Potential and Possibility 2024: Improving experiences of public transport

People with complex disabilities tell us what needs to change

When public transport stops feeling safe, affordable and accessible to disabled people, many are left stranded and excluded. 

Nearly half of people with complex disabilities felt that their needs weren’t supported on public transport.

Source: Potential and Possibility research 2024

The majority of people with complex disabilities rely on public transport, 72% of people with complex disabilities use some form of public transport day-to-day. When private lifts aren’t available, trains and buses play a vital role in connecting disabled people to the world around them. 

And yet, nearly half (45%) of people with complex disabilities felt that their needs as a disabled person weren’t supported on public transport.  

Many people with complex disabilities face barriers on public transport, including cost and lack of accessibility. More concerningly, a significant proportion of the people we surveyed also found public transport difficult because of the attitudes of other passengers. More needs to be done to tackle the barriers people with complex disabilities face on public transport.  

Tackling public transport anxieties 

Statistically, disabled people are the least likely to have support networks around them or have the same chance to feel like part of their local communities. Being able to access and enjoy these connections does a lot to combat loneliness and boost confidence. This is why it’s so crucial that public transport is safe, accessible and affordable everyone. 

Over half (52%) of people with complex disabilities rely on public transport to see friends and family. However, for many, it takes time and support to build up confidence and start using public transport independently.  

Across our many different Sense services, we look out for opportunities to support people to adjust to different kinds of transport. This relieves anxiety about day-to-day activities, such as having to travel to a doctor’s appointment, and opens up possibilities for people to live life the way they want to. Our community support workers and communicator guides are there to provide one-to-one support for as long as it takes. 

Natalie was diagnosed with Usher syndrome when she was 29 years old. She’s had to work hard to rebuild her sense of self and adjust to life with hearing and vision impairments. 

A woman in a stripy top smiles at the camera. There are bushes and grass behind her.

“I had become self-conscious about using a cane in public or even traveling with my disabled bus pass. It was the idea of being judged by other people that put me off.  

“But Kath, my amazing Sense Communicator Guide, pushed me to get past my embarrassment. Now I go out more – I’ve got some freedom. From shopping to hospital appointments, anything I need her for, she’s there.” 

Read Natalie’s story: Getting a bit of my life back

Stories like Natalie’s, which show people breaking through societal barriers, are hugely encouraging. The more disabled people are empowered to participate in life and use public transport, the easier it’ll be for others to follow. Unfortunately, transport remains “a big issue” for Natalie, even with her new-found support and confidence.  

“Being blind means that I can’t drive, and with just one bus running every hour through our village, my options for getting around are limited.” 

Natalie

Sense’s practical support can only go so far; local councils and the Government need to do more to make transport a safe and appealing option for disabled people. 

No one should have to face abuse on public transport 

Over half of people with complex disabilities found public transport difficult because of the attitudes of other passengers towards disabled people. 

Source: Potential and Possibility research 2024

It’s hard to read about Natalie’s anxieties regarding how others might judge her on public transport, just for having a disability. She’s not alone in feeling this way. Over half (52%) of people with complex disabilities found public transport difficult because of the attitudes of other passengers towards disabled people. 

Our survey found that experiences vary greatly, ranging from missed opportunities to be courteous to open hostility: 

“I often find that people see me as ‘healthier’ than older people, so when priority seats are full, they will not move for me to sit down, but will for an older person – even if they’re the healthiest possible person.” 

“I have encountered many really rude and abusive passengers on the bus. Telling me things like I should be dead.” 

Encountering hostility of any kind can be deeply unnerving, especially for disabled people, who are already more vulnerable and more prone to anxiety than the general public

Fortunately, our research also uncovered lots of encouraging stories about the kindness and support of strangers towards disabled travellers. Many people who have complex disabilities, particularly those who are deafblind, feel reliant on the public to help them use public transport. Unfortunately, this is due, in large part, to a lack staff with adequate training in supporting disabled people. 

For Janet, who is deaf, public transport is both a “great joy” and “horrendous”. She perseveres with using trains and buses despite the problems she encounters, but for other disabled people, these regular battles would prove overwhelming. 

“…station officials vary from the charming and patient, to the less than tolerant. It’s a nightmare. 

Once you’re on the train, you can’t make out the announcements. They might be telling you the buffet closes in half an hour, or they could be warning you your train is terminating at the next station and you’ll need to change. 

Mainly, I’m dependent on kindly people to interpret for me – and fortunately, there are plenty of these people around.” 

Read Janet’s story: When you’re deaf, public transport can be a nightmare

Experiences like Janet’s have been picked up on by campaigners like Mohammed. As a passionate advocate for disabled people, he wants the upcoming 2024 General Election to do more to make public transport a better option for disabled people.  

“There are issues with accessible transport. Visually impaired and blind people can’t go A to B because audio voice announcements are inconsistent. You never know if a vehicle will be equipped and accessible to you.”

 Ensuring that public transport is accessible and safe will make a huge difference to the disabled community, in all aspect of their lives. 

Travel costs are pricing out disabled people 

Even before the current cost-of-living crisis, disabled people were spending hundreds of pounds on costs specific to living with additional needs. Estimates place these additional costs at £975 a month

Of these additional expenses, our Policy and Campaigns Officer, Steven, identified three which are the greatest concern for disabled people at the present time.  

The biggest barriers affecting people with complex disabilities on public transport were overcrowding, unreliable services and cost.

Source: Potential and Possibility research 2024

One factor is the dependency on expensive public transport, namely taxis. Our research found that the biggest barriers affecting people with complex disabilities on public transport were overcrowding (43%), unreliable services (30%) and cost (29%). When other forms of public transport aren’t accessible, taxi rides become the main way to get around. 

Steven says, “The cost of this soon mounts up”, pricing disabled people out of being about to travel. More and more people are choosing to “save their petrol or taxi costs for emergencies such as medical appointments.” This limits access to social and leisure activities, which can isolate people and put a severe strain mental health. 

Read all three reasons why life costs more when you’re disabled

38% of people with complex disabilities found it difficult to afford their transport costs. And while there are options to reduce the cost of transport if you’re disabled or a carer, this support doesn’t address the larger issues. Involving disabled people more in discussions and plans about how to shape public transport services could be transformational. Of the people we surveyed, many would be greatly encouraged by this act of inclusion. 

“I feel people who work with public transport need to have more conversations with disabled people, asking how they can help support us and make changes.” 

“We need them to understand our struggle, and to make whatever improvements necessary to make it possible for disabled people feel equal.” 

About this research 

Potential and Possibility is an annual piece of research on the experiences and aspirations of people with complex disabilities. The research involves polling and our own survey. This year we involved 1,279 people with complex disabilities in our research. This year (2024) is the third year we have carried out this research. 

These pages reflect the latest information from our 2024 research, building on our findings from 2023 and 2022. 

If you have any questions about the research, please contact [email protected]