13.9 million people in the UK have a limiting long-term illness, impairment or disability

As disability charity Scope’s previous research has found, disabled people want to be able to set and achieve goals and be seen as more than their impairment. The three key factors they identified in achieving this aspiration are confidence, connectedness and independence. Unfortunately, for many disabled people public transport can be a major barrier to independence.

Working in partnership with Scope, Opinium created an innovative programme of research to uncover and explore the physical and attitudinal barriers faced by disabled people on public transport across the UK. By exploring the impact these restrictions had on their day-to-day lives the research can inform future transport policy development.

The research process

Research itself can present barriers for many disabled people. Answering a survey presents challenges for a person who has a visual or hearing impairment and attending a focus group can be a logistical nightmare.

To mitigate these, we ensured that our research programme was designed around accessibility. Instead of in-person focus groups we conducted an online qualitative Pop-Up Community so that people could answer in their homes at a time convenient to them and in an environment they are comfortable with. For visually-impaired community members we involved a carer as well, and tailor-made all tasks to be designed for inclusivity such as allowing people to submit responses by text or video.

Online communities provide you with the ability to reach people that would not be possible for traditional focus groups. Several disabled community members with anxiety mentioned that this would have prevented them from travelling to and attending a focus group.

This immersive and interactive community was held among 20 disabled people, bringing to life the human stories. To provide statistical validation, an online survey was conducted among 1,000 disabled people to identify challenges faced and overcome when using public transport. A further survey among 2,000 UK adults allowed us to provide context by comparing how non-disabled people experienced transport and dealt with similar challenges.

When we presented the findings at the MRS Travel, Transport and Mobility Conference, these emotionally powerful videos of people describing the difficulties that they faced and the impact it had on them, drove home how difficult accessing public transport and even getting off easily can be. One of our community members, who is a wheelchair, mentions that sometimes she does not know where she is going to end up as on many occasions a person is not there to meet her on the other end to help her get off the train.

Research findings

Poor public transport restricts the ability of disabled people to connect with their community and live independently and from our research it is clear that there is a significant group of disabled people who want to use public transport but don’t because it is not inclusive. With changes, these people could and would make greater use of public transport.

Adding to this, it is clear that experience of public transport is not uniform; there are significant variations across different regions and modes of transport and variation between different transport companies. This makes it difficult for disabled people to plan their journeys, particularly anything outside of their day-to-day routine, with any confidence that the system will deliver.

Finally, as with so many things, it all comes down to people. While it is depressing but predictable that disabled people, particularly those with hidden or invisible impairments, face discrimination from the general public when trying to use disabled-friendly facilities such as seats, the same should not be said for transport company staff. So much of the transport infrastructure’s disability-friendliness depends on staff members taking their obligations towards disabled passengers seriously such as helping them on and off trains or setting up ramps to get on and off buses. While there were many examples of staff members going above and beyond to help out, there were also examples of disabled people being let down, left behind or made to feel like a burden. For many in our community, having a helpful member of staff can be the difference between a journey being easy and it being impossible.