“Fairness”, wheelchairs and buggies, and First Come First Served

Some people argue that wheelchair users expecting pushchair users to vacate the wheelchair space are expecting special treatment, not equality, and being unreasonable. They advocate “first come first served” as fair.

The answer is that yes, we are expecting special treatment, and we’re not ashamed of that. We need special treatment to have any chance at accessing things which non-disabled people take for granted. This is because the built environment, services and society isn’t set up with our access needs in mind. That’s why Parliament has made it a legal requirement that all service providers make reasonable adjustments. For all other “protected characteristics” (age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and so on) – the Equality Act “just” imposes the obligation not to discriminate. It only requires service providers to proactively do stuff for disabled people. This is to recognise the extra barriers that disabled people face on a day-to-day basis.

One of those adaptations is the wheelchair space on buses. NB: it’s a wheelchair space. It’s not an “everything” space; it’s not a “wheelchair, buggy and luggage” space, it’s not a “first come first served” space, it’s a wheelchair space. This is entirely clear throughout legislation and has never been in dispute at any point in “my” legal case or any other.

It’s designed around wheelchairs, for wheelchair safety (as far as I know pushchair safety on buses has never been assessed, nor crash-tests of buggies or an approved design of buggy spaces, unlike for wheelchairs), wheelchair users’ ease of use and for wheelchair user’s comfort. It has to have signs in it saying it’s for wheelchair users. Passengers and their effects (buggies, luggage) are legally required to move from the wheelchair space if a disabled person needs it, unless there are extenuating circumstances (e.g. somebody giving birth on a bus) They are obliged to move under criminal law. Drivers are obliged to allow wheelchair users on, also under criminal law.

There is no law requiring drivers or bus companies to allow a person with a buggy on to a bus, or to allow them to occupy any space on the bus whatsoever.

Our QC put it well in Court:

“The case has in some parts being identified as being about competition between the rights of wheelchair uses, and travelers with children and buggies. But we say that is not the right way to view it.

“We do not suggest that parents traveling with buggies don’t have the need for assistance or to be taken into account.

“We do not suggest that bus companies shouldn’t consider about the general public as it is.

“What we say … is that we have a particular problem – Wheelchair users, Mr. Paulley in particular – and we have been given a particular solution. And we do object to the solution to other problems being grafted on in some way that undermines the strength of the solution which we say Parliament has given” (us.)

(video on Supreme Court website, about 7min 30s in)

The County Court Judge put it more starkly:

Although such a policy might inconvenience a mother with a buggy that, I am afraid, is a consequence of the protection which Parliament has chosen to give to disabled wheelchair users and not to non-disabled mothers with buggies.

(County Court judge as quoted in the Court of Appeal judgment)

So, people with buggies, I’m afraid it is not your space. It was wrong of bus companies to advertise buses as “buggy friendly” where there’s only a wheelchair space and no buggy space. It is doubly wrong of them to put buggy signs in wheelchair spaces. And whilst we’re generally happy to lend the space to others when we’re not using it, us disabled people (well, most of us anyway) object when you selfishly occupy the wheelchair space and refuse to return it to us when we need it.

Happily most parents and guardians agree with usas shown by Mumsnet – but there are a lot more pushchair users than wheelchair users…

If you (non-disabled people with buggies) want a space on buses, perhaps learn from us. This is how we got ours:

It took about 30 years for us to achieve ubiquitous wheelchair spaces on buses. Good luck with your campaign. We fully support you – after all, we want everybody to be able to travel, including parents with buggies (after all, many disabled people are parents!) and as easily and comfortably as possible.

But in the meantime, don’t discriminate against us by using the wheelchair space when we need it.

Graphic: Equality doesn't mean treating everybody the same

Image after Craig Froehle

6 Replies to ““Fairness”, wheelchairs and buggies, and First Come First Served”

  1. I have been following your story for a while & have found it very interesting. I am a Mum of 4 boys and frequently use the bus. After shopping, my two youngest children aged 1 & 2 are quite often asleep in the double buggy on the way home on the bus. I just wondered what you’d do in this situation. You get on a bus, late afternoon, cold winters day, it’s busy, I’m in the wheelchair space with shopping and 2 sleeping children in a double buggy. To move to another chair would take me at least 10 minutes, I would have to wake up the children (at which point they would both start crying), put them somewhere (where?), move my shopping and fold up my buggy (which I have to take apart). Or would you rather I got off the bus in the cold with my shopping and children to wait for the next one? I know it is “your” space and I accept this but would you really make someone move? There is nowhere else for buggies to go. I think any normal person with a heart, disabled or not, would not make someone move in a situation like this. Of course, if both my children were awake, I had someone with me to help move them and the buggy could fold up quickly, I would move in an instant. I think everyone should just use their common sense in this situation and act in the best interests of everyone involved in each case.

