I am John McGann from Dublin, Ireland. I study at the University of North London doing a degree in psychology and Irish studies. I came over on an internship for the summer to look at disability advocacy. My disability is cerebral palsy, which affects movement and, in my case, speech. I wanted to compare the American and British advocacy systems with the idea of becoming an advocate when I graduate. In the following paragraphs I discuss various aspects of living in London from a disabled person’s point of view. Areas covered include social services, transport, and accommodations.
London is a spectacular city for most visitors. We have Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the West End’s shopping Mecca and Theatre land. There is no doubt that London from a tourist’s point of view is a very impressive place steeped in history, pageantry, and tradition. However, there is a different London if you live there and are disabled.
I use Home Helps a lot. The Local Department of Social Services provides these. I get 18 hours per week. This breaks down into 14 hours for food preparation, 2 for shopping and house cleaning, and 2 for laundry. Social Services also provides occupational therapists. They help me with finding better ways of doing everyday tasks, and authorize major changes in the apartment such as replacing the bath with a shower and redesigning my kitchen. Transport needs are also assessed by Social Services. I have a London Transport card, which allows me free trips on all public transport in the London area. A greater concession is my Taxicard. This allows me to hail down a Computercab, part of the famous London black Cabs.
London is an interesting place from the point of view of someone in a wheelchair. London Underground (subway) is notoriously inaccessible. Out of 275 stations only the stations on the new Jubilee Line extension are accessible. The Underground is the oldest in the world and so was never designed with disabled people in mind. Three particular problems are: a very big gap between train and platform; escalators; and the sheer number of people using it, which makes it extremely uncomfortable for a wheelchair user.
The reason I don’t use it is the escalators. You must keep on the right-hand side. Since I am left-handed, and my balance is poor, I need to hold the banister, which means that getting onto these escalators is extremely hazardous for me.
Well over 90% of the famous red double-decker buses are not accessible to people who use wheelchairs. It will take at least 15 years to renew the whole bus fleet.
All London taxicabs ten years old and newer are fully accessible. We have a scheme (program) called Taxicard, which a lot of London disabled people use. This is where we can use certain black cabs at a subsidized rate. I can get a cab in one of two ways. My usual way is by phone. I give my number and they know where to come. The second, and more inconvenient, way is to hail a cab on the street. Trying to stop a Computercab if it’s among a few black cabs can be challenging.
All black cabs have the yellow ‘for hire’ light in front. Only Computercabs will have a blue light immediately below the yellow light. This is how I identify them at night. There is a problem in that since Taxicard holders only pay about $2.50 up to a meter reading of about $18.00, there is very little incentive for a driver to stop. (Each London borough reimburses the driver the balance of the fare at the end of the month.) A lot of people with disabilities will use Dial-a-Ride rather than Computercab.
One mode of transport that is definitely 100% accessible is the Dockland Light Railway, which is limited to the financial center called Bank and the East End of London. The new tram system in Croydon, which has just opened, must also be totally accessible. All London disabled and elderly people (65 and older) have free travel on all London public transport systems, Many disabled people drive private cars. Most disabled people lease their cars through a scheme called “Motability.” The mobility allowance which disabled people receive each month is paid directly to the leasing companies. Every three years people get new cars through this scheme.
Orange badge holders (equivalent to the blue disability parking placards) can park in restricted areas and a parking bay is reserved near their home.
There are mainly two types of accommodation (housing): private and council (public housing). Council housing is generally much cheaper than private housing, but is becoming scarce since the last government encouraged privatization. I live in a council flat (public housing). Because I get Income Support most of my rent gets paid through housing benefit.
Within the private sector there are several types of housing. At the bottom end of the market are bed and breakfasts. These tend to be the poorest and the accommodation is the worst. Housing Associations are popular. They can be specialized in that they can be for specific sectors of the population. The place where I lived before had a lot of people who were in long-term institutions. This was semi-sheltered where there were cleaners to service the apartments. Other locations would have just elderly residents and much more care would be provided.
There are a lot of differences between disability services in the United States and Great Britain. The main difference is in how services are provided. With respect to health care, for example, the British National Health Service provides health care for everyone who needs it regardless of income. In the United States, on the other hand, you have to pay for health care if you do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. Public transit is free in London, whereas here disabled people must pay a limited fare. There is much more choice in public transit in London. There are a lot of housing options in London whereas here the options are limited. There is no ideal system. Both places have advantages and disadvantages.
John McGann is interning in the Advocacy Department at The Metropolitan Center For Independent Living this summer and can be reached at (651) 603-2028 or via email at [email protected]