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What the Slow Train to Reading Taught One Severely Sight Impaired Traveller

I find the best way to pass the time when sitting on a train is to put pen to paper. This article began with me sitting on one at Didcot Parkway. I should never have been here, but an incident at Oxford led to me missing my intended train (but more about that later). 

It had been an eventful day leading to me discovering I’d reached the milestone of being Severely Sight Impaired. It had also highlighted how varied the support can be when travelling independently with a disability.

For years I’d been a confident traveller. I first took a transatlantic flight alone in 1995 at just 14 and I can’t count the number of times I’ve run the gauntlet back to Paddington from Camden, Brixton or Kentish Town to catch the last fast train home after a gig.

This all changed about 3 months ago as my sight continued to rapidly deteriorate, and I started relying more on the passenger assistance services provided on the railways. 

If you’d have told me last summer that I would need to hold onto a complete stranger’s arm to board and leave a train safely I would have laughed. It turns out it’s not as demeaning as it sounds and as 2022 begins, I accept that this is simply the way it is.

For many, these services could be seen as nice-to-haves, but for me and many other disabled travellers they are the difference between retaining our independence and becoming more isolated.

In the past few months, my travel habits have begun to open with more visits to the office and a few trips to London for work and a gig. The thing these trips had in common is they were planned days, if not weeks, in advance and I had time to organise the necessary assistance. 

When all goes well, the service is impeccable. Often, I’ll be met at my local station by a member of the remote team who will see me to Reading where the platform-based team will assist me across to the next train and, if I’m heading into London, the hand-offs will continue from train to platform all the way into Paddington and down to the tube. 

Things are slightly different if I’m going to the office in Farnborough, Hampshire, where the local operator relies on the on-train staff to provide a dual guard and assistance role but in the main, the service works okay.

It’s more challenging when the trips are unplanned or change on the day. Here, I’m much more reliant on an assistant being free. Mostly on the Paddington mainline there is an abundance of staff available and, more often than not, they put the needs of the traveller first – asking what support we need and not overstepping any boundaries. 

Likewise, on the underground, the attendants are always supportive as I approach the turnstiles offering assistance to get to the platform and board the train as well as ensuring there is someone at my destination to help me back up to street level.

Putting the traveller at the centre of the service is the critical difference between simply providing something to meet a statutory requirement and providing it because there is a genuine desire to give the best possible service to all travellers, no matter their circumstances or abilities.

Sadly, there are times when the service breaks down and the result can range from minor inconvenience to severe embarrassment. A recent incident caused both significant distress to me and contributed to me missing my train. This was the day I found out I was severely sight impaired.

Less than two weeks before Christmas I was heading back home after an emergency appointment at the Oxford Eye Hospital. Disorientated from the dilating eye drops and finding out that when your vision is measured in the number of fingers you can see, you meet the criteria to be classed as legally blind, I reached the station with minutes to spare.

The Reading-bound trains usually leave from Platform 1, directly inside the barrier so there’s no need to go over the footbridge but an attendant advised this had changed. Platform 4 is on the other side so he kindly offered to radio across to the platform to hold the train.

I thanked him and headed to the footbridge steps, at which point things started to go wrong. As I approached the steps, the assistant arrived and told me we would take the lift instead. I knew that the train was about to leave and it would be quicker to take the stairs, but he insisted, so we headed to the lift doors.

We were on the footbridge when he asked where I was heading. When I said Reading, he stopped and again insisted we were going the wrong way. I instructed that there had been an alteration but, instead of listening, he proceeded to check his phone as the train began to leave. I admit I was short with him at this point; for that, I sincerely apologise.

So there I am, sitting at Didcot after catching the slow train, cold, tired, in shock from the afternoon’s news and knowing I’d be over an hour late getting home. I couldn’t be sure that I’d have made the original train if he’d have listened to me, and now I’ll never know. 

For the first time in my life, I felt that my wishes were being ignored – just because I’m disabled – and words can’t describe how this made me feel. 

It’s never right to ignore us, simply because we’re disabled. We always know what’s best for us. Whether it’s taking the stairs instead of a lift, using a cane or holding someone’s arm, or simply declining any help at all. The best approach is always to listen to what we’re saying.

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