In 1979 Joan Hume led a protest of wheelchair users and supportive allies at the opening of the Eastern Suburbs Railway, the first of its kind in Australia. The premier who presided over the opening was so embarrassed and impressed by the protest that two years later he introduced a wheelchair accessible taxi service and the Taxi Transport Subsidy Scheme. Before this, the only form of public transport for people with significant access requirements had been the ambulance service.
The next decade would see a blossoming of radical action around public transport inaccessibility all over the world. In 1983 a group of disability activists in the US founded ADAPT, “Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transport”. They became infamous for their tactic of stopping buses by parking wheelchair users in front and behind. You may remember ADAPT from last year’s protests against the cuts to Medicaid, where footage of protestors being physically dragged out of their wheelchairs and removed by police made national headlines. The police were not equipped with enough accessible vans to arrest all of the 43 protestors who were involved, and ironically enough were forced to resort to removing them in buses – buses that were only accessible in the first place because of the work of ADAPT.
I spoke to Anita Cameron, a national organiser for ADAPT who has been arrested 135 times for nonviolent civil disobedience during protests. She said, “You would think that 28 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that our transportation system would be fully accessible, with perhaps a hiccup or two every once in a while. Unfortunately, inaccessibility is still a huge factor for folks with disabilities trying to get around.”
The ADA was passed in 1990; the Australian equivalent, the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), was passed in 1992. A year prior, in 1991, Bronwyn Moye led a protest of Sydney wheelchair users with the Citizens for Accessible Public Transport, blocking off Broadway to protest bus inaccessibility. Some progress has been made since then, but not nearly enough.
34% of the Sydney suburban network and 47% of the intercity network are totally inaccessible to wheelchair users. 45% of Sydney’s train network as a whole is wheelchair inaccessible. Access for Western Sydney stations is particularly dire. In the whole of NSW, 44% of train stations are inaccessible.
Even the stations that are marked as accessible are not necessarily compliant with the Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport. Often ramps are too steep, lifts are out of order, and not all of the exits and entrances are accessible. The environment around the station matters too; if there isn’t accessible parking, or if there are steep hills or broken pavement, this can effectively render a station inaccessible regardless.
Audio announcements for stops are inconsistent, preventing blind and partially sighted people from travelling safely. Delays and cancellations are sometimes only signalled by audio announcements, meaning that they are inaccessible to Deaf people. Charlotte R. told me that “Stations for me are a nightmare with most having only tactile markings on the edge of the platform and not from the entry to the platforms… one station upgraded to have a new lift and then failed to remove a pillar which means anyone on one side of the platform has to go around the chairs bins and pillars to get into the lift.” Tactile markings are the textured surface indicators placed on the ground to help blind and partially sighted people navigate their environments. In Sydney they are often placed haphazardly. The bus stop on the corner of Missenden Rd and Parramatta Rd moved several months ago, but the tactile markings have still not been updated, so people are guided to wait about fifty metres away from where the bus stop actually is.
Federal legislation requires the entirety of Australia’s train network to be accessible by 2022, but it seems deeply unlikely that this target will be met. Far from making progress, in some ways we are going backwards.
Queensland has recently rolled out a new fleet of trains that are inaccessible. The defective trains cost $4.4 billion, and the Australian Human Rights Commission has confirmed that the trains are in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act. The commission’s statement said “It is not clear to the commission why the Queensland Government procured non-compliant trains in 2013, or why the rectification work did not occur between procurement in 2013 and entry into passenger service in 2017”.
Closer to home, the new Sydney intercity train fleet is ditching train guards to be driver-only, against the recommendations of the Rail, Tram, and Bus Union. This will likely have dangerous consequences for wheelchair users and other people with mobility issues who require assistance getting onto the train. In order to catch a train, I have to let several different people know where I am getting on and off, so that the platform guards can be prepared to roll out the manual ramp. At unstaffed stations, I can only get onto a train with the assistance of a train guard. It is unfortunately common for wheelchair users to be forgotten and end up being forced to ride until the end of the line.
