Impaired people’s lives matter, too

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Another group of Norwegians is speaking up in the battle to obtain basic rights and respect, and their latest target is paying attention. BaneNOR, which is in charge of railroad infrastructure in Norway, is now promising better accessibility for the physically impaired at more train stations, but national advocacy groups still aren’t satisfied.

Traveling by train can be challenging for people with physical impairments, and navigating train stations like here at Oslo Central Station even moreso. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Newspaper Dagsavisen reports that BaneNOR is expanding offers of assistance at train stations in Hamar and at the busy National-theatret station in Oslo that also serves as a major metro hub. It’s long been standard to offer assistance at airports, but rail travel programs have been delayed.

Norway’s Blindeforbundet, which represents the vision-impaired, and Handikapforbundet, which represents the otherwise physically impaired, have long sought a major expansion of assistance services at Norwegian trains stations. “Many more of our members would like to travel by train if it was possible to get assistance both at the station from which your traveling and at the station where you arrive,” Sverre Fuglerud of Norges Blindeforbundet, told Dagsavisen.

Minimal assistance available
Of the more than 300 train stations in Norway, however, only 11 offer assistance for impaired travelers at present: Oslo Central Station, the busy commuter stations in the area around Oslo at Sandvika, Ski, Lillestrøm, Asker and Drammen, plus Gardermoen, Lillehammer, Trondheim, Bergen and, most recently, Tønsberg.

“We planned to launch assistance at the Nationaltheatret station earlier but that was postponed by the Corona situation,” Randi Folke-Olsen of BaneNOR told Dagsavisen. Both Nationaltheatret and Hamar are due to get assistance services later this fall. While BaneNOR offers help at the stations to and from the trains, the railway companies running the trains offer help getting on and off the trains.

Assistance wasn’t offered anywhere until as late as 2011, making it difficult for impaired travellers to ride the trains without an escort. Even now, notes Magnhild Sørbotten of Handikapforbundet, “it’s often the case that there’s assistance upon arrival but not departure. If you need help, you need it at both stations.”

Social welfare paradox
She’s far from the first to point out the irony of how a social welfare state like Norway, with its universal health care, remains slow at offering universal accessibility. Citizens needing wheelchairs, for example, often are confronted with stairs, narrow doorways and sidewalks, curbs with no slopes and other impediments. There remains a lack of ramps all over Norway, even though there have been improvements in recreational areas that now help those in wheelchairs to swim or go fishing.

The assistance service currently available at train stations, meanwhile, must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance, a rule that also has spurred complaints. “The vast majority want to be able to manage on their own, but it’s not always easy to know whether you’ll need help until you’re at the station,” Sørbotten told Dagsavisen.  Fuglerud also thinks the rule is too rigid.

Transport ministry calls for improvements
Both organizations continue to work towards improved accessibility, and better service on board trains as well. Blindeforbundet doesn’t like, for example, how blind passengers with seeing-eye dogs are often seated in a special area of the train, and not with others in their travel party.

Fuglerud also wants to see assistance services for all types of public transport (train, bus and ferry) consolidated through one phone number, for example. Transport Minister Knut Arild Hareide has asked the state railroad and railway directorate to look into setting up such a program, along with better universal forming to improve overall accessibility. The directorate has until later this year to come up with proposals.

(A vision-impaired doctoral candidate at Oslo Metropolitan University also has some suggestions for better integrating people with impairments into society. For his expert comments, click here.)

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund