Last month I was selected to take part in the Transport for London Please Offer Me a Seat trial which is the first of its kind on TFL to alert passengers to those needing a seat. Badges and cards were given to qualifying people with disabilities and/ or ‘hidden illnesses’ i.e. that were not ‘visible’.
Personally I hate the term ‘hidden illness’ as I’m not hiding anything. It’s suggests something other than ‘proper illness’. It is a term that has been coined to basically describe ‘biology’ to the ignorant. But we shall have to continue to use it until we have equity.
I digress. Since having the badge I have made three return journeys, consisting of a total of eighteen trains (three each single journey). On seventeen trains I found a seat as I had boarded off peak. The eighteenth train was during peak time. This made all the difference in people’s reactions to my badge.
On the first journey, I didn’t feel confident enough to wear it plus there were empty seats. On the second trip, I had arranged to meet my boyfriend for a talk at the Royal Festival Hall. I travelled alone and was very nervous about wearing the badge but I did. I was worried about public reaction and possible abuse. The TFL pack sent to me had instructions on what to do if abuse was encountered and I couldn’t remember any of it. My default was most likely going to be either sarcasm, bursting into tears – or both! That’d freak them out though right?
It was like going on a first date, where you think everyone knows and is looking at you. I was right to a point. I boarded the Metropolitan line during the end of the school rush and found an empty seat. My badge attracted stares all the way to my interchange onto the Bakerloo and Jubilee lines to Waterloo station. Stares from everyone but the school kids who were only interested in each other’s excited chatter, like they hadn’t just spent all day at school together! Fondly reminding me of myself and my friends at that age!
As the school rush turned into the rush hour, I was glad I had a seat. Just about every person who got on the Tube looked at me. And when I say looked, I mean ‘stared’. Not in a hostile way, most looked confused, I wondered if they just thought I was pregnant as the similar TFL ‘Baby on Board’ badges had been around for a few years now. I still get asked i.d to buy paracetamol, so maybe they thought I was a pregnant teenager! Maybe they were disapproving looks! But seriously it was like I was an alien from outer space. Anyway I reached Waterloo and met my boyfriend feeling rather proud of myself for braving the journey with my new badge.
I felt I was lucky that day, I had boarded trains just before they filled up so I was able to find a seat straight away. Then I thought I shouldn’t have to ‘feel lucky’. I should feel assured that I would get a seat whether the train is empty or full. I realised that what I was feeling ‘lucky’ about was avoiding the awkwardness and vulnerability involved with interacting with my other passengers for a seat. You never know how people will react.
I remember one news article where a young woman with a chronic illness was physically assaulted by an old lady when she didn’t give up her seat on the bus for her even though she explained her illness, and then the bus driver threw the young woman off the bus in the middle of nowhere. This said, I do believe most people in this world are decent. Nevertheless when you hear these stories, some first hand from friends, it makes you very cautious.
The next time I used the badge I was escorting my partner’s dad (who had been visiting from out of London) to his train. As I left him, rush hour hit. Boarding the Piccadilly Line at Oxford Street with my badge visible, everyone rushed for a seat leaving none for me. I stood and looked at everyone at my end of the carriage – I had a few glances then suddenly everyone was glued to their phones/ newspaper or really concentrating on that tube advert. That’s right! No one was staring at me anymore!
There was even one woman who held a small bunch of flowers up to her face. At one point she peeked around the flowers and looked at me, saw my badge then hid behind the flowers again! Yes that happened! If I hadn’t started to feel the pain, fever and dizziness kicking in from standing up, it would have been funny!
I waited to see if anyone would budge and nobody did, I was about say something when a passenger on the other side of me exited so I grabbed their seat which was my preference to confrontation.
Unfortunately the anxiety of not having a seat on this journey was no different from any other pre-badge one, as was the pain of having to stand, the RA fever from the pain and the overwhelming feeling of passing out as my blood pressure dropped. When I did eventually get a seat I was already filled with anxiety and pain from what was essentially ‘just a few minutes’ to anyone else. And the funniest thing was as I sat down the stares started again! People were literally unable to take their eyes off me and my badge!
The London Underground is renowned for no one making eye contact, well I had plenty – when I had a seat that is!
The introduction of these badges is very welcome and long overdue, myself and my friends have talked of designing our own before now! However the responsibility has fallen on those of us with disabilities and chronic illnesses to put our heads above the parapet by wearing these badges. Being disabled in a society which is designed for the use of able bodied people already makes us feel vulnerable and at risk. Public transport can be particularly intimidating.
Whilst wearing the badge all my senses are in overdrive as I’m aware of the attention it brings. And when the badge gets ignored it creates more vulnerablity as it emphasises the lack of empathy in the people surrounding us. I know many disabled people will not wear the badges because of this. There have been mixed reviews on Twitter from others taking part in the trial. Some have had success but those who are not very confident in bringing attention to themselves seem to be getting ignored and bullied out of a seat.
I think TFL could support disabled people with a London Underground campaign to raise public awareness of these badges and how imperative they are for those using them. Having a seat for someone with chronic illnesses such as mine is the difference between being able to make that journey in relative comfort, and making that journey then being unable to function for the next week.
That being said the Please Offer Me a Seat trial is exactly that, a trial, so once TFL take into the account of all the feedback from the people taking part, hopefully we will see a more accessible Transport for London for all.
illustration my own