Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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25/3/18: an incident on a bus

Recently I was on the lower deck of a double decker bus.  As is usual in the UK, there was space about 1/2 way back for a wheel chair on one side and a baby's push chair on the other.  I was sitting on a seat on the second row behind the gap for the wheelchair.

So, the bus filled up.  A mother brought a baby in a pushchair so that filled that space.  Then an elderly woman came on with a shopping trolley and sat in front of me, immediately behind the gap for the wheel chair, putting her shopping trolley against the other seat.  Shortly after this, as the bus was getting fuller, an elderly man asked the lady to move her shopping trolley so that he could sit down.  The lady said no, there was a wheel chair about to get on, there wouldn't be space for the man to sit, the shopping trolley and the wheel chair.  The man insisted so, with a rather bad grace, the woman moved her shopping trolley into the space for a wheelchair.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, a woman in a wheel chair came on escorted by the driver.  The woman with the shopping trolley told the man that he would have to move. He refused.  So, with considerable fanfare, the lady with the shopping trolley herself moved from the seat, putting the shopping trolley there.  Meanwhile, the lady in the wheelchair, which had electric action, backed into the space, with it rapidly becoming apparent that the control she had was not great, with a large number of people close by in danger of getting in the way - don't forget the pushchair in the space opposite!

As I said, I was sitting immediately behind all this.  As you will appreciate, I felt extremely uncomfortable, wondering what I could do to help but concluding that there wasn't really anything.  Eventually, when the wheel chair was in place, I got up, said to the lady with the shopping trolley that I was going upstairs and that she could have my seat.  She thanked me but I later discovered that she didn't, in fact, sit down, presumably feeling that she still had a point to make.

There are a number of things which could be said about this incident.  I very much hope that the lady with the shopping trolley, and more particularly the manwho insisted on the seat, would not take it upon themselves to lecture the nation's youth on manners after they themselves had behaved so badly in public.  It was notable also that the driver did not  intervene in the altercation, had experience taught him that this was the best way to defuse these kinds of situations?

But my principal point of interest is how all of this seemed from the point of view of the lady in the wheelchair.  To get her onto the bus, the driver needed to unravel a ramp, the space needed to be cleared - in this case with considerable fuss - and a difficult manoeuvre had to be undertaken in a limited space putting other people potentially in harm's way.  Hopefully getting off was somewhat simpler!  I've tried to put myself in her position, not an easy thing to do I know, and I can only conclude that it wouldn't take many such incidents before I would be very wary of traveling by bus, would choose timings very carefully, and would only do it when I was feeling mentally strong enough to face potential hurdles with a good grace.

Which is all a bit of a conundrum really.  On the one hand, there is provision for wheel chair users to travel on buses.  But as this incident illustrates, in practice it is not at all necessarily that simple, with wheel chair users faced with all kinds of obstacles beyond those able bodied.  I would point out also that there is only one space per bus for a full size wheel chair, this must surely mean that people can't get on the first - second? third? - but which comes on occasion, so building in a further complication.

Is there more that bus companies could do?  The only thing I can think of is to provide more space, but is that a realistic suggestion?  The needs of different users of buses, coupled with their relative quantities, need to be balanced here, more space for wheelchairs is less space for other purposes, I'm not sure this is a viable option.

I have pondered before the idea that problems can be solved in pinciple but not in practice.  Another example is free education in a developing world context actually not being free at all - school uniform, textbooks, school meals, not to mention the opportunity cost of children not being available to work.  What would appear to be solutions to far off policy makers may not feel like solutions to those closer to home.

I'm not quite sure where I'm heading on this so will stop shortly.  Meanwhile, I hope this incident does not discourage the wheel chair user in this incident from using buses in future, for those of us who are able bodied, let's do what we can to make things as seamless and as pleasant as possible for everybody.  As always, if you have any thoughts on this, do let me know!

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