For a long time before I became disabled and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis I used the tube and buses in London on an almost daily basis. I would consider myself a kind and thoughtful traveller, who would always stand up to let someone who needed to sit down have a seat. But from the new perspective of a disabled person using public transport, I’ve realised I wasn’t being very kind or thoughtful at all.
You see, like most people on the tube, I would get on and automatically sit in the nearest seat to the doors if it was available – the priority seat – even if all the other seats were empty. I would think nothing of sitting in the priority seat on the bus. My logic was that, as a kind and thoughtful person, I would gladly give up my seat if someone needed it – so there was no problem at all with me sitting there. If I was in an empty tube carriage or bus, I wouldn’t have even considered that I would need to give my seat up, because there were plenty of seats available for someone who needed to sit.
Now I realise the flaws in my thinking, and the unconscious ableism I was demonstrating, for two reasons.
Firstly, my assumption that anyone needing a seat would be immediately obvious, or could just ask me to let them sit down. It just hadn’t occurred to me that I might not be able to tell whether someone needed to sit by looking at them. In any case, I would have expected anyone who needed a seat to ask for one, but I realise now how it feels to get onto a crowded tube train or bus and steel myself to ask for a seat, not knowing what response I’ll receive. Not knowing whether I’ll have to explain my medical history, or get into an argument, or be told ‘But I’m tired too’. And to feel like that every single time I use public transport is so draining, so depressing. Most times, the person sitting in the priority seat will jump up for me after I’ve caught their eye, given them a meaningful look and let them clock my stick, but why sit there in the first place? Why make me have to ask for a seat that’s designated for me?
Secondly, my belief that it was OK to sit in a priority seat if there were plenty of other seats. I’ve realised just why the priority seats are where they are, near the doors, with a pole next to them. Now I realise I can’t stand up until the tube stops moving in order not to lose my balance, so I need to be near the doors to get to them while they’re still open. And I really need the pole to haul myself up – sitting on a seat without one means there’s nothing to hold on to while I stand, increasing the likelihood that I’ll fall onto the person sitting next to me. Moving down the carriage is hard for me, especially when it’s crowded. Why force people with reduced mobility to move with difficulty down the carriage or bus to an empty seat if you don’t have to?
Most people are kind, most people are thoughtful. Most people would never park in a disabled space, even if there were lots more disabled spaces, and say that someone needing one could just ask them to move. So why sit in a priority seat? If you want to be kind and thoughtful, just don’t do it.