Mark is 24 and lives in Middlesex. He's a pupil support worker, a writer, and creator of Lame Champion Comics, a weekly webcomic that aims to be 'a satirical slap at physical disability'.
Mark's a very angry man. He can't believe that London isn't leading the way with enforcing accessibility on its underground network.
A good friend of mine once described word 'access' as: "The freedom to get to stuff that we need to." But why is it that the issue of disabled access on the London Underground is still being politely asked to join the waiting list behind congestion charging and the London Olympics?
Around three years ago, a good friend of mine unfolded a London Underground map with information on disabled access. Several icons showing a little, angular wheelchair guy indicated which underground stations were accessible. "Great," my friend said. "What an embarrassment, a leaflet that shows how accessible the tubes aren't. It makes you wonder why they bothered wasting the paper." At that time only a third of stations were classed as 'accessible' (and even then they were in incredibly obscure locations). They were also reachable through equally obscure alternative routes. Needless to say, we took the car.
On some occasions, I have braved the Tube. The leaflet showed me the 'safe zones' and I headed to them with confidence and a sense of solidarity with my fellow commuters. "I've made it," I thought. "Heck, maybe I'll even buy a broadsheet and some shoe polish from the station shop."
But let me tell you what no amount of travel leaflets will. A station isn't 'accessible' just because it's got an attendant lugging around a portable ramp to get wheelchairs on the train. If there's no way of getting down, or up, from street level to platform level, except via a staircase, it doesn't matter how many helpful attendants are standing by the train doors. I'll have no idea how helpful they are, or could have been, if I'm stuck at street level staring at an ambiguous darkness wondering where on earth they are. This means not only annoyance for me, but wasted talent for them. Some station attendant somewhere is desperate to write on his CV: 'Good with disabled people,' but he can't, because I haven't been able to meet him.
"If there's no way of getting down, or up, from street level to platform level, except via a staircase, it doesn't matter how many helpful attendants are standing by the train doors. I'll have no idea how helpful they are, or could have been, if I'm stuck at street level staring at an ambiguous darkness wondering where on earth they are."
I have despaired of the London Underground so much that I've often boycotted it in favour of taking the mainline train. A good percentage of mainline stations do have lifts fitted. And they usually have more ramps than one can shake a stick at (even if they have only got one attendant to man them, and he clocks off at 1pm). Seemingly, the brains behind this system have been answering the need for access for ages. Access, for them, is yesterday's news.
Or is it? Because however many portable ramps it boasts, a train station is still not accessible just because it has a lift, especially if it doesn't go to your intended platform. Me: "Do you have a lift?" Them: "Yes! It's a very good lift actually... Oh, hang on, I forgot. It doesn't go to level three. Are you OK with stairs?" Do you now see the problem? In order to call itself 'accessible', a train station must have well-informed, experienced staff carrying ramps, as well as fully functional lifts to all platforms.
Even ramps - those metal slabs that should be the quick, convenient, foldable little friends of disabled people everywhere - are a nightmare of their own. Only a couple of weeks ago, I was stuck at the top of the stairs at Putney Station, which has no lift, but does have ramps coming out of its ears, and luckily the attendants to man them. I was told off because I hadn't made prior arrangements to have some assistance and as I'd apparently caught the guard "off-guard" (his words, not mine). Here's a little joke: What's the difference between a disabled person and a party of 20 at a Chinese restaurant? They've both got to ring a week in advance to get the Special. For one, that's ramp access onto a train. For the other, it's the grilled fish. Never mind about the grilled fish. Is it right that we can't expect assistance on journeys which are unplanned, off-the-cuff, a little bit wild and rugged? Can we not just have the freedom to 'hit the road' and go wherever the mood takes us? Not in the current system. You can live the unchained bohemian lifestyle, as long as you like forward planning.
The good news is that big people behind the London Underground say they are looking into improving the situation to: "Provide a service that can be accessed by everyone." The bad news is that: "This will take many years and the 20-year programme of improvements outlined will not complete the process." Marvellous. Apparently the reason why many people can't access stations and trains is: "Largely due to the network, which was designed at a time when access for all wasn't an issue." So apparently there never used to be disabled people? Utter madness.
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