2019 Conference
All Conferences
Contacts & Support
TSVC | Tourism Students Virtual Conference

Accessibility of public transport for people with invisible disabilities – a room for improvement in the UK.

Accessibility of public transport for people with invisible disabilities – a room for improvement in the UK.
Author: Kamila Puton
2 Commentries
Keywords: accessibility, disability, public transport, invisible illness.

Abstract: People with disabilities, including with those that are not instantly visible, often depend on public transport. This paper analyses the current issues affecting this subject in the UK, as well as provides some recommendations on how the situation could be improved.

20% of UK’s population has a disability, included in that number are invisible illnesses. They are very common, and yet rarely thought about. Deafness, autism, mental issues, learning difficulties, and even blindness, can be counted as invisible disabilities. Sometimes the disability can be completely invisible, or it can vary on a day to day basis (e.g. chronic fatigue, endometriosis etc.). Although they might not be instantly apparent to everybody, they often require special adjustments. Including special adjustments in public transport which, as Hall, Le-Klähn and Ram (2017) noted, should be accessible to everyone. But, is it?

A range of case studies investigated the topic of accessibility in transport, and overall found that people with many different disabilities struggle with communicating with the drivers/staff members, as well as with getting to the bus stops (due to the location and poor access to the information) and getting off at the right time. UK has very good accessibility of most buses, but only 75% of trains are accessible and many train stations have not been refurbished to accommodate people with special needs. Also many trains and buses do not offer audio-visual announcements.

The situation of public transport in the UK is getting worse, which can be especially detrimental to disabled people, due to their dependency on public transport (caused by the disability itself and/or their below the average income). Bus network has significantly decreased in the recent years, with some regions losing more than 20% of their coverage. The buses that do still run often only run until late afternoon, making it very difficult for many people to participate in any social events. The trains are getting more expensive every year. In 2018 they have increased by 3.8%, compared to only 2.8% of wage increase. Considering that the disabled people earn on average less than non-disabled, while also having an average of 25% higher expenses, more expensive fares can make trains completely inaccessible to them.

There are several existing schemes in the UK that aim to make public transport more accessible however, they usually have several flaws. The free bus pass issued to the elderly and the disabled people has very strict requirements for applying and it is up to each council whether it would be valid before 9.30 am (when most people go to work). The disabled persons rail card costs £20 per year and offers only 33% discount, the same as any other railcard. Transport for London has recently introduced ‘provide me a seat’ badge for people with invisible disabilities – in hopes that it will prompt people to give up their seat. However, their usability is questionable, partially due to the design (looks similar to an employee badge) and the lack of advertisement (people do not know this scheme exists).

Beside the official schemes and apps available for the disabled people, there also some more innovative solutions being developed. Campbell et al. (2014) and Azenkot et al. (2011) developed apps aimed for the blind (and the deaf-blind in the Azenkot et al.’s app) that provided a range of information about accessing desired bus stops and buses. Providing a similar app nationwide could greatly improve independence of the blind and the deaf-blind.

Other recommendations that could improve the situation in the UK can include nation-wide system of purchasing online bus tickets, making fares more accessible, increasing the funding for buses to stop the cuts, audio-visual announcements in all public transport, improved training of staff, and legally recognising psychiatric assistance dogs for people with mental issues (they could help by for example calming down a person with anxiety that struggles with using crowded buses). It also should be noted that many times it is assumed that blind people can easily obtain information using Braille, where only around 1% of blind people in the UK can read it.


Dale Stone, S. (2005). Reactions to invisible disability: The experiences of young women survivors of hemorrhagic stroke. Disability and Rehabilitation, 27(6), 293-304.
Hall, C., Le-Klähn, D. and Ram, Y. (2017). Tourism, public transport and sustainable mobility. USA: Channel View Publications.
Azenkot, S., Prasain, S., Borning, A., Fortuna, E., Ladner, R. and Wobbrock, J. (2011). Enhancing Independence and Safety for Blind and Deaf-Blind Public Transit Riders. In: CHI. ACM.

A Commentary on the Accessibility of Public Transport for People with Invisible Disabilities – Room for Improvement in the UK.
Author: Charlotte Hicks
I have chosen to make a comment on this discussion paper as it is closely related to the topic I have been researching. It is also pleasing to see my colleagues adding to research on accessibility issues faced by disabled people, especially as disability studies within the tourism sector are significantly under researched. Too often disabled people are categorised as a homogenous group with a universal set of needs. A number of factors impact upon the needs of travellers with disabilities including type and history of impairment, age, race and gender.

