Please offer me a seat. That’s what the badges for people with a disability have written across them. Well, in London at least. They’re about three inches in diameter, blue, and I wear mine centrally on my chest.
I started a new job a few weeks back and with it came a new commute. There’s a lot of rubbing shoulders, armpits in faces and every so often, an unshielded sneeze. Everyday involves a competitive slalom through the tunnels of London’s underground stations. I travel up and down grumbling escalators which connect streams of people from the outside world with the warm, sweaty innards of London’s tube stations. There’s one or two please mind the gaps, plenty of major delays and even the odd this train has now changed destination – a personal favourite of mine.
Onboard you’ll find Kindle readers, tablet tappers, music players and non-stop laptop must-get-my-work-finished-ers; all off to make a buck, some off to make a few. It’s always busy and bustling during rush hour yet, despite the congestion, the trains tend to be silent. The only sounds you’ll hear at this time is the screeching of rickety wheels and tannoy announcements reminding you to hold the hand rails and report suspicious activity.
I am a reader and a watcher. I spend most of my journey reading my Kindle, but if I don’t fancy that, I stick my headphones in and people watch. Humans are entertaining – even more so when listening to a piece of cinematic music. They seem to sway in perfect harmony to the sounds of the instruments, almost like the instruments know what’s unfolding before you.
During the first part of my journey I always get a seat. It’s the first stop on the line meaning there is rarely any competition. Three stops in and I stick my blue badge on just as the train starts to fill. As the doors open new arrivals pour onto the train, each of them scanning the carriage for empty seats. Envious eyes look down at me in my seated comfort. The slightest movement from a sitter and like sheep in a field, the standers will turn their heads in hope of giving their legs a break. There is no reason for me to stick my badge on this early. I know I’ll get a seat and, like the rest of the carriage, I am entitled to a seat. Yet, due to my age I feel the need to show people that actually, I need to sit as much if not more than they do. It’s a strange insecurity and if anything invites more stares than if I left my badge off.
After an hour or so the second part of my commute commences. I get off the first train and walk about six paces across the platform to the next one. By this time the new train is already packed with every seat taken. Small crowds gather at each of the sliding doors and one-by-one we shuffle onto the train. I try to stand in the aisle so I can grab a seat if needs be and thanks to my badge, about sixty percent of the time i’m offered one. Understandably, at eight in the morning, people don’t want to interact with strangers, they just want to pass the time. The best way to do that? Hold on to something physical. Whenever I step onto the train I try to make my badge viewable. The thing is, most of the passengers are facing downwards with their nose in a phone, tablet, newspaper or book. They don’t look up and if they do, it’s to check they haven’t missed their stop. They’ll look through you, not at you.
Why don’t you just ask for a seat?
To be honest, it’s because i‘m not brave enough. Asking for a seat draws attention. Asking for a seat means waking someone up or inconveniencing them. It’s awkward, feels embarrassing (for me), and i’d rather just wait for the next stop and hope people get off. Quite often i’ll have spent the day limping around but even then, I will never ask for a seat. One day i’ll shrug the insecurities off my shoulders, but i’m not there yet and that’s okay.
Transport For London, London’s travel authority, needs to do more for people with disabilities. They’ve improved vastly over the years but still there is a lot more that can be done. People are becoming more aware that not every disability is visible. On a good day, with the right trousers, you’d barely notice my leg however, I shouldn’t have to prove I have disability to be granted a seat from an able-bodied person. I enjoy wearing fashionable clothes. I have a piercing (very unique I know), I wear rings and necklaces, vintage jumpers and ‘edgy’ jackets. When people look at me taking a seat, when one is offered, I feel they often look ay my clothes and start to process whether they think I really need the seat or not. It can be a dangerous place to find yourself in as some days I catch myself passing judgement on those not offering me a seat too, looking at them in the same way others look at me. I get frustrated or angry when in reality they might need the seat more than I do!
I’m sure most of the time it’s my own brain convincing me people are judging but sometimes you can just tell. Their eyes go to your badge. Then they look at your face. They’ll trace your body from head to toe, look at your badge and face again, then make their judgement. I have noticed people stare at me for entire journeys. Some stop caring after a minute. Others smile sympathetically. Either way, it’s exhausting. Constantly I prepare what I am going to say when someone stops to ask me why I have the badge. Just the other day some asked where they can get one. I have no idea if they needed one or not, but the way they laughed made me think not.
Commuting at rush-hour really offers insight as to what people are really like. Some are very selfish and impatient, others are caring and aware. If you have a busy commute, or even if you don’t, I would encourage you to seek a badge or your city’s equivalent – if they have one that is. It’s been a real help for me and helps communicate to strangers a really quite complex subject. It does the talking for you and without it my leg would be a lot more swollen and my body a lot more tired.
You can get them from here: https://tfl.gov.uk/campaign/please-offer-me-a-seat
I think for the hundreds of tannoy announcements there should be at least one along the lines of keep an eye out for people with blue badges, pregnant women or those who struggle to stand. Remember, not every disability is visible. An announcement like this might encourage people facing downwards to look around for a second which would lighten the load on people with disabilities. It would remove the awkwardness of confrontation and help to spread awareness on different forms of disability.