15th of June saw a groundbreaking case heard in the Supreme Court as wheelchair-user Doug Paulley argued against transport firm FirstGroup in a legal battle that has been going on for four years. The case began in 2012 when Paulley attempted to travel on one of FirstGroup’s Leeds buses only to find the wheelchair space was occupied by a mother with a pushchair. On Paulley’s request the driver asked the woman to move but when she refused was unable to force her to do so as the company has a policy of requesting passengers in wheelchairs be given priority but do not insist people make room for them. Paulley won his initial case and was awarded £5000 compensation but this ruling was later overturned by the court of appeal who deemed that FirstGroup had made ‘adequate adaptions’ by requesting but not requiring passengers with pushchairs move. The Supreme Court will now decide whether this is, indeed, good enough.
Britain has come a long way in the past decades in terms of disability inclusion in aspects of life such as transport and access to buildings. The Social Model of disability showed that society had a responsibility to meet the needs of the differently able and the Equality Act of 2010 made it a legal requirement of all companies to make ‘reasonable adaptions’ for those of us living with impairments. But, as Mr Paulley’s case illustrates, a large question mark still hangs over the definition of the word ‘reasonable’ and often those of us in the disabled community are left asking ourselves whether so-called ‘adaptions’ still remain a minimal afterthought to meet with what is legally necessary and not a genuine move to include disabled people in mainstream society. The shadow of doubt still hangs over many aspects of inclusion that reminds us of the unsettling notion that if it was not a government mandated prerequisite whether able-bodied society and business would even feel a moral onus to recognise the additional needs of those with impairments and make the suitable changes. Reading reports on this case, one can’t help but draw similarities between this incident and the iconic incident in 1955 where
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, one of the founding actions in the black American civil rights movement. At the time within segregated American society, a black section of public transport was only allocated unless the seating for white members of society was full whereupon people of colour were forcibly required to move to make room. Admittedly, in Paulley’s case it was the able-bodied person who was asked to make way but the virtue that they were permitted to refuse and therefore excluded Paulley from supposed accessible transportation illustrates that there is still an imbalance not only between the basic rights and power of those with and without impairments within Britain today, but there is still a gulch of misunderstanding within mainstream society about the requirements and attitudes needed to be put into place in order for people with disabilities to access the liberties that many others take for granted.
Put plainly, a parent with a child in a pushchair can feasibly (given with some inconvenience) remove their child, fold away the buggy and move to another area of the bus where as a wheelchair user such as Mr Paulley cannot. The fact that this unnamed parent found it an acceptable choice to refuse to grant him access says just as much about society’s misguided attitude to disability equality as the impedance of FirstGroup to be able to legally make her move does about what is required under the Equality Act.
The incident seemed to echo of the hidden assumption that many individuals seem to hold that disabled rights should mean that disabled people should have exactly the same access to society’s amenitiesn without any consideration given to the way their impairments fundamentally limit their options. It is not true equality to say ‘everyone has the same opportunities to park/use public transport/access buildings and services’ without recognizing and accommodating for the practical disadvantages of living with an impairment. Entering a donkey for the Grand National doesn’t mean their odds will be the same as the other racehorses if a head start isn’t given. You can’t turn round and blame the donkey for not trying hard enough to win when given the chance. It was never a fair race from the beginning. It will be a great step for disability rights if the Supreme Court finds in favour of Mr Paulley and makes it a legal requirement that wheelchair users are given automatic, legal priority on buses and other transport but this will only be half the battle. We must continue to strive to educate society and change attitudes so that the general public is more aware and accepting of the differing needs of its members; therefore in the future people will not use disabled spaces on transport, not because they are forced to by law but because they are aware of their intended purpose.