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'Disability isn't a minority issue - it will only grow as the population ages'

26 July 2021

Why transport planners need to make accessibility, equality, diversity and inclusion as central to their work as sustainability.

'Disability isn't a minority issue - it will only grow as the population ages'
Transport accessibility needs to be viewed holistically by practitioners who have a good understanding of the issues. Image credit: iStock

With this year’s Transport Planning Day campaign focusing on accessibility, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), now is a good time to take a fresh look at disability, to know who these disabled people really are, and to understand what this means for our profession.

Transport planning practitioners will be familiar with accessibility and EDI as concepts. Some practitioners will already be doing work in this field, for example writing equality impact assessments. However, not everybody will be fully aware of the range of different needs and how they’re evolving.

Disability and impairment

The Equality Act 2010 defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that has a 'substantial and long-term negative effect on a person’s ability to do normal daily activities’. By this definition, it's estimated that there are around 14 million disabled people in the UK.

Although some will have been disabled since birth or early childhood, many more will have acquired their impairments through illness or injury. Others will have congenital conditions which have manifested themselves later in life, or which have worsened with age. Some impairments will be the result of ageing itself.

The most commonly used symbol for disability is the wheelchair, despite fewer than a 10th of all disabled people using one.

But even wheelchair users are not one homogenous group; the needs of an otherwise healthy lower-limb amputee will be very different to somebody who's in the latter stages of a degenerative disease, such as multiple sclerosis, ataxia–telangiectasia or Huntington's disease.

Similarly, the experiences of a person who’s been totally blind or deaf since birth will be different to somebody who has gradually lost their sight or hearing in later life.

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Understanding ‘hidden disabilities’

Only a minority of disabled people identify as disabled. Most impairments may not be apparent to a casual onlooker.

For example, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may walk completely unaided until their body shuts down the oxygen supply to their limbs and they then need to rest immediately.

The term ‘hidden disabilities’ covers cognitive impairments such as:

  • mental illness
  • autism
  • dementia

The population generally is ageing and, therefore, is more likely to suffer from diseases such as COPD, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and dementia. The coronavirus pandemic has also presented many new challenges for disabled people.


Intersectionality describes people who not only have single or, often, multiple impairments, but may also belong to another demographic that’s disadvantaged as a result of their ethnicity, sex or gender, age, pregnancy or parenthood, or other status.

This can compound the barriers faced when attempting to access goods and services. Alice Wong has written on intersectionality, and Caroline Criado Perez has written about understanding of some of the complex health and sociological intersectionality faced by women, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Disability exists everywhere, in multiple forms

Prior to the 19th century, disability would have been much more mainstream. Disease and serious injuries were so common that over 60% of the population would have been considered disabled by the modern Equality Act definition.

Disability exists everywhere and in multiple forms. It’s clearly not a minority issue, rather it’s an issue which will only grow as the population ages. The needs of each individual are different, complex and variable.

Positive steps in transport

Transport, in the general sense, is a public good, it's there to enable all of us to play our part in society and the economy. Therefore, it's imperative that we plan, design and manage our transport environments in such a way that they're accessible and inclusive to as many users as possible.

The past few decades have seen the introduction and evolution of primary anti-discrimination or equalities legislation. This in turn has led to:

  • sector-specific secondary regulation and technical design standards
  • training and guidance that are intended to improve accessibility
  • inclusivity in many aspects of streets and transport

As a result:

  • Buses and trains now not only have spaces for wheelchairs, but also have priority seating for ambulant passengers with additional needs
  • The blue badge parking scheme has been extended to people with some hidden disabilities. Many transport interchanges have step-free access to public areas
  • The attitudes of transport staff towards disabled passengers has improved and information provision is now much better. Even our streets and crossing facilities are more accessible than before
  • Mobility and other aids have been developed that are intended to improve accessibility, for example, new technology such as mobile phone apps

Where are we now?

Despite all the improvements listed above, it's still easy to find barriers to access, even in places which have been built to notionally accessible standards. Further, attempts to retrospectively improve access frequently result in compromises being made.

In 2018, the UK government unveiled its wide-ranging Inclusive Transport Strategy, which included many currently ongoing actions, such as the updating of Inclusive Mobility and the tactile paving guidance. Other improvements have been piecemeal, such as changes to the Bus Services Act 2017 to improve information provision.

Alongside these, we have witnessed other changes to planning guidance, measures to encourage sustainable, and active travel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for more changes to our streets and the way we travel.

What can transport planning professionals do?

There's still a need to join up the dots between the disparate parts of the planning system, our transport infrastructure and the needs of disabled and other disadvantaged users.

Adhering to the technical or regulatory requirements alone isn’t enough. Transport accessibility needs to be viewed holistically.

For example, step-free access within a station is of limited benefit, unless there’s step-free access to the station itself; although the separate regulatory and funding constraints of each element conspire to make full, accessible integration, very difficult.

This is where the transport planning profession comes into its own.

Transport planners sit in the middle of a Venn diagram of overlapping skills, disciplines and interests in the planning, transport, highways and other sectors. It's up to us to ensure that the complex, diverse needs of all people are considered. Doing so will require user engagement, often with hard-to-reach people, and occasionally with those whose views will challenge us.

In the past, accessibility concerns were often trumped by other competing demands. I hope that I’ve demonstrated how the need for ‘universal’ design or operation should be integral to everything that we do.

Our profession has successfully embraced and advocated for sustainability. Now we need to do the same for accessibility, equality, diversity and inclusion.

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  • Jim Morey, Director, Le Chat Noir Ltd