The Right to Ride
Why disabled people’s direct action was good for all transport users. I’m going to name check some significant players in the struggle for accessible transport. Well it is DHM!
I’ll start by quoting a song: with grateful thanks to Elaine Kolb who wrote “We Will Ride “which I then mangled to be relevant to a British Disability Rights scene.
“Far too many people have been locked away too long.
We won’t accept excuses, right is right and wrong is wrong. Still the state believes that we should live on charity.
But we’re not going to take this anymore, we will be free.
And we will ride, we will ride.
We have strength and truth and justice on our side.
For united we will fight, defending human rights,
we will ride we will ride.”
Defending human rights: The right to ride, the freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. It is also the key to wider participation and inclusion. If we can’t ride, we can’t take up education, employment, training, health treatments. We can’t exercise our democratic rights, we can’t build and maintain a family and social network, we can’t in truth be part of this world.
A functioning, affordable accessible transport system is the life blood of our country. It’s effectiveness governs our prosperity, amongst other things. I’m a Londoner, who travelled daily since I was five, on inaccessible and dangerous route masters, and from the age of 11, on overland trains and the underground too. As a partially sighted child, my biggest challenges were knowing which bus or train was arriving and knowing where to get off. Some people would say I still don’t know where to get off!
Maybe 1 in 4 of the population is disabled, many more are also older. It’s quite “normal” to travel with children in buggies or with heavy luggage. for All these people, using our transport systems can be a significant barrier, if not impossible.
In 1982 disabled people sat down in the road outside Stoke Mandoville Hospital. We were protesting against the participation in the Paralympics games of South Africa. Alongside me on the tarmac were Keith Armstrong, and the late Vic finklestein South African born disabled activists. I quite liked sitting in the road. about that time, I did it again and again as a woman at Greenham Common, protesting against nuclear proliferation. There was something about putting my body in harm’s way for a cause that mattered to me that made me feel like I was doing something. It was a visceral antidote to the feeling of hopelessness I felt over the hostility of the world towards disabled people, women, lesbians and all other marginalised groups. For I had recently discovered that being disabled wasn’t the problem, it was the way the world is designed.
Another comrade in struggle, the late wonderful Bryan Heiser responded to transport accessibility by developing a parallel transport system. Dial-A-Ride freed many people to ride who had never done so before. But free our people was one of the disabled people’s movement’s demands. We wanted to travel like ordinary people rather than witness the world, second hand through the window of a special bus. For us, this smacked of further segregation.
Keith Armstrong went to Denver and went on an accessible bus. He joined disability rights activists in further protests about accessible transport, meeting Elaine Kolb, who originally wrote “we Will Ride” as an anthem of that movement.
“The world is inconvenienced by disability.
But we have human rights and we are aiming to be free. Riding public transport is one way to get around.
So minister of transport hear us now, we’re freedom bound.”
Inspired by this, Ruth bashall, a transport campaigner, disabled dyke and mother, along with Tracey Proudlock (then Tracey Boothe) and the late Steve Crib decided enough was enough. This apartheid transport system had to go. They organised the campaign for accessible transport, and, getting bored of meetings went out onto the street.
I’d recently acquired a temporary mobility impairment. A badly broken leg left me having difficulty in walking any distance. Buses, tubes and trains were no longer accessible to me. But I was also fired by the justice of the matter. I joined Cat and we sat down in the road.
We didn’t just sit down in the road, we caught buses and held them captive. We bought central London to a standstill.
After a while, the authorities could not ignore what was going on. They nicked us. They carried us up steps into inaccessible police stations, and then inaccessible courts. This made for fantastic pictures on the evening news. charges were dropped but the transport planners were in a bit of a flurry. Our activity spurred on the legitimate crips with their campaigning who lobbied and agitated for fairer treatment.
Spinning on ten years. In 2000, Ken Livingstone was elected Mayor of London. Dealing with London’s transport system was high on his agenda. Initially waxing sentimentally about the iconicness of the route master, he was soon persuade to change his mind by his newly appointed transport advisor Bryan Heiser, his newly appointed board member me, and the vice chair of the transport for London board, another transport activist, Dave Wetzel. We suggested that the bus contracts should be changed and a commitment to an accessible bus fleet be a criteria for choosing the successful contractor.
In a matter of years, London had the largest accessible low floor fleet in the world. At last, Londoners had the right to ride. We altered contracts further to require that the buses talked and had real-time audio visual travel info on them. We also put in place a programme of accessibility to the tube and the over ground and worked with rail track and the train operating companies, via Alice Maynard and others to influence accessible train development. Anbd then Boris came along … and slashed the tube accessibility programme.
We’ve since had the buggy wars. Accessible buses helped those with small children ride too. But the ruling that wheelchair users have priority, for you can bold up a baby but you can’t fold up a wheelchair user has prevailed.
“We are here to tell you just exactly what we’ll do.
We’re fighting for the right to move in freedom just like you. Let every kind of people have the power to be free.
To live and learn, and move and work and love, and vote with dignity. Kirsten hearn November 23, 2013 for Mmoving On MOAT13 DHM event