Previous research has highlighted that wayfinding and familiarisation with a previously unvisited area is a crucial factor of tourist experience when travelling around a destination (Small et al., 2012). However, wayfinding information is rarely available in alternative formats including audio, tactile maps or large print text, and where this is unavailable the information is often denied. This can lead to certain areas being inaccessible for people with invisible disabilities and create strong feelings of anxiety for the traveller.

The author offers a number of good suggestions as to how to utilise modern technology to increase and encourage independent travel amongst tourists with invisible disabilities such as those with hearing and visual impairments. In addition to these suggestions, the Royal National Institute for the Blind actively encourage tourist attractions and public transport systems to install one of their Maps for All, as these can be read by sight, touch or a combination of both. However, availability of these maps is rare at attractions and transport hubs within the UK.

As mentioned in this paper, an overwhelming lack of awareness of the needs of individuals with invisible disabilities is prevalent amongst service sector personnel. This lack of awareness and understanding often leads to Deafblind travellers having lowered self-esteem, feeling unable to fully participate in activities within society and being labelled as cognitively impaired when this is not the case (Hersh, 2013). It is suggested by Daruwalla and Darcy (2005), that a solution to this problem could be to introduce contact training with a disabled individual for service personnel. This can be valuable to improve customer service, the experience of the disabled traveller and to change personal attitudes.

From both of our research it is evident that tourist attractions and public transport systems within the UK are hugely inaccessible for people with invisible disabilities, including those with Deaf-blindness, leading to them feeling unable to independently participate in tourism activities. This is something that I hope our research will contribute to improving in the future.


Daruwalla, P. and Darcy, S. (2005) Personal and Societal Attitudes to Disability. Annals of Tourism Research, 32 (3) 549-570.

Hersh, M. (2013) Deafblind People, Communication, Independence and Isolation. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18 (4) 446-463.

Small, J., Darcy, S. and Packer, T. (2012) The Embodied Tourist Experiences of People with Vision Impairment: Management Implications Beyond the Visual Gaze. Tourism Management, 33 (4) 941-950.
Further discussion of the accessibility of public transport for people with invisible disabilities
Author: Mikyla Young
The reason for choosing to comment on this paper is because it has similarities with my own research. Additionally, the topic of this paper is one I feel strongly about having a hidden disability myself. There is currently little research of accessibility barriers for people with invisible disabilities within the tourism industry.

Daruwalla and Darcy (2005) comment service providers in the tourism industry are provided with little training and education of access provision, legislation and service related to people with disabilities. This is especially noticeable in regards to transportation access and those with hidden disabilities.

Access to transportation is greatly important to people with hidden disabilities as many are unable to learn to drive, due to their disabilities, and are therefore reliant on public transport. Disabilities preventing driving include deafness, blindness, epilepsy, chronic pain disorders, mental health conditions and other neurological conditions. For this reason, it is important accessible transportation be available, and staff in the transportation sector are aware of hidden disabilities and the needs of those with them.

The author has summarised well, the current situation of public transportation in the UK, focusing on the two most commonly used forms of public transport across the country. Additionally, the author has made critical evaluations of the UK’s current schemes to make transportation more accessible and has provided good recommendations to better the situation.

Whilst the transportation sector has reduced barriers to access through these schemes, public transport is still of concern to people with disabilities (Stumbo and Pegg, 2005; Shaw and Coles, 2004), particularly for those with hidden disabilities. Looking back at my own research of people with Fibromyalgia (a chronic pain condition), it is evident public transportation is avoided where possible due to staff not understanding their needs, and other disabled passengers looking down on them as they do not look disabled.

It is also observed, from personal experience, people with hidden disabilities are discriminated due to their appearance, by other travellers. For example, on public busses, people with disabilities have the right to a seat alongside the older population and pregnant women. However, whilst they have that right, many feel pressured by other travellers to give up their seat for elderly or pregnant passengers as they do not look as though they need a seat.

Much more research is needed regarding tourism access and hidden disabilities. This paper, along with my own and the author of the other commentary on this paper, have only begun to scratch the surface of tourism accessibility and people with hidden disabilities. Attitudinal and physical barriers need to be addressed in order for people with hidden disabilities to feel comfortable using public transport when engaging in tourism.

Daruwalla, P., Darcy, S. (2005) Personal and societal attitudes to disability. Annals of Tourism Research, 32, 549-134.

Stumbo, N., J., Pegg, S. (2005) Travelers and tourists with disabilities: A matter of priorities and loyalties. Tourism Review International, 8, 195-209.

Shaw, G., Coles, T. (2004) Disability, holiday making and the tourism industry in the UK: A preliminary survey. Tourism Management, 25, 397-404.