Student Bal Deol today urged other wheelchair users to stand up for their rights after winning a landmark case against a taxi driver who refused to give her a lift.
It came as Mohammed Butt became the first cabbie in Stoke-on-Trent to be convicted of failing to transport someone in a wheelchair.
Now other Hackney carriage drivers are being warned they could also be hauled before the courts if they flout new national rules which came into force last year.
Bal, who lives in Stoke, said: “I’m ecstatic to win. I hope this case will help other wheelchair users gain confidence to speak out about the discrimination they face. It’s not right and it’s not fair.”
Magistrates heard how the Staffordshire University masters student had been left in tears when the incident happened on August 1 last year.
The former students’ union president had met with the university’s vice-chancellor before taking a bus into Hanley to have her hair cut. She then tried to get a taxi to Stoke station in time to catch a train at 4.07pm.
When the 25-year-old called at the taxi rank in Lichfield Street and approached Butt in his wheelchair-accessible cab, he initially told her he would accept her fare. But when he noticed she was in a motorised wheelchair, he turned her away. “He mumbled something about ramps,” she told North Staffordshire Justice Centre yesterday.
Two other cabbies said they couldn’t take her as they were on a break and a third one said she would need to ask Butt again as his vehicle was at the front of the queue. “I went back and said, ‘please take me to the station’. He simply said ‘no’ and shut the window.”
By then, it was 3.50pm and Bal burst into tears, panicking about her train.
“They all got out of their cars because I was crying. There were six or seven drivers in a semi-circle around me. I felt intimidated and scared,” she added.
Shopmobility co-ordinator Nicola Cunningham had been working in the nearby shop when she heard the commotion and went outside. She told the court: “The lady was in a very distressed state.”
With Ms Cunningham’s assistance, Bal eventually managed to get a taxi. But she added: “I missed the train. I was two minutes’ late. I also had to cancel a visit from my carer.”
Butt, of Wellesley Street, Shelton, was prosecuted by Stoke-on-Trent City Council for refusing to drive when requested by a passenger. He denied the offence, but was found guilty following a trial.
In court it emerged the 56-year-old had mistakenly thought Bal was drunk that day as she’d been slumped to one side in her wheelchair and her words were slurred due to her disability.
But the defendant, who is a foster carer with experience of looking after disabled children, claimed the main reason for refusing to transport her had been safety concerns. Although his ramp was designed to take 300 kilos of weight – and Bal and her chair weighed a total of 105 kilos – he was worried about her tipping over.
“That’s why I told her ‘if you fall, I’ve got a health condition and so won’t be able to pick you up’,” he added.
Butt told the court: “If she has been upset or is suffering because of me, from my heart, I apologise.”
Magistrates fined him £300 and also imposed £750 costs and a £30 surcharge.
Speaking after the case, council licensing officer Mark Georgiou said: “We hope this sends out a message to drivers that refusing passengers in wheelchairs is not only immoral, but illegal.”
Councillor Randy Conteh, cabinet member for housing, communities and safer city, said: “We expect high standards from taxi drivers who are licenced by the council. Not only is it totally unacceptable to refuse to take someone because they are in wheelchair, it is illegal and we won’t hesitate to take legal action – as this case shows.
“The passenger was left embarrassed and upset by the incident and ended up missing a train she was due to catch, and all of that could and should have easily been avoided. It will now be up to the council’s licensing and registration panel to decide whether further action is needed in relation to Mr Butt’s taxi licence.”