Legal update: Travelling rights

By Bela Gor

Earlier this year I was on a train to Norwich which stopped at Thetford. I tried to remember why Thetford was familiar as I was pretty sure I’d never been there before and then I remembered. Thetford was the scene of one of the most significant disability discrimination cases brought by a disabled person against a service provider.
The case of Roads v Central Trains made some people really quite angry. They pointed out that Mr Roads was a disability activist and not a ‘real passenger’. He’d taken a train from Norwich to Thetford but was unable to cross over to the other platform to take a train back from Thetford to Norwich because as a wheelchair user he wasn’t able to use the footbridge.  The angry people pointed out that most people wouldn’t take a train to Thetford only to promptly cross over to the opposite platform to take a train back to where they came from. Mr Roads only did this to point out that the footbridge was inaccessible to him. Mr Roads’ argument was that other people could do precisely that if they wanted to because they didn’t face the barrier of the footbridge. Only people with mobility impairments were prevented from exercising their right to travel back and forth between Norwich and Thetford as they pleased.
So who’s right? Perhaps Mr Roads should have taken a pragmatic approach and accepted that although the footbridge was inaccessible to him he could still get to and from Thetford albeit with some difficulty. Then again should Rosa Parks have taken a similar pragmatic approach on 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama when the bus driver asked her to give up her seat to a white person? She was still on the bus after all and could get to where she wanted to go.
I could be wrong but I think that many people would view the two experiences quite differently. I think that the same people who are appalled by the racism that Rosa Parks encountered would think that Mr Roads really didn’t have it so bad in comparison. It’s arguable certainly that Central Trains didn’t intend to treat Mr Roads badly – it’s just the way the stations were built. However it’s also arguable that the Alabama bus driver was just following orders too – he didn’t make the rules, he was just enforcing them. Is not being able to get on and off the train of your choice as bad as not being able to sit in a seat reserved for a white person on a bus?

When Rosa Parks was asked in a radio interview in 1956 why she didn’t vacate her seat she said:

“I would have to know for once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.”

This week I read that Paralympic Champion Tanni Grey-Thompson had to crawl off a train at midnight because there was no one there to help her. She said:

“I think it is fair to say that a lot of disabled people feel like second class passengers because they don’t have the same treatment as everyone else.

I don’t expect to be swept in to first class and treated better than everyone else – I expect to have the same experience, and that is often just not the case.”

For more about the campaign to make transport more accessible see here and Channel 4 have set up a website for their No Go Britain campaign.

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