“It was not fun. Not fun at all.”
That is how Rey Nairn describes their experience using public transport.
Nairn is a wheelchair user who relied heavily on public transport to commute from their home in Rockingham to Curtin University’s campus in Bentley.
It was a regular occurrence for Nairn’s wheelchair to get stuck in the gap between the train and the platform, and they have also had multiple instances of being denied rides on buses due to faulty ramps.
Raise a hand, hail a bus, tag on, take a seat, press the stop button, tag off, arrive at your destination. The process of taking a bus can be as easy as that for some people. For others, it’s not that simple.
The reality of getting to and from a location with public transport can be far more complex for people living with disabilities. According to the WA State Disability Strategy, one in four people with disability over the age of five have difficulty using public transport or are unable to do so.
People with mobility issues have many things to consider when using public transport, which can mean waking up even earlier and adding another hour to their journey just to ensure they get to their destination in time.
“Am I going to be allowed on the bus or on the train? Am I going to be delayed by a ramp not functioning? Am I going to get between the platform and the train? Is there going to be something wrong? Is the bus going to be too full for me to get on?”
Nairn says these are some of the questions that people who use wheelchairs need to factor in each time they take public transport.
Although Nairn finds that most staff are helpful and other passengers are mostly fine, it is a case-by-case basis that cannot be predicted.
Nairn has been pushed out of the way by other passengers, climbed on by small children on the train, and even been told to move from the wheelchair assigned seating.
“It’s worth noting that these instances are in the minority. The vast majority of people who are also using public transport who are non-disabled are fine, but the times where you do have problems really stand out and stick with you and make you really consider, ‘is it worth taking public transport, is it worth me leaving the house?’” says Nairn.
Nairn is Curtin Student Guild’s Accessibility Officer. Curtin’s Accessibility Department supports and advocates for students with all kinds of disabilities to make their university experience better. Currently, the Accessibility Department is pushing for the return of Curtin’s on-campus bus services.
“The issue on campus at the moment is that the on-campus buses like the Courtesy Bus aren’t running and haven’t been running since 2020, so students with disabilities who have mobility issues are having a lot of trouble getting from one end of campus to the other end in a reasonable time frame,” says Nairn.
What is the public transport experience like for people who are blind or vision impaired?
According to Zel Iscel, many of them find the railway system to be more accessible.
“We had audio announcements on trains long before they had it in Sydney,” says Iscel.
Iscel is the Chair of Blind Citizens WA and owner of disability consultancy Inclusive World. Blind Citizens WA is a peer-support advocacy organisation formed by and for people who are blind and vision impaired. The 61-year-old organisation responds to issues around blindness and vision impairment, and the things and environments that impact it.
Blind Citizens WA work with various organisations such as the Public Transport Authority as part of their reference group, giving advice on blindness and vision impairment.
Iscel says the recent technological advancements have improved accessibility. Screen reading software and mobile applications enable people to receive information about their routes and services.
Blind Citizens WA member Mark Blowers finds most bus stops in the Perth metropolitan area accessible.
“There is a QR scan code located at the same height on all stops. The QR code is on a small metal plate which can be located by touch,” says Blowers. Once scanned with a mobile phone camera, the QR code gives passengers the times of the next few buses.
These technologies can give independence to people who are blind and vision impaired.
Iscel says the applications available today helps people from having to rely on calling Transperth every time they need information, especially during after-hours.
But technology carries its own set of issues. Some people like Iscel find the Journey Planner app to be too big and complicated to navigate. Not everyone is familiar with using technology either, especially those in the older generation.
Eric Seery, another Blind Citizens WA member, uses public transport to travel to and from work multiple times a week.
“My biggest issue is with the bus drivers who don’t speak or respond when asking questions. I’ve never had a guide dog refusal but I have had drivers not stop when I’ve been waiting at bus stops on my own – with guide dog or white cane. Some drivers think they don’t need to stop if they don’t get an arm raised above the shoulder,” says Seery.
One of the issues faced by people that are blind or vision impaired with public transport is hailing buses and finding the correct one.
Simon Chong is a Blind Citizens WA member who often encounters this problem.
