and providing handrails will help to make it easier.
Don’t forget outside areas. Make sure paths are smooth and wide enough, and then provide ramps at all entrances with any steps.
Finally, if it is not possible to make necessary adjustments consider putting up an apology notice. An apology goes a long way.
Advice for Allies
What can you do if a building has not had reasonable adjustments made to allow disabled access?
Please consider if entrances are accessible by someone in a wheelchair or someone who is not physically able to open a heavy manual door.
Look around…are the corridors big enough? Is the lift broken or are there no ramps provided at entrances with steps?
When an organisation has not ensured a building is accessible both from the outside and also once inside, the Equality Act classes this as unlawful discrimination.
This is why, regardless of whether you are able-bodied or disabled, you can help to enforce the law.
You can write to the person or organisation requesting that they make the necessary changes. Advise that if the changes are not made then under the Equality Act you have the right to make a discrimination claim.
Tools for Finding Accessibility Travel Information
Over time, and after many trips, I have often been made to feel like I do not receive the same level of service as an able-bodied person.
With this in mind I found the below apps that make it easier to check out what disabled access is available at various facilities:
To locate toilets with disabled access:
To find accessible accommodation, venues, public transport, shops and restaurants (only available in European countries):
For useful information on each London Underground station and line, train stations, and their accessibility:
Provides information on disabled access and facilities in over 10,000 venues across the UK and Ireland, including shops, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, railway stations, hotels, colleges, universities, hospitals and more:
I would like to say on a positive note I have been helped by numerous individuals when I have been out and enjoyed some lovely meals and visits to various venues in my wheelchair.
Feature image credit Nayeli Dalton