For many young teens, their first trip unsupervised on public transport is something of a right-of-passage. Armed with forgotten instructions from anxious parents, a couple of friends and a sense of adventure, often the destination is irrelevant. It is one of many steps in the journey towards independence. This was particularly true for Sam Lawson. The 15-year-old Billanook Year 9 student is confined to a wheelchair, so independent travel is not just fun, it is a necessary life skill.
Each year students in Year 9 at Billanook take part in City9, a one-week city experience where students explore the life of the city. With visits to cultural landmarks, specified events and exploration, for many it is their first introduction to the diversity and rich history of Melbourne. Unfortunately for Sam, his first trip brought him face to face with another side of the city – blatant discrimination.
“During the holidays I went on a practise run for roaming around the city and going in and out on public transport,” Sam said. “My friends Matt and Isaac came with me.
“We took the train to Flinders Street and that was fine. Then we got on a tram at Federation Square and the attendant got the ramp out for me, which was good.
“We got to the other end and Matt and Isaac exited before me. That was when the customer service person approached us; I thought to see that I got off safely. Matt asked the woman to get the ramp out for me – which we could clearly see in the compartment next to me – but she declined on the basis of, and I quote, ‘safety hazard’.
“So I had to take a running jump off the tram of about 30 centimetres.”
To describe Sam’s reaction as upset would be something of an understatement. He felt intimidated by the attendant as she rushed him off the tram.
“I was scared, I was preparing for an injury, I was preparing for all kinds of things. I just thank God none of them happened. It pretty much ruined my day.”
As he tells his story, it is clear the attendant chose the wrong person to ‘bully’. After the incident Sam did what most teens do when confronted with a problem, he contacted his mum. Sam’s mum wrote letters to the Prime Minister, the state premier, Melbourne’s lord mayor and Yarra trams outlining what had happened to her son.
Response to the letters was swift. Counselling and retraining would be offered to the tram attendant, and Lord Mayor Robert Doyle invited Sam to his office to share his story in person.
“When I got the letter from Lord Mayor Doyle I responded requesting that he come into the synod centre during City9 and chat to the kids about it,” Sam said.
So it was that students on this year’s City9 experience were personally visited by the lord mayor of Melbourne. Mr Doyle was clearly shocked that Sam had endured such treatment. The mayor’s passion for Melbourne – “the world’s most liveable city” – was obvious as he spoke with the students.
He outlined a brief history of the planning of Melbourne and explained that, until recent decades, little thought had been given to accessibility for everyone who visited the city. Mr Doyle said that throughout the past 20 years, greater awareness had led to many structural changes such as ramps and elevators, but admitted there was still much work to be done.
Although still shocked by what happened, Mr Doyle’s visit reiterated for Sam that discrimination should not be tolerated or accepted as the norm.
“That is the first time in my life I had ever had that experience, which is really quite sad considering it was the first time I had ever travelled by myself on public transport without adult supervision,” he said.
While altering the landscape of the city to enable access for all is indeed a big job, unfortunately, with actions such as that of the tram worker, it would seem changing attitudes could prove even harder. Perhaps, as more people like Sam share their stories and highlight discrimination, it won’t be left up to a 15-year-old school boy and his mum to ensure Melbourne is indeed the most liveable city for everyone.