“There are multiple buses and routes at my local bus stop, so I need to stop every bus and ask if it is the bus I need,” says Chong.
Blind Citizens Australia, the peak national body, can help issue members with a sign that reads their correct bus number. But Iscel says not many people are comfortable using that.
Iscel suggests adopting a language of communication between bus drivers and vision impaired passengers to improve this issue.
“Maybe we can develop our own communication, that’s like if you see someone holding up a white cane, then stop.”
Then there’s also the issue of road safety, something that goes hand-in-hand with public transport usage for people who are blind and vision impaired.
“A lot of blind people don’t feel safe to use public transport, not necessarily because of the transport itself, but to get to and from the modes of transport can be problematic as well,” says Iscel.
After using public transport, comes the hurdle of crossing a busy intersection. Iscel says there are a lot of issues surrounding road safety for people who are blind and vision impaired, mostly due to the not well-thought-out nature of our roads.
No audible audio indications and roads that are not well aligned are merely some of the safety problems.
Iscel says while accessible road crossings are needed, there also needs to be more education about who uses the roads other than drivers.
Iscel believes the lack of disabled people on these governing, decision-making bodies is one of the reasons behind lack of equal accessibility on public transport.
Iscel says this issue tracks back to the low employment rate of people with disabilities in government bodies. Iscel says the inaccessible Information and Communications Technology (ICT) standards used makes it difficult for blind and vision impaired people to maintain jobs in the public sector.
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) is working with Blind Citizens WA and other advocacy groups around the nation towards the adoption of accessible ICT standards in all Australian public sector workplaces, to ensure that people with disabilities are able to get work and retain it.
“Procurement and deployment of ICT which is not compliant with accessibility standards effectively excludes the employment of people with a disability for the lifetime of those systems, and any public-facing products or services derived from those systems will create barriers to effective use by people with disability,” the Position Statement says.ACCAN Public Procurement of Accessible Information and Communications Technology (ICT): The Community Position (2022)
More than 411,500 Western Australians live with a disability.
In 2018, People with Disabilities WA submitted a Third Review of the Disability Standards for Transport, which stated that the biggest areas of need include lack of assistance, unlevelled platforms on train stations, safety from falling on public transport, and lack of services in regional areas. Some of these issues are still ongoing.
The WA Public Transport Authority is currently running a Bus Stop Accessibility Works Program that aims to upgrade over 600 bus stops each year to comply with Disability Standards. These new bus stops will include improvements such as smooth concrete ground surfaces, unobstructed manoeuvring areas, adjusted kerb heights, and tactile ground surface indicators.
“We need much more comprehensive funding from sensitivity training for staff working with the PTA, and we absolutely need more new infrastructure to be built,” says Nairn.
Nairn thinks there is a lack of visibility of disabled people in public, and more education, public campaigns from advocacy groups, and teaching about disabilities in school is needed.
“That would go a long way to improve the experience of people with disabilities and improve our experience out in public. It would also make things a lot safer for us to be in public,” says Nairn.
Both Nairn and Iscel say more comprehensive services are needed in Perth.
The spread-out nature of our public transport services in Perth makes a trip to a nearby suburb longer than it would typically take by car.
Iscel would like to see more buses internal to a municipality, like the shuttle buses available in Fremantle and Joondalup.
Dr Stian Thoresen says improvements to accessibility also comes down to attitudes.
Dr Thoresen is a Curtin University associate and senior Researcher at NTNU Social Research based in Norway. He previously held various research positions in Curtin, researching areas of inclusion and vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities.
“People with disabilities are a very diverse group with very diverse needs, and that is also reflected in the challenges they experience when using public transport,” says Dr Thoresen.
“You will never have a built environment or infrastructure that will be by default accessible for everyone, but you could make it a lot more accessible through attitudes.”Dr Stian Thoresen
Why is equal accessibility on public transport important, you ask?
“Why not? Why is it important to everyone else?” says Iscel.
“It gets you to where you need to be, whether it’s for work, for leisure, for family, whatever it is – whatever everyone else uses public transport for, we use it too. Sometimes it’s more important for us because we don’t get to have a driver’s licence, so we rely more on public transport to get around.”