Disabled rights charity boss Mel Close has called on Lancashire residents to play their part in stopping hate crime.
Mel, Chief Executive Officer of Preston based Disability Equality North West, spoke out after the Post highlighted the case of student Jessica Barton.
The 19 year old wheelchair user was abused by a group of six adults on a late night bus after the switch on of Preston’s Christmas lights.
They had been asked to give her some space to manoeuvre her wheelchair on the bus and give her priority.
Jessica, who has functional dystonia, said the verbal abuse continued throughout her journey and passengers looked on in silence.
Afterwards Jessica claimed there was no point in reporting the incident to police.
But Mel says that is certainly not the case and her charity and Lancashire Constabulary will always follow up reports of hate crime.
She said: “We are trying to make contact with Jessica to say we can support you and the police can support you.”
The charity’s premises at 103, Church Street act as third party reporting centre for hate crime and anyone can call in Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 4.30pm to report such crimes or call the centre on 01772 558863.
Alternatively Mel advised that such incidents can also be reported on line at True Vision or on the Constabulary’s own website.
She stressed that only by reporting hate crimes would perpetrators be caught and reports also help police build a picture of just where hate crime is happening.
She said: “We need people to report it... Hate crime is caused by society not disabled people. Often people think they can get away with it because nobody reported it and the victim thinks they are the problem and they are not.”
She stressed the public should pick up their phones to report incidents and say “I’ve just witnessed a hate crime.”
Mel said many disabled people chose carefully the times of travel and which buses they use to avoid access problems but this is not always possible: ”I would hope people will give way for people who need it.”
She said Disability Equality North West works to give people the resilience to report hate crimes and incidents such as Jessica’s are not common in the county.
“If you witness it you should report it, stop it or report it. That didn’t happen in this case.”
Jessica had complained how while she was waiting for the bus with her mum and stepsister a group with prams pushed in front of her. After finally getting on the bus, after waiting for a ramp to be put down for her, she asked the women with prams to move to make room for her, but to no avail. When her mother asked the group to move there was abuse.
Jessica said: “They were calling me all sorts all the way home...I was in tears. It was horrible...The whole bus was very quiet and allowed it to happen.”
• Preston Bus is now investigating the incident and has apologised for the distress caused. It says priority is given to wheelchair users.
John Asquith, Commercial Manager at Rotala owned Preston Bus said: “On behalf of the company I offer our sincere apologies for the manner this young person was spoken by fellow passengers. Unfortunately, so often we hear about the minority of individuals that behave in a selfish, uncaring manner that does not reflect on society as a whole – I would be ashamed if my family behaved in such a disgraceful manner.
“I can confirm that a complaint was received yesterday from a female passenger regarding this incident and it is being investigated with the driver concerned, unfortunately we have checked and CCTV is not available. Our drivers are aware of both individual and company responsibilities and receive ongoing training which includes disability awareness.“
He continued:“Wheelchairs are normally reversed into designated area and the brakes applied. This can involve some manoeuvring, but does not delay boarding. If a buggy or pram is in the designated space, priority is given to the wheelchair user. The driver will assist if this becomes an issue, but again it is common that other users understand the issues involved and either move or fold the buggy accordingly.
“The driver would not insist that a wheelchair user boards before any other waiting individual, there are so many variables depending upon the circumstances at the time. However, if a wheelchair user was waiting outside the bus doors rather than the concourse waiting area, I believe in the vast majority of instances, the wheelchair user would be allowed to board first out of common courtesy. Equally, if assistance was required boarding the driver would pull down the ramp, unless the person was accompanied and it was thought the companion would assist.”
He added: “The company is committed to providing accessible travel for wheelchair users, by having low floor entrance and a dedicated area for wheelchair users. Where necessary other passengers are asked to give up space for wheelchairs.”