‘Disability Awareness Training’

For a few months now I’ve been consulting with Sheffield City Council (SCC) to help them to try and improve their taxi and private hire services in the area. It’s widely accepted that there are huge issues with these services for disabled people across the country, with service refusal and over charging being common. I’m going to avoid naming names in this post, but I want to say that SCC and Disability Sheffield do seem invested in trying to make things better in the city. I am not convinced we are going to achieve a perfect service, but I hope there is going to be noticeable improvement – though it may take a few years.

I can’t remember how I got involved in this work now. I know that I went to a virtual meeting to share my experiences of taxi services in the UK, and in Sheffield particularly. That was an experience. It was both reassuring and depressing to hear how common issues similar to mine occurred. How bad the laws are in this area due to them being totally outdated and the models that the councils run their taxi services on are totally designed for capitalised ideals rather than being useful for any customer who isn’t tech savvy or who is disabled. In one of the first meetings, someone for one of the main taxi firms in the city was present and (as usual), I and the other disabled people there were met with an aggressive defensiveness that was intimidating and uncalled for. There was no recognition that the attitude they were displaying was exactly the type of problematic attitude we were talking about or that yes it is great they prioritise people getting to medical appointments, but actually disabled people have lives, have jobs and need to be social and so a disabled person getting to work on time, and/or being able to go to the pub is just as important and has just as serious knock on effects – including health impacts.

Since that meeting I’ve been involved in trying to alter the councils rules and processes for taxi drivers and firms and how they respond to service requests from disabled people. This is with particular focus on reducing (I’m not optimistic enough to say eliminating) the number of service refusals and reducing the wait times especially for those of us who need a Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle (WAV). From my own experiences before the pandemic, I could be waiting for over an hour for a WAV, even if I pre-book and since the pandemic, coupled with the green air regulations that are being implemented, WAVs are becoming even less available. Attitudes of drivers is generally really poor when dealing with disabled people, with me being often left unrestrained in the vehicle or being met with aggression and the attitude that the driver is doing me some sort of favour by turning out to me. I could go on but this isn’t the point of this particular post… I will say though that changing the rules and regulation is much more difficult than I first assumed as if the rules and regulations in one city/town are “too tough” then drivers choose to train elsewhere but are still able to work in the area.

The issues and others (such as people with guide dogs being refused service) have been nationally recognised and as part of trying to solve this problem drivers are being told they need to complete disability awareness training. As part of my work with the council I have been asked to sit in on some potential training services to give my feedback and decide on which one we want to go with for the drivers in Sheffield.

I sat in on my first session this morning. It was an interesting experience – I went through a number of emotions from being impressed, to being angry and despair. I think my expectations are a little too high perhaps but it’s hard not to be quite nit picky when you are disabled and work within the area of disability studies and understand the importance of the ‘little things’. On the note of being too aware of things, one of the biggest things I was shocked at was just how little awareness of disability issues, laws, responsibilities etc there was at the start of the training. Perhaps I’m too much in a bubble of disabled people and those who are very disability aware and have forgotten that most people have very little awareness of the issues we face.

There was a lot of good stuff in the training. They try to tackle issues around language use, the importance and illegal nature of refusing services and of overcharging. They made the drivers aware of the different coats that different types of assistance dogs wear and also spoke about the different white canes people can use and what the colours all mean. There was a lot about the importance of correctly securing wheelchairs, and the person in them. The session was very interactive and there was an expectation of participation but there was no form of test or knowledge check at the end.

There was a fair bit that I was a bit more apprehensive about though (and again perhaps I’m being too picky with some of it?). There was a distinct lack of disabled peoples voice but a lot of ‘how would you feel if X happened’… this felt very paternalistic and I feel that people know they are meant to say ‘terrible’ but actually until it happens they don’t have a clue how it makes people feel. The Equality Act 2010 and other legislation was mentioned but the push for doing the right thing was much more based on this ‘how would you feel?’ rather than pointing out the legalities of it. Having said that there was some mention of drivers being fined and having their licence revoked for refusal of service and overcharging.

There was also a big emphasis on ‘protecting the customer’ where the drivers were being told to log any issues they encounter (with their vehicle or pick ups) and also how they have helped disabled customers. So for example if a driver is sent to a job that they can’t do because the scooter won’t fit in their cab, they are meant to apologise, get another cab sent asap and log the incident. If they help someone they are meant to log what impairment the person has (I wasn’t clear if they are meant to ask or if this was more like ‘mobility issue’ as there was some contradictory talk about what ‘disability’ a person has, at the same time as talking about being a wheelchair user, or using a stick), what impact that impairment has on the person and what the driver could/did do to help. The example of a migraine was used, and the drivers had to write down all the ways a migraine could impact a person and then list how they could mitigate of that stuff. At first I didn’t like this bit. Firstly, not everyone will share their diagnosis nor should we be expected to (I’m not sure that is what they were saying should happen). Secondly, not everyone experiences the same condition/impairment in the same way, and although later in the training it was made clear that drivers should ask customers if they want/need help and how they can help, I also felt like it was coming across as this is what you should do. As I neared the end of the training though I was left feeling like if I had no experience of disability, I’m not entirely sure I would know the best way to approach different situations and that actually some sort of more generic guidance was needed. There was no discussion about how to guide a person with visual impairment for example, just that they should offer. There was no discussion about how mental health may affect people or Autism or learning disability. There was a brief mention about someone with mutism and it’s a good idea to carry and pen and paper. Alongside these logs being said to ‘protect the customer’ it was also pretty obvious that these were to protect the driver as they were to be used if the customer subsequently complained about how they were treated. These logs were meant to be in little books that drivers keep with them in the cabs: not entirely convinced that drivers will actually do this, and I feel like these would be very easy just to make up after the fact. Surely if these was truly about protecting both parties, it would be some sort of digital system and should be filled out for every customer.

The final major issue I had with this training was the advice to the drivers about electric wheelchairs. I assume not all training gives this advice because I’ve never heard it before but here goes. They were told that the power should be turned off, and they should put the chair on freewheel and push the person up the ramp. This is for safety as there has been a case of a wheelchair user not stopping and going through the door at the other side and obviously hurting themselves. This is so problematic. Firstly electric wheelchairs are really heavy (which was acknowledged) and many have to be pushed against a motor as part of its safely features (to stop people careening off down a hill), so I doubt most drivers could manage to do it. Secondly, I don’t want a driver fiddling about with my chair – they don’t have training on how to put chairs on freewheel and there are so many different chairs anyway it would be hard to give this training. What if they break it? Who is liable and where does this leave me whilst it gets repaired? Finally, safety goes both ways. I can guarantee that 99% of wheelchair users are safer getting in a cab under their own steam than relying on someone to push them up a ramp. What if the driver mis-judges it or can’t control the wheelchair? I don’t know anyone of my friends who would be happy being told that we aren’t allowed to deal with the ramp and we had to be manhandled. This piece of advice alone would stop me using cabs altogether.

Later in the week, all this will be fed-back to SCC and Disability Sheffield and we will go from there to decide what we do about the training. I’m really excited to be involved with it all but it takes a toll emotionally when it feels like things aren’t going to change very quickly. However, it is really positive that this work is being done.

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