Anne Wafula Strike says she was left humiliated after three-hour journey on CrossCountry train with no disabled toilet
An award-winning Paralympic athlete and disabilities campaigner says she was “completely robbed of her dignity” after a train company failed to provide an accessible toilet on a three-hour journey.
Anne Wafula Strike, 42, a British wheelchair racer who has no use of her legs, is a board member of UK Athletics, has an MBE for services to disability sport and serves as a patron of several charities supporting the rights of people with disabilities.
The Kenyan-born athlete said she was left profoundly humiliated after being left to urinate on herself on a CrossCountry train, covering her face with her hoodie after the incident in case anyone recognised her.
“I was completely robbed of my dignity by the train company,” she said. “I would like to ask the train company when will they give me my dignity back? As a disabled person I have worked so hard over the years to build up my confidence and self-belief.
“Having access to a toilet, especially in a developed nation like the UK, is one of the most basic rights. I tried to conceal the smell of urine by spraying perfume over myself. When I finally got home after my nightmare journey, I scrubbed myself clean in the shower then flung myself on my bed and sobbed for hours.”
She added: “After thinking about it for a while I decided to go public despite the personal humiliation of doing so in the hope that it will bring about change for other people with disabilities who want to contribute to society but are prevented from doing so. Too many people with disabilities suffer in silence when this kind of thing happens because they feel too embarrassed to talk about it.
“The whole incident made me feel as if I can’t play an active role in society and should just hide behind closed doors. Being forced to sit in my own urine destroyed my self-esteem and my confidence.
“People with disabilities don’t want perfection, we just want the basics and to have our independence. But lack of access and inclusive facilities make us feel as if we are an afterthought.”
Anne Wafula Strike (right) is a patron of several charities supporting the rights of people with disabilities. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA
The incident happened when Wafula Strike was returning from a UK Athletics board meeting in Coventry on 8 December. She took a taxi from Coventry to Nuneaton station and from there boarded the 17.22pm CrossCountry train to Stansted airport, where she could catch a connecting train to her home town of Harlow. On the journey, which is usually scheduled to last two hours and 48 minutes, she needed to use the toilet but found that the accessible one was out of order.
“If the able-bodied toilet had been closer I could have tried to crawl to it but it was too far away and my wheelchair could not fit in the aisles to get to it,” she said.
A member of the train crew suggested she could get off the train when it stopped at a station, use the disabled toilet there and wait for the next train. This would have delayed her journey home but in the event there were no staff at the station to help her so she was unable to get off the train.
She tweeted the train company’s customer service team to complain and in a series of exchanges Wafula Strike became increasingly distressed.
Anne Wafula Strike (second left) in the Women’s 100m T54 final during the Visa London Disability Athletics Challenge LOCOG test event for the London 2012 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in London. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Wafula Strike said she felt she had to speak out to expose some of the injustice faced by people living with disabilities.
“I’ll probably be remembered as that woman who wet herself on the train. I could have kept quiet but I hope that by speaking out other wheelchair users who use public transport won’t be subjected to the same experience I had.
“I may have an impairment but the barriers society puts in my path are the real handicap. The UK Athletics meeting I had just attended was so positive – all about success and medals and athletics superstars and then this happened. UK Athletics has always gone out of its way to ensure that the board meetings are held in accessible venues but other organisations need to do the same so people like me can play our part in society.”
Sue Bott, deputy chief executive of Disability Rights UK, expressed concern about the incident.
“The courts are starting to take cases like this very seriously,” she said. “Not only the lack of access but also the injury to feeling that occurs. If Anne decides to take legal action we would be right behind her. No one should have to go through an experience like that. Access and inclusion need to be taken seriously. These things should not just be tick box exercises.”
A CrossCountry spokesman said: “We are extremely sorry for the circumstances of Mrs Strike’s recent journey with us, and our managing director has passed on our apologies to her along with an explanation of why it appears all our systems failed her on that day. We hope she will take up our offer and contact us in the new year so we can offer her a more pleasant experience of travelling with us.”