Accessible transport campaigners were outside the Royal Courts of Justice this week to show support for disabled campaigner Doug Paulley, as he fought a transport provider over the right to use wheelchair spaces on buses.
The one-and-a-half-day appeal should eventually provide a definitive ruling on whether wheelchair-users have priority in the use of the spaces over parents with pushchairs.
First Bus is appealing against a court ruling that wheelchair-users should have priority, and that First Bus’s “first come, first served” policy breaches the Equality Act.
That case was taken by wheelchair-user Doug Paulley, from Wetherby, who had been planning to travel to Leeds in February 2012, but was prevented from entering the bus because the driver refused to insist that a mother with a pushchair should move from the wheelchair space.
Paulley told Disability News Service before this week’s hearing in the court of appeal that he failed to understand why First Bus was spending so much time and money fighting the case.
He said: “Everybody else can use a bus without having to worry about whether they will be able to get on or not, but we can’t.”
Carolyn Lucas, a disabled Londoner who was among Paulley’s supporters outside the court, said there was a “culture of total indifference” to the needs of disabled people on buses.
Another disabled protester, Susan New, said she believed that First Bus should redesign its buses, as has been done in Brighton, to provide more spaces that are potentially accessible to wheelchair-users.
She said that parents with pushchairs appeared to have more rights than wheelchair-users.
Tracey Proudlock, a leading access consultant, who was also in court for the first day of the hearing, said: “Service providers have a duty to anticipate the need of disabled customers; it is not appropriate to wait until a disabled person is left waiting to use a service or is denied access.
“This First Bus appeal case, if successful, would make something of a mockery of the ‘reasonable adjustment’ provision the company are saying has been provided.
“Opening this designated wheelchair space to buggy- and pram-users would mean that much of the time it would not be available to a wheelchair-user.
“Therefore this in our view simply cannot be a ‘reasonable adjustment’, since it would not be effective.”
Disabled campaigner and actor Victoria Wright, currently working with Trailblazers, the group of young disabled campaigners run by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, was outside the court on behalf of the group to show support for Paulley.
She said many Trailblazers had reported similar problems with buses in a report they published in 2009.
She said: “First Bus need to listen to the views and experiences of their disabled customers.
“I am not a wheelchair-user but I am a parent who has a child who uses a buggy and many times I have moved the buggy or folded it or happily left the bus and got the next one because I am very aware that it is even more difficult for disabled people trying to use a bus.”
She said parents needed to show “a little bit more compassion and understanding”.
Paulley’s barrister, Robin Allen, instructed by specialist disability discrimination solicitors Unity Law, argued in court this week that buses are made accessible to disabled passengers through equality laws, and the First Bus policy was about how its wheelchair spaces are managed.
He said the First Bus driver had admitted that he and his colleagues often removed passengers for eating smelly takeaways, but not for refusing to move from wheelchair spaces, even though access regulations give them the legal authority to do so.
Allen also argued that other bus companies, such as Lothian Buses and Stagecoach, had taken the view that they could remove a passengers from a wheelchair space if it was needed by a wheelchair-user.
First Bus argued that its policy was to ask customers clearly to make way for wheelchair-users, but that its drivers had no legal authority to instruct or force passengers to leave the spaces, and that it would place them in an impossible position if they were asked to apply the policy without such legal powers.
Giles Fearnley, managing director of First Bus, said after the hearing that the company had appealed “so that everyone – bus companies and users alike – can achieve some clarity in this key matter”, following two conflicting judgments last year.
He claimed First Bus was “leading the industry” in improving bus travel for disabled passengers.
Paulley said he had been in tears after seeing the amount of support he had from other disabled campaigners when arriving at court on the first day of the hearing.
He said: “I would have hated to be one of the First Bus people having to go through that. It really bolstered me in an incredibly hard day. I feel indebted to them.”
He said he believed that the eventual judgment would probably not produce a clear win for either side, but that he was optimistic that it would be an improvement for disabled people’s rights.
The court reserved judgment, which is likely to be published between January and Easter next year.