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  • Writer's pictureKyrby Brown

A Wheelchair Users Worst Nightmare

We enjoyed a lovely trip to see The Little Big Things musical in Soho for my Birthday this week. Those who know me will know that I’m no stranger to the West End and the performance was truly excellent and impactful, a huge well-done to all involved in the production.

I will write a piece about the performance at some point in the near future but unfortunately, this blog is not about our lovely evening, it’s about what happened after.

I booked return Passenger Assistance from Harlow Town to Liverpool Street Station over 24 hours before leaving. When getting our train tickets we informed the operator that we would be back after peak hours and went on our merry way! The Stansted Express is one of the few trains with level access and an automatic ramp which is totally awesome, so we were independent for most of our journey.

I made my way back to Liverpool Street after the theatre and jumped on the Stansted Express home. The train pulled into Harlow Town station at approximately 11:45pm, I always try and return to Harlow as there’s a back cab rank out front. Black cabs are generally wheelchair accessible and an easy way to get home.

When we alighted at Harlow Town I found that the lift on platforms 3 and 4 were out of service! My heart sank, I pressed the help buzzer but it didn’t make a sound. I had no way of getting from the platform to the exit, despite many offers of help from travelling footy fans. My chair weighs over 160kg and cannot be safely lifted. I’m not one to panic so I looked at the information boards and called the Greater Anglia Helpdesk. After a painfully confusion conversation they told me ‘someone’ was coming from another station, but they couldn’t tell me where this mystery person was coming from or how long they would be, it was now 00:10.

At 00:34 I called the number again and asked what the plan was and they didn’t seem to have a clue! I was told that I should have booked assistance (which I did!) and that someone would be coming from another station. When I brought up that that wouldn’t really help with the stairs I got the telephone equivalent of a shrug. Luckily the Cambridge Train pulled into Platform 3 at 00:37 and the driver jumped off (having been radioed by control) and told me we were going to head to Bishop Stortford (2 stops along) where an accessible taxi had been called to take me home. Hallelujah! I thought, that was doable and I wouldn’t be out in the cold much longer - how wrong I was!

We then pulled into Bishop Stortford and were handed to the night crew there, the station was closing but they were kind enough to allow me to wait in the waiting room inside the station. I was informed that a taxi was 40 minutes away at around 1am, at nearly 2:30am the station staff called to get an update only to find out that the taxi had been redirected because they needed my wheelchair dimensions (we gave these on the first call)!

It was at this point (out of pure desperation) that I suggested I transfer into a standard taxi and lock my wheelchair at the station. This was an absolute last resort, I hated the idea of leaving such a vital and expensive piece of equipment in a rail station overnight but I was extremely cold, extremely tired and there didn’t seem to be any other way of getting home. It's important to note that for many others this would not have been an option.

I finally pulled onto the driveway at 3:35am. I collected my wheelchair the next day in a taxi, thankfully it had been left untouched. At the time I was just glad to be home and safe but, having spent the last couple of days recovering, I now feel that this is a story that needs to be told. I’m not pointing any fingers, the platform and train crews we encountered were nothing but helpful and courteous. They did everything they could to help.

The fault here lies in a series of communication errors and a system that recognises people as numbers, not human beings. The whole ordeal was ultimately down to the one person who did not report the broken lift at Harlow Town when it was taken out of commission. They probably had no idea of the impact that would have on my evening but this tiny human error was massive to me. When I called the help desk I did not feel reassurance or understanding, I felt like a number, a complication.

I will say I have had a series of stringent apologies from Greater Anglia, which I do appreciate. I’m not writing this out of anger, I want raise awareness so that things can get better. Mistakes are part of being human but it can’t hurt to think twice about how mistakes can affect those around us, learn from them so that, in the distant future, Disabled people can travel at all hours without fear of being stuck or forgotten.

Image description: me sitting in my wheelchair with Mum at the theatre bar, before it all went wrong!

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