“I’VE BEEN LATE for job interviews. I’ve been late for trains. It’s par for the course and it shouldn’t be.”
Róisín Dermody is rarely late due to lack of planning. She opts for taxis when she doesn’t know where she’s going as she needs “a pair of eyes that are working” to get her to the specific building or new door.
But she tends to only take taxis “as a last resort” as she finds other forms of public transport “far more reliable”.
Why? Dermody, policy officer for Irish Guide Dogs and member of Disabled Women Ireland, is blind and has a guide dog. Though it is a legal obligation to accept a passenger with a guide or assistance dog, she says that refusal is a common experience and an issue people come to her with on a weekly basis.
“It seems to be on the increase which is quite disappointing because our equality legislation has been in place for over 20 years. The message doesn’t seem to be getting through to taxi drivers.”
At Noteworthy, we investigated accessibility of public transport over the past few months. Access to taxis and their availability was an issue that was raised again and again by disabled people’s organisations and disability advocates. We can now reveal:
- Over 70% of accessibility-related complaints received by the regulator of taxis since 2019 involved taxi drivers refusing to take guide and assistance dogs or wheelchair users – a common experience reported by disabled people to Noteworthy.
- Fines ranging from €40 to €80 were issued in over half of accessibility-related complaints relating to taxis.
- Stricter penalties are needed, according to disability advocates, with the spokesperson for the National Private Hire and Taxi Association saying licences should be revoked for drivers who refuse wheelchair users.
- Two-thirds of the current wheelchair accessible vehicles in the taxi fleet are based in the Greater Dublin area.
This is the first part in the LIFT OUT series of articles by Noteworthy on public transport accessibility which will be published over the next four weeks.
Refusal most reported issue
Complaint records obtained by Noteworthy through a freedom of information (FOI) request from the National Transport Authority (NTA), who is responsible for the regulation of taxis, show that refusal to carry guide dogs was the most reported accessibility issue, with half of complaints from 2019 onwards in relation to this.
Two people reported that the driver told them they were allergic to dogs, but fines were issued to both drivers. Dermody explained that there are exemptions on medical grounds for drivers but they must obtain a certificate from the NTA.
Whenever I have asked to see their certificate, there’s never been a certificate produced. They’ll either drive away at that point or back down.
Most of the remaining complaints were from wheelchair users, with a number citing experiences of being refused by drivers or not being happy with how they were treated. Difficulty in booking wheelchair accessible taxis was also reported.
Anybody who refuses a wheelchair user should lose their licence, according to Jim Waldron, spokesperson for the National Private Hire and Taxi Association (NPHTA). ”I don’t see any justification for refusing anybody.”
Waldron added that they are “provided with a grant from the Government” towards the cost of a wheelchair accessible vehicle so “if they’re not providing that service, they shouldn’t be allowed a taxi licence.”
Details of these complaints can be viewed in a searchable table here.
People reported having to cancel a flight due to lack of availability of accessible taxis, waiting for an hour for an accessible taxi that did not show up and being asked to get out of their wheelchair by a driver of an accessible taxi.
The NPHTA spokesperson said he thought that “most drivers would do any job at this stage”. Waldron is aware of some drivers who would prefer not to pick up wheelchair users even though they have wheelchair accessible vehicles. “I’ve had discussions with them to say that they should be doing it.”
These drivers have argued that it costs more due to the time taken to lower the ramp and fix the supports. “Some people are reluctant on that basis but the NPHTA have dismissed that as that is what the [accessible] vehicle should be used for”, explained Waldron who added that the grant covers that cost.
Currently, grants up to €32,500 are available for a wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) if combined with a fully electric grant. Up to €7,500 is given as part of the WAV Grant Scheme alone.
Dermody and others that spoke to Noteworthy also said that many taxi drivers go “above and beyond”, providing essential services that they rely on. Joan Carty, national advocacy officer for the Irish Wheelchair Association, noted that when a driver is good, it will become a regular service. “It really works to [drivers'] advantage to get much more involved in accessibility.”
People ‘not reporting’
When asked about these experiences as well as those reported to Noteworthy, a spokesperson for the NTA said that it “is committed to the provision of high quality, accessible, sustainable transport” and added that “the receipt and investigation of complaints plays a vital role in achieving this aim”.
