As a seasoned commuter and an expert at navigating my way around the London Underground, I know exactly how to weave my way effortlessly through the thousands of tourists and other commuters that descend on Victoria train station everyday. Some clearly bewildered by the scale of the place, the noise, the hustle and bustle.
I know exactly where to stand on the platform of Kings Cross station to increase the possibility of getting a seat. Part of the skill of the seasoned London commuter is the ability to avoid the Big Issue sellers, men and women collecting for this or that charity. You learn to avoid eye contact with the homeless people sitting on cold and damp pavements, though you might occasionally give them and their dog a watery smile as you rush past. London streets and underground stations are never still, always teeming with life. It is against this backdrop and mindset that on Tuesday morning, on my way to the NHS strategic partnership meeting and at my usual pace, that I stopped in my tracks as I left Euston Square station.
It was about 09:20 and a young Asian lad wearing a luminescent gilet with the words, ‘help disabled people’ written on his chest was shaking his collection tin with vigour, wishing everyone that passed by a ‘good morning’ and a ‘great day’. I did a double take because the young man was I believe someone that had learning difficulties. What struck me about him was his enthusiasm for the job in hand. He was clearly enjoying himself, and the fact that practically everyone passed him without so much as a glance in his direction did not dent or deter his enthusiasm for the task of collecting for his charity.
As I drew to a halt, probably four or five steps past the young man, someone put money into his tin. His smile broadened and he thanked the person, wishing them a great day.
I fished around in my purse, found some change and put some money in his tin, smiled and turned my attention back to getting to the venue for my meeting on time. It was a great meeting but I was also conscious I had to get to the NMC in Portland Square for a presentation I had to give at 2pm. I left the venue in Euston Street at 1:30 and headed back to the underground station. Imagine my surprise when on entering the station concourse I saw the same young man, still smiling and wishing everyone – whether they contributed to his cause or not – a great day. It appeared that he hadn’t moved at all, he was in exactly the same spot that I left him nearly four and a half hours previously and, if you recall, Tuesday was cold and damp. He shook his tin as I went past and again I stopped and rummaged around in my oversized and untidy handbag for more change. ‘Have you been here all morning?’ I asked him, ‘yes, m’am’ he said, ‘have a great day’. I guess that he had been told to be polite and cheerful, but no one would have been able to instil in him this natural enthusiasm and energy.
Just watching him made me smile.
It also made me think about people with learning difficulties and other disabilities and how as a society we very often neglect their needs or see them as equals.
About 9 years ago my husband was walking across a pedestrian crossing and was run over by a car, he ended up in hospital and had to have surgery to his leg along with several skin grafts. As a consequence of this he was unable to walk unaided for quite some time. When we went out we had to push him in a wheelchair with his bad leg stretched out in front of him on a splint. The interesting thing about this was how we as a family – but more than that, how Derek a senior teacher in a school in Harrow – was treated. People treated him as if he were invisible preferring to talk to me rather than have to talk to Derek. They were obviously uncomfortable with his disability; waiting for lifts to take us up or down was a less than pleasant experience, negotiating a wheelchair, shopping and children would test anyone’s mettle and of course no one stopped to let us through, often barging in front of us to get into the lift.
Those of you that know me will know that I would not let that kind of thing happen to me more than once. In supermarkets, Derek could not get through some of the checkout aisles and more often than not there were stairs and less than level ground to negotiate, a total nightmare. It was tiresome and frustrating and as a family I was thankful that we only had to put up with the situation for a relatively short while until his leg healed. What would it be like to have to live out lives permanently thinking about how we would not only be received in society but also having to negotiate the outside world which is built for able bodied people?
Handles on doors are placed too high and try opening and getting through a door that opens towards you in a wheelchair. As for getting on a train – don’t even go there. You have to plan well ahead, phone the station, have ramps etc. in place, it is not easy, it takes additional energy and determination which are sometimes in short supply.
My role as senior programme lead for inclusion has made me conscious on a daily basis of the inequalities that mostly go unseen and are definitely not experienced by the majority of people in society. The young man on Euston Square station did more than collect money for his charity on Tuesday morning, he reminded me that everyone deserves an opportunity to live their lives to the fullest, without the many obstacles, physical or otherwise that society and other people put in the way.
I believe that equality is a key value in our society and continuing to strive for equality for all has got to be the right thing to do, for all of us.