Most of my travelling adventures took place when I was able to walk a bit further. There are many reasons why I haven’t used public transport since the relapse to end all relapses back in 2002, chiefly accessibility (obligations for public transport under the Disability Discrimination Act come into play in 2020). However, I guess I can use this post to talk about my experiences as someone with an invisible impairment, as I was before I began to need the wheelchair for most journeys out of the house.
I did have a mobility aid of sorts; a foldable stool which I carried on my shoulder everywhere I went – you too can have one for just £2.99. This meant that I could sit down almost whenever and wherever I went. And I did; I used to walk a bit, step out of people’s way and sit down, walk a bit further and sit down. I would also sit down at bus stops, on station platforms, waiting for a taxi, in queues, anywhere I would otherwise have to stand. This worked far better for me than having a stick or a cane, but it meant that there was no sign of a problem when I was actually on my feet.
(Incidentally, this is a very useful item to have in the house for people who struggle to stand. It is a cheap item which will eventually collapse, but I still have one in the kitchen so I can sit down while the kettle boils and that sort of thing).
Anyway, people work on what they see. In my case they saw a slim young woman with a fairly normal looking gait. Now this was no problem whatsoever, in principle. It was very often a problem in reality.
On the least disastrous end of the spectrum were things like the fact that I couldn’t give my seat up to someone who was elderly, pregnant or otherwise more frail-looking than I was. Which made me feel uncomfortable even though it is possible that nobody ever noticed. Meanwhile, nobody would automatically think to give up their seat for me and I couldn’t stand for the length of time it might take to plead my case. Nor was I ever pretty enough to make young men simply fall off their seats. So if the bus looked nearing full capacity I simply couldn’t get on.
Somewhat more problematic were the transport staff who would use my perceived fitness to cut corners. The sort of thing that wouldn’t have mattered to a fit young woman. Drivers who missed my stop if, having rung the bell, I didn’t stand up and make my way to the door well in advance. The next stop would only be 100yrds down the road, not two minutes agonising walk, not two or three extra days to recover from the trip… And then there was one particular bus-driver, who spotting this young woman at the bus stop (sat down on her foldable stool) decided not to pull in to the lay-by at all. He stopped the bus in road, holding the traffic up and shouting at me to hurry up as I crossed the road. When I told him where I was going (three or four stops away), he proposed that he should charge me double for being so bloody lazy.
On the most disastrous end of the spectrum, I struggled to get help when things went wrong. The worst train journey I ever took found me at one particular station absolutely packed with other people, tempers frayed since there were no trains and no information about when the situation might be resolved. The station staff weren’t speaking to anyone, and there was no visible sign that I was less able to cope with the situation than anyone else. In the end, my sister, who was elsewhere, phoned the rail company and described to them the conditions in which her poor crippled sister was waiting in. At which point they kindly put me in a taxi for the remaining ninety miles of my journey – for free! But honestly, I was in a rather bad state and any longer and they might have had to stretcher me off that accursed platform.
And that is the real killer for someone with my sort of condition when it comes to travelling; I could never afford for things to go dramatically wrong. I did a lot of travelling alone by train in my late teens when I was at this level of health and had total confidence in my ability to work out where I needed to be, to deal with minor set-backs, to find help and information should I need it. But the more my physical and cognitive stamina deteriorated the worse the worst case scenario became, until the last few journeys I made were taken in a state of complete anxiety.