The spokesperson noted that the overall level of complaints relative to the number of licensed drivers is “very low”, with the accessibility subset “even smaller”.
In 2019, it was 1.5% of total complaints against small public service vehicles (SPSVs). However, this volume does not reflect the reality on the ground, according to every disabled person that spoke to Noteworthy about their experience.
“Notwithstanding the low volume of complaints regarding SPSV accessibility, [the] NTA treats these with the utmost importance,” according to the spokesperson.
They added that the NTA achieve this through education and deterrence. When these are “either not appropriate or not sufficient”, enforcement action is taken. Accessibility stakeholders are “actively” engaged to encourage the “submission of specific information and complaints”.
People who are having a negative experience “are not complaining [or] reporting”, according to James Cawley, policy officer at Independent Living Movement Ireland, an organisation led by disabled people. He added that people need to go through the complaint procedure so the NTA can understand if it’s a once-off or systemic issue.
That’s how we can change. When we do report, this can be an issue that can be challenged at a national level.
Dermody said one issue she has encountered is that it is often not possible for vision-impaired people to submit a report as they have no way of identifying the car or driver. “The only way I can make a complaint is if I have used a taxi app, where I have the details in advance.”
Penalties ‘not strict enough’
“Another problem is that the penalties aren’t strict enough so there’s no disincentive,” according to Dermody.
The penalty for a driver refusing to carry a guide or assistance dog is currently €40. In the FOI request obtained by Noteworthy, the NTA stated that 15 such fines were issued from January 2019 to mid-June 2021.
During the same period, 105 fines of €80 were issued to drivers for refusing a passenger without a reasonable excuse and 306 fines of €60 were issued in relation to vehicles not meeting the required standards.
The statement added that this month, the NTA “will recommend revised levels for a wide range of fines”, including these, subject to public consultation. “These recommendations will reflect the severity of the offences and will be the first changes made since 2014.”
The National Private Hire and Taxi Association’s Waldron said he would go further than fine increases, and said that if a driver “refused a person with a disability, their [accessible vehicle] grant should be refunded back to the government”, in addition to losing their licence.
‘On tenterhooks all the time’
Eileen Gormley has never sent complaints to the NTA, instead reporting any issues to local taxi companies “but there was nothing done”.
She has muscular dystrophy and is vision-impaired so relies on taxis for her independence as she requires an assistant if travelling on her local bus in Galway City. She regularly books them 24-hours in advance for meetings, hospitals appointments or trips into town.
Even with that advanced notice, she said she “feels under pressure” and is anxious whether the taxi will arrive. “You’re on tenterhooks all the time.”
Many companies cannot guarantee a wheelchair taxi will be available, even if booked in advance, she explained. Because of this, she has been left stranded in town or late for events in the past.
In a city that hosts big events, Gormley said the low availability of accessible taxis becomes more obvious. When asked if she has any plans next week during the Galway Races, she responded: “No, as dispatchers don’t even answer the phone during race week.”
Shortage of wheelchair accessible taxis was a common issue that wheelchair users reported to Noteworthy, in particular in rural Ireland where other forms of transport may not be available.
In his introductory statement to a recent Joint Oireachtas Committee, Hugh Creegan, deputy chief executive of the NTA reported that 17% of the fleet were now wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs). This is over the target of 15% for 2021 which rises to 100% of the fleet by 2035.
However, when Noteworthy asked the NTA for a breakdown of this in Dublin versus the rest of the country, it was clear that most were based in or near the capital city:
Of the 3,197 WAVs in the fleet as at 30 June 2021, 1,793 are based in Dublin (56%). An additional 325 are based in the counties of Kildare, Meath [and] Wicklow. This brings the total number of WAVs in the fleet in the Greater Dublin Area to 2,118 (66%).
Even though the majority of accessible taxis are in Dublin, Clare Cronin of the Disability Federation of Ireland said it can be difficult to book them. “There was some irony” when a national meeting of transport access groups before the pandemic faced this exact issue, she explained.
“Despite meticulous planning and pre-booking, many attendees struggled to get to the event and then faced more epic struggles to leave. All the bookings and double checking that goes into a typical journey for someone with mobility issues counted for nothing in the end.”
