‘I had to move from London because it’s so inaccessible and I could not go anywhere in my wheelchair’

In her first three years living in London, Hannah Barham-Brown experienced the city like any other thief.

She could go out spontaneously, enjoy the best bars, restaurants and activities the city has to offer, and subconsciously enjoy the luxury that she never has to think about whether places could accommodate her.

Hannah’s relationship with the city changed dramatically when her Ehlers-Danlos syndrome – a group of rare conditions affecting connective tissue – meant she had to start using a wheelchair.

And she suddenly found that she could no longer do so many of the things she enjoyed so easily.

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Hannah, now 34, found it frustrating, embarrassing and logistically impossible to navigate London as a wheelchair user, so much so that she had to leave the city altogether.

“It was really tricky,” Hannah said mildly.

“Literally everything I wanted to do had to be planned in advance. The spontaneity that many people love about living in London, where one can go: ‘Let’s just go out to XYZ tonight’, was gone for me.

“It meant that not only me, but many of my friends, had to take on this extra burden by having to check [the place we wanted to go to] was available if it had available toilets, check that they actually knew what available meant – too much of the time you showed up and discovered that the toilet is down five stairs.

“All these things that would just ruin a night on the town.”

Hannah was tired of trying to navigate a city that simply did not pay attention to people with entry requirements, junior doctor and deputy head of the Women’s Equality Party, and decided to pack up and move to North Yorkshire.

Hannah is a general practitioner and leader of the Women’s Gender Equality Party

‘I was often left on trains, or bus drivers pretended not to see me in my wheelchair’

One of the most important problems that wheelchair users face is transportation.

Hannah said it was almost impossible to use public transport as she was regularly stuck in trains or left behind and waiting at bus stops because of her wheelchair, but she also felt guilty about having to drive a car and contribute to London’s pollution problem.

“I had to buy a car because I could not rely on public transportation to get around,” she said.

“I was often left on the trains: the ramp would not be brought out for me, so I would end up missing my stop completely, stuck in the train.

“The Tube system is incredibly inaccessible – I can access a third of it.

“With buses, there was often a problem with wheelchairs versus strollers, [and] bus drivers who pretend not to see you and just keep driving past or not putting the ramp down.

Hannah has given up city life for rural North Yorkshire after getting tired of London being so inaccessible to wheelchair users
Hannah has given up city life for rural North Yorkshire after getting tired of London being so inaccessible to wheelchair users

“All in all, it was not the greatest experience, and that was a big factor in why I chose to leave.”

Aside from being frustrating and costing her time, it was also inherently dangerous not to be able to access public transport – especially at night – as a vulnerable woman in central London.

“If non-disabled women do not feel safe on the streets of London, disabled women feel that much more,” she said.

“We are more likely to experience sexual abuse and harassment because we are seen as vulnerable, we are often sexualized and fetishized by society, and we cannot run away.

“Of course no one should have to run away, but there is the added vulnerability [of being in a wheelchair] and people see it, men see it.

“I lived in London as a non-disabled woman for three years, I worked in pubs, I went home late at night and I was scared, I was nervous, but it did not match how bad it was when I was disabled and in a wheelchair. “

Hannah said she would now choose to drive when she visits London again

The first time Hannah returned to London after the lockdown, shortly after Sarah Everard’s murder, her mother asked her if she really needed to go, if she wanted to be safe, and if she promised not to go anywhere alone.

Despite being a 34-year-old woman who had lived in London for six years and knew the city like a local, her mother was still worried about her because she could not run away, could not fight back.

There was also a very real risk that she could get stuck in public transport or stranded at a dark bus stop because the transport network is largely not designed to accommodate her.

Hannah said: “Conversations to stop violence against women and girls, which are so important and we are finally starting to get, must include a disabled voice, voices from minority women, colored women, the LGBTQ community.

“We have additional considerations that are often overlooked when planning for our own safety.”

When asked for a comment on the availability of Transport for London, Mark Evers, TfL’s Chief Customer Officer, said: “Making accessible travel easier for Londoners is one of our top priorities.

'If non-disabled women do not feel safe on the streets of London, disabled women feel so much more'
‘If non-disabled women do not feel safe on the streets of London, disabled women feel so much more’

“We recently launched a new public consultation asking customers for their views on priority access in London. The responses will help shape and inform our approach to incremental improvements at underground stations in the future should the government provide funding for the future. programs.

“We are working hard to continually improve accessibility, from increasing the number of step-free stations across the network to making it easier to travel on many others. More than half (51 percent) of the TfL rail network – spanning Tube, DLR , London Overground, London Trams and TfL Rail services – are now stepless.

“TfL also has one of the most accessible bus networks in the world with all bus routes served by low-floor vehicles with dedicated space for wheelchair users and an access ramp.”

He continued: “We are always eager to hear from anyone who is having issues while traveling on our network so we can see how we can further enhance the experience for our customers.

“Ensuring that all women and girls can travel safely on London’s public transport network is an absolute priority for us. Our staff are trained in how to support members of the public and if they witness or are made aware of an incident, they will alert our 24/7 control centers and seek advice and support. “

‘It’s hugely frustrating and quite embarrassing – the little things just get you down’

While inaccessibility is not a unique issue for London, the decor and infrastructure of the city and the spontaneous, outgoing lifestyle that Londoners tend to enjoy exacerbate the problem in the capital.

The burden of calling pubs, bars, restaurants and venues in advance to make sure they were available fell not only on Hannah but on her friends and she had many evenings ruined by unexpected steps, cramped spaces and other barriers, which prevented her from accessing a meeting place in her wheelchair.

“Of course it’s hugely frustrating, but it’s also pretty embarrassing,” she said.

“I do not want my friends to think about getting me in and out of a restaurant – I’m an educated, intelligent, articulate woman, and I do not want people to take me into account or plan me on a way that they do not for anyone else.It is actually quite degrading when one has to fight for quite basic things like being able to buy a cup of coffee.

“It’s those simple, little things that just get you down. It really affects our mental health, has a huge impact on our well-being, and it makes us feel underestimated and like second-class citizens.

“In 2021 – yes, at any time – it’s just not acceptable.”

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‘The easiest way to learn about the challenges we face is to listen to us’

Solving these widespread institutional problems involves including people with disabilities in planning interviews and ensuring that their thoughts and experiences are taken into account in infrastructure design.

Pressure from healthy people also helps to raise awareness of the problem.

“The easiest way to learn about the challenges we face is to listen to us,” Hannah said. “I think if everyone did that, it would make a huge difference.

“There are also very basic things that people can do: If you are going to a pub and it does not have access, go and ask the landlord, the staff, if they have a ramp.

“If you see a disabled toilet filled with high chairs and stuff like that, then be it [person] who goes and asks why, and reminds them that they actually have a duty of care to the disabled.

“If enough people put pressure on and ask for these things, it will make changes happen.

“It’s about raising our voices and reminding people that yes, people with disabilities are a huge, huge cohort with a lot of purchasing power, knowledge and experience, and we want to be a part of the conversations.”

Are you a wheelchair user struggling to enjoy London to the fullest? Contact us to tell your story at [email protected]


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