    • Yes, that is the law. Where are the disabled people to go? Their wheelchair is permanent, your buggy is not. I’m actually baffled at this question and its entitlement. So you would expect that person just not to ride the bus at all, to not get home or to their job, instead of you having to take several minutes to move? Are you serious?

    • Also, I think any normal person with a heart would follow the law and not use a wheelchair space only for wheelchairs for something non permanent like a buggy. Whoa. Honestly this comment just makes me so sad 🙁 if you or your children ever became disabled you’d understand the hurtfulness of this comment.

    • It would depend on the circumstances, but basically: yes, I would expect you to move.

      People with buggies don’t have a monopoly on extra need for that bus. Out here, buses are every hour. Disabled people also struggle with cold temperatures, so having to wait an extra hour in the cold means pain. I can’t go to the toilet without help and as I live in a care home that help is at home and often not with me. Delaying me by an hour could cause me great discomfort, to wet myself and to get UTIs. Also I have commitments, like everybody else, I need to be places and back for people. So if necessary, I’d have to sit in the bus doorway, stopping the bus from moving until you shifted.

      People with buggies have no right to be in the wheelchair space. That it has been allowed to happen for so long is unfortunate because non-disabled people are used to using it and seem to think they have a right to do so. My belief is that non-disabled people should only be allowed to use that space if they give an express guarantee that they can and will vacate it quickly when a disabled person needs it. People unable or unwilling to give that guarantee should be prevented from using the space. If there’s no buggy space or the buggy space is full, that means not getting on the bus.

      I know that sounds hard line and has consequences of it being difficult or impossible for some people with pushchairs to travel – which for years has been our situation of course. But it isn’t wheelchair users’ fault that buses are not designed for the needs of people with buggies. The fact that buses aren’t adapted well for pushchair users does not give pushchair users carte blanche to abuse wheelchair users’ facilities and prevent us getting on buses. Sorry, but that’s the way it is: the Government in its wisdom, and because of much lobbying and protest by disabled people, mandated provision of wheelchair spaces for disabled people alone, with no mention whatsoever of pushchair users, and does not mandate buggy or pram spaces. Lobby for better provision for buggy users by all means, and I’ll support your campaign, but in the meantime don’t inflict your problems on disabled people by occupying our space. Face what we’ve been experiencing all our lives: that society isn’t set up for us.

      Occupying the wheelchair space, knowing that you can’t or won’t vacate it if a disabled person needs it, is immoral and selfish and deflects your problems onto some of the most disadvantaged people in the country. At least your kids will grow up: I will likely never be able to walk. I will be facing the problems caused by the myriad pushchairs occupying wheelchair spaces decades after you’ve stopped pushing pushchairs.

      I support Lothian Buses’ policy on this. When their buses only had wheelchair spaces and not buggies, they wouldn’t allow pushchair users on unless the pushchair folded easily and the parent stated clearly they would fold if needed for a wheelchair. Now more buses have buggy spaces, they will allow non-folding buggies but only on the express understanding and obligation that if in the wheelchair space they will either vacate the space or get off the bus if it’s needed by a disabled person. This should be the same across the country, as far as I’m concerned.

      I know from much personal experience how difficult or impossible inaccessible transport can be, so I know the impact of what I advocate above; that people with pushchairs face the probability of excessive effort to travel, of not being able to travel or of great disruption. That’s the consequence of having kids and of parliament not mandating facilities for people with kids. Take it up with them…

    • Disabled people need to be somewhere as much as you do. They have jobs, families and lives.

      The difference is that you can fold up the buggy. It’s a convenience. Their medical equipment is necessary for them to live or to travel at all. You still *can* ride on that bus. They cannot. So what you are saying is that your convenience is more important than their ability to travel at all.

      Also, your children will get older and, if they are not disabled themselves, begin to walk. Many disabled people will always be wheelchair users. Maybe you should use this as an opportunity to see what disabled people go through daily, but have no other option, while you have many, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to get upset with disabled people who want you to move (aka want to exercise their basic right to travel). Take it as a learning experience. That frustration you feel momentarily? It’s others’ everyday reality.

  2. A further point:

    It is not acceptable for a non-disabled prison to board a bus that only has a wheelchair space with a buggy that can’t be folded or that you have no intent of folding if a disabled person who needs the wheelchair space gets on. Non-folding buggies should not be allowed on buses without buggy spaces because they inevitably occupy the wheelchair space (which is, as we have established, a wheelchair space – not a buggy space or a “first come first served” space) and prevent disabled people from using them.

    I support Lothian Buses 100% in their stance on this.

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