Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (DAT 53)

Question (1): The effectiveness of legislation relating to transport for disabled people: is it working? Is it sufficiently comprehensive? How effectively is it enforced?

1. If you are blind or partially sighted public transport services are vital to getting around and leading an independent life. Driving a car or getting on a bike is not an option. Despite its importance, when you are blind or partially sighted, travelling on public transport continues to present people with substantial access barriers.

2. RNIB’s view is that while legislation has worked to send clear signals to transport providers that accessibility is a legal obligation, it has not been comprehensive enough to influence service providers to respond adequately to the access requirements of travellers with sight loss. It could be argued public transport meets the needs of other disabled travellers to a greater degree than is true for blind and partially sighted travellers. The law has certainly has posed RNIB with many difficulties when trying to enforce it.

Wheelchair Centred

3. RNIB is highly active in the area of access to public transport. We see that the effect of legislation is to focus industry minds on a model of disability that is wheelchair centred, resulting in step-free access almost always being the dominant theme. Installing lifts and removing steps involve substantial investment and planning, takes many years to implement and as a result, when step-free access is achieved, a great deal of attention is given to it.

Human Assistance versus True Independence

4. Legislation seems to have had the effect of influencing service providers to solve visual impairment related issues by means of a “human assistant”. This approach usually requires pre-booking, is subject to staffing levels, does not encourage or enable an individual to move around on their own (as they may do in many other aspects of their life) and ultimately may actually be impossible to deliver, for example on public service vehicles where the only staff member available is a driver.

5. True independence means being able to navigate a transport environment and use a service vehicle on one’s own, using one’s sense of touch and hearing combined with whatever useful vision an individual possesses. Just as wheelchair users do not expect someone else to enable them to move through a station, onto a train or bus, and then to alight it; neither should blind or partially sighted people be channelled to think that the only access adjustment is via another person.

6. This “human assistance” approach exists alongside the loss of people to assist (closure of booking offices and removal of staff from stations) blind and partially sighted travellers.

Physical Access Depends on all Stages End-to-End

7. Where train services are based on rolling stock where the doors no longer automatically open and create a sound that can be used to help people navigate towards them (so they are replaced by manually operated doors) this final barrier can prevent a blind or partially sighted person from accessing the service.

8. In recent years there have been major developments to the physical design of transport environments, including tactile strips at stairways and platform edges and high contrast railings and floor panels. These are critical things for people with sight loss, but (as detailed above) if a door cannot be independently located or opened when the train or tram comes into the platform, then these major adjustments to physical infrastructure can have their value greatly diminished from a disabled person’s own perspective.

9. Even though from a legislative point of view the operator may be able to say they have provided “assistance” through a telephone help pod in an unmanned station and that the rolling stock has tactile open/close buttons on the exterior of the train, the reality for individuals is the service is now less accessible than before.

10. After years of legislation, RNIB’s latest survey of blind and partially sighted bus users, conducted in July 2012, finds serious access barriers persist in bus transport. This is a snapshot of typical blind and partially sighted people in summer 2012:

Nine in 10 people with sight loss cannot see an approaching bus in time to hail it;

Eight in 10 people with sight loss say they miss the bus they want as a consequence of operators having no reliable service provision at Request stops;

Six in 10 people said buses which stopped away from the official bus stop caused them to often miss their bus or step off the bus into hazards such as bins and lamp posts;

Over half of respondents said they had difficulty obtaining spoken information from the driver such as the bus number and destination.

Source: Stop for me, speak to me report

Broken Journey Path

11. We fully expected the effects of legislation to have resulted in a year-on-year improvement in public transport, but instead, we are seeing some developments actually breaking the accessibility that previously existed, from a practical perspective.

12. One thing has certainly improved and that is the communication surrounding disability access consultations. This is often well promoted by transport operators to local disability groups and organisations, even if the results of these consultations are harder to track into impl3mentation.

Question (2): How effective is legislation on the accessibility of information: including the provision of information about routes, connections, timetables, delays and service alterations, and fares?

13. Legislation has raised awareness amongst service providers of the need for information to be “accessible” but in practice, providing a timetable in braille or large print presents significant issues not least the physical size of braille turns an equivalent pocket sized timetable into something that is barely portable.

14. Large print is not generally available at train and bus stations despite this being a very useful format for people who still have sufficient vision to read.

