By Katelyn Wood
For many Australians, the daily commute on public transport is a simple and even mundane component of their daily routine. However, for the one in five Australians living with a disability, accessing public transport can be, at times, an impossible task.
For the majority of train users, there are two ways out of Como train station – the stairs or the train.
But for Ben Falkiner, who is in a wheelchair, there is only one way and that’s on the train.
Ben Falkiner usually disembarks the train home from work at Mortdale, but today he sits at Como station, two stops later.
He is trapped at the station for half an hour, awaiting the train back to Mortdale.
“I was supposed to get off at Mortdale but for some but some strange, unknown, stupid and dumb reason I ended up from Como” said Falkiner.
Railway personel forgot Ben, it was only when two fellow passengers came to his assistance that Falkiner was able to depart the train.
“Long story short the stupid train driver person forgot about me two stops ago… There were two guys sitting right next to me that actually knocked on the door” reports Falkiner.
“What I wouldn’t do for a pair of working legs. Then I could give them a good kick up the arse. literally… There’s fair…and then there’s whatever comes next… Which is just ‘don’t go there’.”
Ben’s story is not one of purely human error, it is a story which shows the inconsistency of transport accessibility in New South Wales.
Out of the State’s 207 train stations, 140 are inaccessible to people with disabilities.
“Some stations may not be [accessible] and it’s the same with other mediums and modes of transport too. People with disabilities at the moment do not have that surety that they can get off at a station and know it will be accessible” Said Order of Australia recipient, Paralympic medallist, and founder of Inclusion Moves, Geoff Trappett.
“There’s certainly an element in public transport of what I term ‘islands of accessibility’. A determination has been made that people with disability have every right to go to this area but not to another area or another suburb. The way that I normally have a conversation with government is I would ask: ‘So what areas are women allowed to go to in Sydney?’ ‘What areas are Muslims are allowed to go to in Sydney?’ Because that’s essentially what they’re doing to people the disability when they’re picking and choosing stations to get upgraded.” Said Trappett.
Slowly, the State Government is working to upgrade our train stations and improve accessibility.
However, there are growing concerns about the prioritisation and speed of developments across the state.
“The older [trains] are being replaced with new trains and that should address that problem, but it’s just happening so slowly” Acting Shadow Minister for Disability Services and Ageing, Kate Washington said.
“The list that warrants that the priority areas that need to be accessible were prioritised, and that priority list has been thrown out the window by this government.”
“It’s all about delivering, trying to deliver for their own government for their own MP’s in the hope that that they might retain seats in the upcoming election instead of actually delivering for all the people of NSW” said Washington.
The Turnbull Government’s most recent budget marks a positive move towards securing the NDIS into the future.
However, the service which seeks to empower those with disabilities through employment assistance and support services, may be somewhat inaccessible in itself.
“What we are seeing are the NDIS packages with people being funded for accessing services but they’re not being funded for the transport to get there” said Washington.
Transportation is often a daily battle, taken for granted by those without a disability.
Not only is physical access a challenge, but there is a lack of consistency and consideration of Australians with hearing and sight impairments, or people with sensory processing disorders.
“The importance of [tactile elements] often gets dropped away in the whole conversation. It’s often about physical disabilities and it’s so important to always member that there’s people that are trying to access services without sight, and potentially without hearing, or without both” Washington said.
People with a Disability Australia spokesperson, Samantha French, says that public transport really is key.
“Public transport is critical to people with disability in their community. [Public transport is critical] in getting medical assistance and other essential services – getting an education, employment, social life and so on is so fundamental to everything we do.” Said French.
French says however, that while progress is being made towards ensure accessibility state-wide, the progress is undermined by an attitude of obligation, rather than inclusion.
“We really need to see beyond compliance, beyond just ‘special things for special people’” French said.
So then, as Geoff Trappett questions, how ‘public’ is our public transport system and what does this reflect of our society?
“It’s a system where we need to start looking at what the word public should mean. The word public in the phrase ‘public transport’ should, by virtue of being public, mean all people, no matter what their diverse needs, can have access to that public transport. Until we get to that point there will always be an exclusive nature to public transport which is not coming from a rights based and strength based approach” said Trappett.
“Public transport is certainly up there as one of the biggest barriers for people with a disability and it’s because of two reasons. It is a large physical barrier, but attitude is always, always, always going to be the biggest barrier towards people with disability.”