I live in Annandale, but the closest accessible stations to me are Central and Newtown. Central station is 5.8 km away. Newtown station is 5.2 kilometres away, since to get there by bus I have to circle around the university. The bus stop is uphill from me, and pushing myself uphill causes shoulder dislocations since my joints are lax. This means that I often rely on expensive taxis and Ubers to get around, but they frequently refuse to take me at all, even though my wheelchair can be dismantled to fit into just about any vehicle. In March an Uber driver refused passage and informed me “I don’t take disabled or animals”.
The main station used by students to get to the University of Sydney is Redfern, which at present has twelve platforms and only one lift. That lift was installed in 2015 after many years of campaigning by disabled activists, including a petition with 10,000 signatures in 2012, organised by the Lift Redfern campaign. Redfern station sees at least 50,000 commuters every day, a figure that is expected to rise to 60,000 by 2020. There are at present no immediate plans to install more lifts.
A fifth of the general population is disabled. This figure rises with age and multiple marginalisation. A significant proportion of disabled people have issues accessing transport due to mobility impairment or sensory disability. Not all of these issues are due to the use of mobility aids, either; in fact sometimes it is the opposite. Phoenix, a disabled person who lives in Newtown, says that they are frequently harassed by commuters for sitting in the priority seating areas. “People tend to just assume I’m just a lazy kid. I’ve been abused by old women, mostly, a lot on buses for sitting down, because I don’t have any visible aids. It was way worse when I was a teenager but even now it’s a real problem.” In London they have recently introduced buttons reading “Please give me a seat” for people with a hidden disability, but this approach has been criticised because it means that equal access relies on abled people’s goodwill (and disabled people’s disclosure), rather than being structurally embedded into the transport system. Phoenix thinks that a potential solution would be to introduce more buses so that they don’t have to run over-capacity in the first place. Another part of the solution is simply cultural: “I think it would help some people just to be reminded that not all disabilities are visible”, they said.
I asked Matthew Bowden, Co-CEO of People with Disability Australia (PWDA), for a comment, and he told me “Accessibility and upgrades needs to be a much higher priority across the country to ensure greater compliance and to ensure the whole journey is accessible for people with disability. There are three key components to ensuring an accessible built environment – consistency, reliability and predictability. Access to public transport is essential for people with disability if they are to participate fully in the community, both in a social and economic sense. It is not good enough that nearly half of NSW stations are not accessible for people with disability – we want to see much stronger action from the NSW Government in making sure all our public transport is accessible.”
These issues are not insurmountable. The rate of station inaccessibility across the entire country is much lower than it is in NSW and Queensland; a recent ABC News report found that around 25% of train stations in Australia are inaccessible. All but one of Victoria’s train stations are listed as technically accessible, though this does not preclude issues with noncompliant architecture and out of order lifts. Still, it is a vast improvement on the state of things in NSW.
In her 2011 speech for PWDA’s 30th anniversary, Joan Hume stated that:
“The Disabilities Rights Movement in Australia was born from the passion, the anguish, the outrage, the despair and the explosion of frustration caused by centuries of exclusion, humiliation, prejudice, poverty, disempowerment, pity, condescension, charity, segregation, oppression and neglect… But there is so much more to be done. We are still striving for a more just and equal society. We still struggle against stigma and exclusion and poorer services in all aspects of our lives: whether it be in trying to get a job or merely wanting to sit next to our partner at the Opera House concert hall. But we are much stronger now, we are not invisible anymore and we now have avenues of complaint and redress which weren’t available a generation ago.”
Our buses and trains are only (partially) accessible because of the work of our activist forebears, who fought for a better future and instigated radical change.
The work isn’t done yet.
On Friday the 26th of October, 2pm, the University of Sydney Disabilities Collective and People With Disability Australia will be meeting at Redfern station to protest public transport inaccessibility and demand meaningful action toward access for all. The protest will be Auslan interpreted, and abled allies are very welcome to join us to show their support.