We store cookies on your device to make sure we give you the best experience on this website. I'm fine with this - Turn cookies off
Switch to an accessible version of this website which is easier to read. (requires cookies)

Flagging cabs in a wheelchair

April 14, 2008 12:00 AM
By Geoff Adams-Spink , Age & disability correspondent, BBC News

Think you've got problems finding a cab? Try it in a wheelchair. Almost every time Baroness Nicky Chapman of Leeds comes to London to sit in the House of Lords, she is refused a ride in a black cab because she uses a wheelchair.

Last summer, after being refused by nine successive drivers - the last of whom she says became abusive - she complained to taxi watchdog the Public Carriage Office and found that the relevant disabled access laws have yet to be implemented by the Department for Transport. Now the Crossbencher plans a private member's bill to give wheelchair users greater access to licensed taxis.

With accessibility a hot issue in transport - it was this that finally did for London's iconic Routemaster buses - I spend an afternoon trying to hail cabs with wheelchair user Ruth Bashall, a disability rights campaigner and one-time trainer of London taxi drivers.

We meet at Charing Cross Station. As Ms Bashall uses a large electric wheelchair, we're on the look-out for one of the newer, wider TX cabs. Luckily, there's one right at the front of the station's taxi rank. The driver cannot be more helpful, moving his car to a better loading position, freeing up a jammed ramp and fitting an extension to give a shallower gradient for Ruth's wheelchair.

And he's typically robust when asked why some fellow drivers seem reluctant to pick up passengers in wheelchairs. "Taxi drivers are all self-employed - they get no grants whatsoever from the government or from the local authority [to modify their cabs]. They expect us to act like a social service, and we're not - we're just scraping a living in very stressful situations."

He drops us on bustling Oxford Street, where Ruth Bashall and I try to hail a second cab. Two drivers with their hire light on sail past, and another suggests that we try a rank on another street. But just around the corner, Ms Bashall sticks her hand up and a driver named William stops.

Although not part of a radio circuit, William says he picks up wheelchair passengers about once a week. He thinks other cabbies have no excuse. "It takes a little bit longer than normal - if it's just one a week you can put yourself out," he says. Ms Bashall thinks there is what she calls "an irreductable core" of drivers who simply refuse to change.

In London, drivers who are part of a radio circuit - a telephone booking service for cabs - are far more likely to encounter disabled passengers than those who are hailed on the street.

Computer Cab plc books taxis for disabled people who are part of the subsidised Taxi-card scheme. The company provides specific training for drivers so that they know how to operate accessibility equipment that they are required by law to carry, says head of operations, Malcolm Paice. "The way that we sell the training to the drivers is to say, 'you've gone out and invested in one of the most accessible vehicles in London - let us show you how to make the most of that'." Drivers unwilling to take wheelchair users or with broken equipment get no further work from Computer Cab until the situation is rectified, says Mr Paice.

But there is a more basic, perhaps less palatable reason why drivers won't stop for disabled people, says Bob Oddy, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association. "When you're confronted with particularly a severely disabled person, when you're not expecting it and you're not used to it, it can be awkward and embarrassing. I'm not saying they should do so, but that's the reality."

Mr Oddy says that drivers who are not part of a radio circuit seldom come across wheelchair users - perhaps once in two years on average. The Public Carriage Office says it is in discussion with the Department for Transport about bringing in the regulations contained in the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

Julian Fiorentini, the mobility programme manager, says the PCO only realised that these had yet to be enacted when it tried to help Baroness Chapman prosecute the drivers who refused to take her fare. But Mr Fiorentini says that the situation is complicated and that amendments to the original legislation have to be made before the rules can be brought into force.

Whether it is measures to reduce discrimination or design standards for disabled access to taxis, campaigners think that the government is sitting on its hands. "There are some 380 local authorities and virtually none of them have identical policies," says Andrew Overton, whose family has been manufacturing and selling taxis since 1906. Local authorities are looking for guidance from government about what they require in a way of standards for an accessible taxi." He says that the industry was given draft regulations to consider 10 years ago but that nothing has happened since.

But junior transport minister, Rosie Winterton, says the original focus on the needs of wheelchair users is too narrow. Since the government said in 2003 that it would look at making all taxis wheelchair accessible, the Department for Transport has received representations from other groups saying their needs have not been taken into account. "There are different requirements for people with different disabilities, so simply making every taxi wheelchair accessible is not the answer," says Ms Winterton.

But Baroness Chapman thinks that the time for talking is long past. "Unless you actually experience the discrimination, it's easy to get waylaid. People are sat around tables in committees trying to design the perfect taxi to cover every impairment, and you can't - people with the same impairments have different needs."