“I have good days and bad days with the buses. Recently I had a bad day as I had to wait ages for one to stop for me and not go whizzing past. They don’t always tell you what number their bus is, which isn’t very helpful. If a bus is right next to me then I can just about make out the number but I can’t see if it’s far away or approaching.”

Phil, Bus User

15. Bus operators continue to operate “request stops” across the country but with no reliable adjustment for ensuring blind and partially sighted people are provided with the information that is displayed on the front of the bus. This results in eight in 10 saying they miss the bus they want because they could not hail it.

16. When on-board the bus, over half say they struggle to get clear verbal information from the bus driver. As this is the only way to obtain information such as the bus route number, destination and if there are any diversions or closed bus stops, failing to get key information like this is extremely serious for blind and partially sighted bus users.

Unable to Complain when Something Goes Wrong

17. No bus or train service provides vehicle identification numbers or complaints information in accessible formats on-board the service. This means blind and partially sighted people have no way to identify the vehicle they are on or who or how to submit a complaint.

18. The provision of TravelLine websites and telephone based information services makes a significant difference to blind and partially sighted people, enabling them to get travel information using an accessible computer (if they possess one) or over the phone. Service providers often do provide timetables in braille or large print on request, but typically only by telephone order.

19. Accessible design of travel information websites remains problematic and this means blind and partially sighted people who use a computer can find themselves unable to use the website properly. Many transport information websites are difficult to use despite the web being one of the most efficient ways for a disabled person to obtain information if they cannot see to read printed information and they have a computer with the necessary assistive software such as screen readers and magnifiers.

20. We believe that legislation as it currently stands has successfully raised awareness that travel information needs to be made accessible, but in practical terms it has not been successful in influencing service providers in ensuring their websites are fully accessible and that printed information is easily available in larger print and braille.

21. We have heard that telephone helplines are now being used by some service providers to replace the provision of travel planning advice by booking office staff, which means a blind or partially sighted person can no longer get one-to-one advice at a booking office. Instead they need to find a phone and make a call. This concerns us because one-to-one assistance by someone who can read over a range of printed timetables and materials is an essential element of the service for people who cannot read ordinary print and where large print and braille alternatives are not immediately available.

22. The disconnects and inconsistencies in the provision of accessible travel information put many blind and partially sighted people at a significant disadvantage compared to people who do not have visual impairments. The consequences are to constrain and limit an individual’s ability to contribute to society and the economy.

Question (3): How effective is legislation on the provision of assistance by public transport staff and staff awareness of the needs of people with different disabilities?

23. As described above we believe legislation has focused the minds of service providers on deploying human assistance as a catch all solution to the access issues that blind and partially sighted people face.

24. Assistance by public transport staff is perceived as an absolutely essential “enabler” for some people with more severe sight impairments, but as there are almost 400,000 people in the UK who are registered as sight impaired or severely sight impaired, and a further 1.5 million approx with less severe sight loss but that cannot be corrected by glasses, it is absolutely essential that service providers do not rely on providing personal assistance as the primary means to facilitate access to the services they run.

25. As described above, legislation should make it clear that enabling a disabled person to make a journey fully independently and end-to-end is the objective and that this is practical and achievable.

Question (4): What can be learnt from transport provision during the Paralympics and how can we build on its successes?

26. The disability transport strategy for London 2012 was devised to meet peak levels of demand for what was a prestigious global sporting event and in a city where the transport system was already running at capacity.

27. Transport for London oversaw levels of investment which we believe come across as impossible to match for any other transport service provider across the country, so we are concerned to avoid attaching these price tags on the day-to-day delivery of accessibility on other transport networks.

28. In addition, the way transport is managed and implemented in the capital is unique to London and is by far the exception and not the rule.

29. The primary adjustments that enabled blind and partially sighted people to get personal assistance were through staff disability awareness training and the addition of thousands of volunteers positioned at stations. We learned from on-the-ground feedback that this often worked well, but in some cases blind people travelling alone were not able to get the assistance they needed, so it was not universally effective.

30. It is not easy to see, beyond the disability staff training programme in the lead up to London 2012, what learning is directly transferable and can be practically implemented by other transport operators across the country, that isn’t already recognised as necessary by accessibility leads within those companies.

January 2013

Prepared 13th September 2013