With travel technology rapidly changing the way we get around, it’s never been easier to get around than right now. The growth of the smartphone, ubiquitous connectivity and endless access to data are making travel faster, safer and more convenient. But what about for those who mobility isn’t a given? How easy is it for the differently abled to access the transport we take for granted every day?
In recent years, new technologies have emerged to expressly respond to the needs of disabled passengers. But with the advent of AI and a growing focus on personal technology, there comes a real opportunity to raise the standard of travel for everyone, including those with physical or learning disabilities.
Even before the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, public transport companies in the UK took efforts to cater to people with visual impairments. Featuring braille at consistent locations on and around mass transit, installing tactile high-contrast warning surfaces along platform edges and making stop announcements inside and out transit vehicles have all gone some way to making travel safer for blind and partially sighted people.
Now emerging technologies are beginning to surface that focus on making journeys less challenging and more enjoyable for those with visual impairments. The Transport for Edinburgh mobile app comes with a feature that identifies the stop’s name and the bus services that depart from there when the user is nearby.
Wayfindr is an award-winning organisation aimed at helping the visually impaired independently manoeuvre indoor environments through audio-based navigation. With our increasingly connected environment, the dream that those with visual impairments could one day explore the world without limitations seems that little bit closer to reality.
The vibrating wristband concept has been touted as a solution for both deaf and blind commuters, but its value as a means of assisting disabled passengers is in no doubt. For those with hearing impairments, taking public transport can be more challenging than you think.
If you don’t know the area, finding when to disembark without a visual indicator can be a stressful experience. While modern buses and trains now regularly feature visual and audio notifications for the next destination, many older models don’t come with either.
That’s why the vibrating wristband could prove to be such a valuable tool. The device vibrates when the wearer approaches their chosen stop, with some designs incorporating a Bluetooth device that links up with the driver’s touchscreen or ticket machine.
Through further development and increased cooperation with transit companies, wristband technology could go on to redefine the travel experience for millions of people.
Navigating transport can be a major challenge for anyone. For those with learning difficulties, these challenges can be exacerbated by difficulties in understanding timetables and fact-sheets.
That’s why Mencap, the UK-based learning disability charity, has produced a series of factsheets aimed at helping those with learning disabilities understand and navigate the public transport system. The fact-sheets come in an easy-read format and cover every aspect of travel, including how to find your nearest transit station; how to request assistance in advance of a journey; entitlement to discounts; and overall accessibility of different transport types.
Outside the hustle and bustle of major cities, audio-visual information on transport is still heavily lacking. Compliance with PSVAR legislation is a requirement, but with rural and suburban public transport facing consistent funding issues, operators often lack the resources to retrofit their vehicles.
Speaking last year at a Lords debate on bus services, Baroness Jane Campbell argued that increased access for disabled passengers providing audio-visual (AV) announcements on buses would open up travel not only to people with visual impairments but also to those such as people with dementia, autism, learning difficulties and mental health conditions.
Ride-sharing app Uber introduced the UberWAV app for wheelchair users back in 2016, although just like the company, the service has attracted criticism from some. For those looking to use public transport, however, more options are becoming available as developers look to better integrate new technologies with the surrounding environment.
Features like ramps and ‘kneeling vehicles’ now feature as standard for most modern coaches, while tactile paving helps alert people to where a tram or trains’ doors will open, making it easier for the visually impaired to find their carriage.
Apps like the Voice Dream Reader convert text-to-speech, and vice versa, to assist with communication for those with physical and learning challenges.
More developers are waking up to the need for dedicated apps for those with disabilities. With our the near ubiquitous connection that smartphones, roaming data and the IoT bring, we can begin to create a better, safer transport infrastructure for everyone.
Improved staff awareness
Perhaps one of the most important changes transport networks can make to encourage accessibility is in the attitudes of staff. The past two decades have seen a marked improvement in how staff respond to the diverse needs of passengers, but there is still more to do to ensure every passenger is treated with the same level of care.
Lord Ahmad, the (former) Conservative junior transport minister, announced last year that the government was developing guidance on disability equality training. However, the ruling to introduce mandatory training across the bus industry was based on an EU regulation that was due to come into force in 2018, a regulation which could be delayed following the UK’s exit from the EU.
Following the Paralympic Games in 2012, the DfT began to consult with a number of different accessibility and transport groups to introduce more consistent measures across different transports. The results are slowly beginning to take shape. A draft of the Accessibility Action Plan (AAP) released for review was well-received but charity and disability rights campaigners argued the draft could go further, particularly in improving understanding among transport providers and staff to the needs of disabled people.
Whether these recommendations will lead to real change remains to be seen. While the AAP addressed the need for well-trained staff, the lack of consultation with Disabled People’s Organisations on what constitutes a good standard of training led many to see it as a token gesture.
In the UK, legislation on access to transport and facilities for individuals with disabilities was introduced in 1996, with the DfT establishing a comprehensive guideline for the design of accessible transport facilities. But accessibility on transport, particularly outside busy metropolitan cities, still has a long way to go. For citizens with disabilities, technology may provide a piece of the puzzle, but it’s up to everyone to realise the full picture.