Booked taxis didn’t turn up [and] attendees then missed their trains home so it was very disruptive.
Since 2010, all new licenses are for wheelchair accessible vehicles. The cost of converting the rest of the fleet was estimated at €190 million by Creegan, with around 16,000 vehicles yet to be transitioned.
To increase the accessibility of the fleet more rapidly, IWA’s Carty is campaigning for government taxi contracts to put more weighting on the accessibility of the fleet. Carty is also on the NTA Advisory Committee on SPSVs.
“You’re never going to get a decent fleet right across the country that can provide a service for wheelchair users unless the Government starts asking companies to have a large quota of wheelchair accessible taxis.”
When this was put to the Office of Government Procurement, a spokesperson stated that social considerations form a key component of its taxi services tendering processes.
Driver spokesperson, Waldron, felt that availability could be addressed through driver incentives, such as a scheme where the WAV grant is paid in installments if drivers can prove they undertook a certain number of fares for wheelchair users.
“They should have to prove that they’ve earned the right to get a subsidy. The Government could be more ingenious about how they give out the money so that those who are supposed to get the service, actually get it.”
Noteworthy also asked a number of taxi app companies in Ireland about the percentage of WAVs in their fleet, with two responding to our request.
A spokesperson for Free Now said that 18% of their fleet is wheelchair accessible. They recently partnered with the Irish Wheelchair Association “to increase the number of wheelchair accessible vehicles available” and provide disability awareness training.
Luke Mackey from Bolt, an app that was launched last year, said they “have prioritised wheelchair accessible vehicles when accepting new taxi drivers” so they account for 30% of their current fleet.
Improvements to training needed
A number of the complaints over the past few months to the NTA obtained by Noteworthy were in relation to drivers not securing wheelchairs, with one stating they “had to put the brakes on the wheelchair myself” and another being left out in the rain while the driver “learnt how to use the straps”.
When booking a taxi, Gormley worries that it won’t be a smooth journey. “Because you’re focused on your journey or appointment, the last thing you want to think about is teaching a driver how to clamp [your wheelchair].”
She has experienced a number of incidents while using taxis, such as loose clamps where she felt her wheelchair was tipping forward and unsecured metal ramps that fell on her during the journey.
Currently, disability awareness training is a condition of the Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Grant Scheme where drivers can get up to €32,500 for an accessible vehicle if combined with an electric grant.
A spokesperson for the NTA said that for the wider sector, their official SPSV manual “provides guidance on the provision of assistance to customers with disabilities, including recommendations from the National Disability Authority and information concerning the carriage of guide dogs and assistance dogs”.
Cawley of Independent Living Movement Ireland, said some improvements could be made in relation to training.
“We need to have disabled people themselves leading the [wheelchair accessible vehicle] training.” Cawley also felt that all taxi drivers – not just those with accessible vehicles – need disability equality training.
Waldron said that “making training available is fine”, but he doesn’t think it should be made compulsory as it would add costs to drivers. He also felt it wouldn’t help anybody as “if somebody is not going to do the work, just because they’re trained doesn’t mean they’re going to do the work”.
Instead, the driver rep said “we should be trying to create ways that [people] get picked up” and suggested a taxi app for wheelchair users run by the government.
For many who spoke to Noteworthy, the lack of choice in operators, reliance on the availability of drivers and anxiety over potential refusals led to an erosion of independence.
Dermody said that she is used to advocating for herself when drivers refuse to accommodate her guide dog but “not everyone is as confident”. She added that “people shouldn’t be put in that situation due to a lack of education or awareness on behalf of taxi drivers”.
For Gormley, it is important that drivers and taxi companies understand how much she and others need accessible taxis.
“Participating in society is a basic right which we are all entitled to. To refuse us accessible transport is taking those rights away.”
This is the first part in the LIFT OUT series of articles by Noteworthy on public transport accessibility which will be out over the next four weeks. This article was published on 25 July and updated on 05 August to include a video of Róisín Dermody.
For this project, we also teamed up with The Journal as part of this month’s deep dive into transport as part of The Good Information Project.
This work is also co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.