Real Life on Real City Buses
routeONE magazine|1 March 2017 - Issue 679

What’s it really like for everyday wheelchair users on buses? We make an undercover visit to Norwich to find out

Mel Holley

We’re at a bus stop. There’s a woman in a wheelchair but when the bus arrives the driver tells her she can’t get on; the ramp’s broken. Later, another driver gives another excuse.

Worse, these are not isolated incidents: All over the city’s network the story’s the same and it’s clear that drivers are using every excuse to avoid carrying wheelchair users.

But the events have been covertly filmed and now it’s the lead item on ITV’s Anglia News.

This was 2003. The city was Norwich; the Anglia News reporter and wheelchair user was Helen Dolphin.

The newsroom was getting continual reports about drivers refusing to let wheelchair users board. So Helen - a journalist and news reporter with Anglia TV since 2000 - set out to find out if it was true. The exposé was so powerful, it won the ITV Consumer award 2004.

A lot has changed since then, not least that since 1 January, all local service buses must be PSVAR compliant (previously called DDA).

Happily, if you’re a wheelchair user in Norwich today, then First will give you a good experience. But there is room for improvement.

We met with Helen, her PA Libbie Bilyard and assistance dog Fairport, to find out more.

Home in the city

Helen is a semi-regular bus user into the city centre. It’s quicker to drive to her local swimming pool, but today we’re going by bus.

We need to go from New Costessey into the city centre, change, and then out to Sportspark, on the University of East Anglia campus.

Helen has always been a keen swimmer. A Molecular and Cellular Biology graduate, on Christmas Day 1997, three months into her PhD, she fell ill. Twice misdiagnosed by GPs as flu and then food poisoning, her condition worsened. Taken to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, she went into a coma and was diagnosed with meningococcal septicaemia (the blood poisoning form of meningitis). Septicaemia set in and Helen’s lower legs and hands were amputated to save her life.

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