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A raw deal for the disabled

Bedonwell infants school
New Road from B11 bus

B11 climbing New Road

About 80% of the emails sent to ‘Bonkers’ are of the ‘keep it up, sock it to ‘em’ variety and the remainder can sometimes be turned into little blogs or news items but phone calls are a different matter. I have learned that a phone call means someone is in serious trouble and frustratingly there is usually nothing I can do about it and almost without exception it’s a very personal story that isn’t suitable for publication. However three weeks ago the phone rang with a story I felt I just had to do something about and fortunately the lady concerned is happy that it should appear here in every detail, but I am not going to go that far, I don’t think I need to. She will be recognisable to those who should know and that is enough. I am going to call her Carole.

Carole is English but recently returned after many years abroad and she is disabled; not that anyone would know it without looking hard and long and that is part of the problem. She has two sons, 4¾ and six months. The eldest goes to school and the youngest still needs a buggy. Her husband has to go to work and mother has to get the eldest boy to school.

The ‘invisible’ disablement, and I’m not going into every detail here, is that if Carole walks too far, or too fast, or up a steep hill the likely result is that an ambulance has to be called and she spends the day in A&E. It has happened three times recently on the school run. The school isn’t far away, I can walk it myself in 15 minutes easily but Carole has to leave home 50 minutes before school start time to allow for potential obstacles. More than half the journey is up a long hill but fortunately there is a bus that runs over that section every 15 minutes. As already implied it’s not that easy; the bus often arrives full or crowded. Worse it sometimes arrives with two buggies on board already and the driver turfs Carole off. Sometimes they say she can ride the one stop if she folds up the buggy; but how does a disabled mum fold a buggy with a baby tucked under one arm and a four year old to keep an eye on? Folding the buggy would be hard enough even if it was the sole operation. Does anyone help? Almost never; instead Carole either has to get off the bus or stand her ground seeking assistance while the bus driver radios the garage for police intervention. Passengers, some of them neighbours yell abuse. Unbelievable.

By the time Carole phoned about her situation she had called her MP, Teresa Pearce, who did what she could to help and Len Duval, a member of the London Assembly was notified of the problem. He did not respond which will have something to do with him representing Greenwich and Carole lives right on the boundary, but on the Bexley side. I suspect Teresa will have told her staff to check the map in future.

Advice was sought from Transport for London (TfL) with details given of the difficulties being caused by unhelpful drivers (and passengers) but the relevant section of their reply failed to refer to disability issues at all… “All drivers trained by London Central undergo a thorough and intensive training programme, which includes a strong emphasis on customer care and we make every effort to make buses accessible to people travelling with buggies. We therefore instruct our drivers to be as accommodating as possible.” There was no reference to Carole’s disablement and offered no hope of improvement.

I decided that I should take a closer look at this problem and turned up at the appropriate bus stop at the appropriate time to act as escort to school and back. I have done it for the last two weeks and will do it again next week. I’ve seen drivers refuse access and I’ve seen other people barge past and refuse requests for help. However I have not seen any extreme reactions which may be because as soon as I raise an expensive looking camera to my eye everyone thinks “press” and start to behave themselves and bus drivers relent. It’s only one stop. The silly thing is that the nice new buses on the B11 route can easily take three unfolded buggies despite the rules apparently stating only two are allowed.

Before embarking on this adventure I ascertained that although Carole’s MP had been involved and done her best to help, no councillor had been asked for assistance. I provided Carole with the web page listing her three and she phoned John Fuller because he was the only one the council Contact Centre had a number for. I should have guided her to councillor John Davey as he is a governor of Bedonwell School but with his track record of looking the other way maybe it as well that I didn’t.

Carole contacted councillor Fuller on February 25th and he promised to get back to her the following Monday which may well have been the voice of an optimist given the complexity of the situation. Carole is already in possession of a disabled person’s Freedom Pass and a Taxi Card. The latter has to be issued by all London authorities and in typical fashion Bexley’s is not among the most generous. 72 journeys a year at £2.50 a time is not a lot of use for four one mile journeys a day. My daughter has one issued by Islington, she gets far more subsidised journeys.

A second complaint to TfL about the B11 driver who felt it was clever to call the police rather than let someone use the entrance space where a buggy doesn’t obstruct anyone for one stop elicited a long response from TfL in which they felt it was relevant to claim they were the only large bus operator in the world to have fully equipped their fleet with low floor buses. I expect they paid some executive a fortune to trip around the globe checking out that little gem. Eventually they got to the point. “For everyone’s safety and comfort, unfolded buggies can’t travel in the gangway. If the space is full because there are other passengers with buggies or a wheelchair user occupying it, drivers are required to request that subsequent passengers must fold their buggies before boarding, or wait for the next service.” And what happens when Carole has to struggle to get her children and buggy off the bus and the same happens again 15 minutes later? Does the school treat her with sympathy when she is late; oh dear no. Sympathy? What is that?

It was a bit of an eye-opener when I found myself in a school playground some 30 years after the last time. My first reaction was that it was a small-scale prison camp. Parents and children are herded into a little enclosure until the gate to the school is opened at 8:45. It is shut again at 8:58. Any later and parents have to report to the head teacher who makes them write down their excuses. Apparently this is to meet their lateness targets. Far too often a small boy has to see his mother humiliated by teacher and it is turning him into a slightly withdrawn little lad. It doesn’t help when he is given five chocolate buttons in his lunchbox for five days of good behaviour at home and has them confiscated by a teacher because they are made of - wait for it - chocolate! She recommends Jaffa Cakes or Penguins. Chocolate free ones I suppose.

Four days late, councillor Fuller gets back to Carol. The only thing that can help is a self-help group of mums who can drive. The problem with that he says is that every time mothers are asked they back off because no one wants to go through the rigmarole and expense of a Criminal Records Bureau check. So there are no volunteers and the school has no budget to encourage them by paying the fee.

On the homeward run I observed a system designed to prevent children being abducted. They have to point to their parent or other authorised collector before being released. It sounds fine in theory but it needs a good memory or some sort of database. One day Carole’s little boy decided he wanted to go home with his friend’s dad. So he stuck out his finger and off he was allowed to go. Some system; but I suppose it helps tick some box or other.

While standing around school gates I pondered the changes since I was given a penny each day to take to school at age five - I moved to live in the country before I was six so I know I was only four or five. Sometimes I spent my penny on a ride on a 557 trolleybus along the Lea Bridge Road. It was a busy road even then and a gaggle of five year olds would walk back home unaccompanied because they didn’t have another penny. It was the norm, my parents weren’t neglectful, it is how things were. Now every single child arriving at Bedonwell School is brought there by an adult. So why do we need lollypop ladies at such places? Many of the parents and children have just crossed the much busier Woolwich Road without assistance to get there so the few feet width of the road outside the school shouldn’t be a problem. Why did councillor Craske back away from his plan to abolish lollypop ladies? Maybe it was a cynical ploy to gain Brownie-points and he hadn’t looked at the issues at all, he has form for it. There are bound to be some places where lollypops serve a useful purpose but I didn’t see any at Bedonwell School.

Has councillor Fuller got back to Carole more than a week after he said he would? No, but the good news is that some B11 drivers seem to have got the message about Carole and her disability because in recent days she has been allowed to struggle on to the bus and get off again without any of them creating an unnecessary fuss. Carole is now learning to drive; by the time she has passed the test I expect councillor Fuller will be on the phone asking her to set up a self-help group.

Malcolm Knight, 13 March 2011
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