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Have you ever thought ‘if only this little thing existed, it would make life so much easier…’? That’s what went through James McNaught’s mind when he was having treatment for throat cancer in 2014. He travelled to hospital on London Underground trains, often feeling incredibly unwell, and wanted to find a way to let his fellow passengers know he was in need of a seat. Thanks to James’s Cancer on Board campaign, Transport for London are now piloting a scheme to help customers to get a seat when they need one. We met with James (along with a friendly local alpaca) to find out more about the campaign.
Hi James! Can you tell us how the idea for the Cancer on Board campaign came about?
I had chemotherapy and then radiotherapy, and by the time I was having radiotherapy I wasn’t feeling very well, let’s put it like that. It was around August, September time so it was really hot, and when I had to travel at rush hour, it was just horrible. I got talking to a fellow patient one day, and we joked to each other that if we had Baby on Board badges we could pretend to be pregnant and people would give us a seat. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought… well, obviously nobody’s going to think I’m pregnant, but if there was a badge… that could work. So I ordered 100 “Cancer on Board” badges from a company online, and started giving them out in the waiting room and leaving them lying around the hospital for people to pick up.
How did Transport for London get involved?
After the campaign started to get picked up on social media and in the media, I had an email from Transport for London inviting me to a meeting. I thought they were going to say, “OK, you’ve had your fun but stop now!” But they were very helpful, and had some interesting ideas. They said they’d been thinking about a scheme for ‘invisible disability’, to help people get a seat when they need one – and they said they liked my badge idea. So they’re trialling a “Please offer me a seat” badge. They’ve recruited 1000 volunteers for a six week trial, who’ll fill in a questionnaire with their experience of wearing the badge on public transport. At the end of the trial, if the feedback is positive, it’ll go to the Mayor of London for approval.
What’s your experience of wearing the badge?
No-one has ever said “no”. And no-one has ever said “why?”. Quite often people say “Oh, I’m a cancer survivor too”, or “Where do I get one of those badges?”. It can be a bit difficult when people are already sitting down as they tend to go into a bubble. But when someone stands up when you’re coming to a platform, there’ll be some people going for their seat and others going “No, this guy needs to sit down” – even from quite a long way down the carriage. It’s really gratifying to see that.
They give out 300,000 Baby on Board badges a year, so it’s just accepted now – you can’t go on the Tube without seeing one, which is great. It would be great if everyone just looked out for each other without the need for a badge, but in London there are so many people –you tend to close yourself off into a little box because otherwise you can’t cope with London transport!
How have you gone about promoting the campaign?
I started to tweet about it – it’s all about Twitter! And I got in touch with a couple of people with cancer blogs who said “Look, this is a good idea”. Thousands of people read those blogs, and the people who run them are really friendly and keen to be involved – and if they get their teeth into something it really works. There’s a Facebook page, too, which is really good. So the word got out, and the ball started rolling.
Since Transport for London got involved they’ve been sending more media enquiries my way. Recently I took a tube ride with a journalist from the Telegraph and we bumped into a badge wearer at Bank, who has difficulty standing and usually has to carry a walking stick with her, more to show she’s disabled rather than to use it. She said her walking stick was folded up in her bag and this was the first commute she’d had in more than a year when she hadn’t had to use it. She said all the right things to the journalist – I couldn’t have planned that!
What’s been the most unexpected thing about the campaign?
Getting recognised in the street! I was on BBC London News and then the following day two people out of the blue said ‘you were on TV last night’. And everyone’s got a cancer story – whether it’s them, or a family member or someone else. It’s a good icebreaker, I’ve found - people want to talk about it. Lots of people come up to me and say it’s a fantastic idea. That’s the most rewarding thing - getting messages that it’s worked. Some people say “I don’t want to be a victim, I don’t want to mark myself out” – but if it just works for one person, and it makes their journey to or from chemo or radiotherapy, or just getting around and about during their treatment - if it makes it a little bit easier just once, for someone, then it’s worked.
Do you have any advice for campaigners who want to make life easier for people affected by cancer?
Just get out there and do it – what’s the worst that can happen? You do have to send an awful lot of begging letters and emails and lots of them don’t get answered. People must get thousands of emails a day with ideas and “can you help me with this…”. But I got someone with 40,000 followers to retweet me, and all of a sudden I got badge requests from all over the place. Once there’s a bit of momentum, the balls starts rolling. If I was doing it again from the beginning, I would’ve gone wider first – I would have got other hospitals involved from the beginning. And the badges would have been bigger! The next batch will be bigger.
Will you still be making the Cancer on Board badges if Transport for London implement their scheme?
Yes, I will still be making mine – though whether they will still have the TfL logo on them remains to be seen! I’m looking for a sponsor; at the moment I’m going through the process of getting set up as a proper charity. Some people have said they’re going to wear the Cancer on Board badge and TfL’s Please Offer Me a Seat badge, as the TfL one doesn’t say what’s wrong with you. Some people are fine with that, but others do want people to know, “look, I’m out and about with cancer, deal with it.” People are also keen for something that’s not London specific – I’ve already been asked if I can do one for Manchester. What I’m really trying to do is find a universal symbol - a symbol for a non-visible disability. Someone needs to come up with one!
Thanks James, and all the best with the campaign!
You can find out more about the Cancer on Board campaign on Twitter and Facebook.
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