Amnesty

I don’t think I’ve said much about my involvement with Amnesty International. I joined at college. One of my lecturer’s organised a fundraising concert and I signed up that night.

I’ve been a member of several groups over the years and have been chairing the Swindon & Marlborough Group for quite a while now.

When I joined, it wasn’t the easiest organisation to belong to if you had a visual impairment. The amount of paperwork coming through the letterbox was a little daunting. This was for the admirable reason that Amnesty do in-depth research and present their members with as much information as possible. I had to take the same line that I did at college, however, working out what was necessary for me to know and only reading any extras if I had time, not to mention a willing volunteer to do the reading.

I clearly wasn’t the only one who found it all a bit overwhelming but I am pleased to say that the UK section took their members’ views to heart and cut down enormously on the amount of paper they sent out.

These days, of course, much of the information comes to us via email which means I’m on a level playing field with everyone else. (Not that being part of Amnesty is competitive! The whole idea is that you do as much or as little as you want.)

In our group we always have a prisoner of conscience for whom we write letters every month. At the moment we are campaigning for the release of Aster Fissehatsion, who was “disappeared” in Eritrea in 2001 for daring to suggest that transparency in government might be a good idea. We have no idea if she is still alive or not but we keep writing anyway.

We also join in other campaigns, which can be for specific countries, or for specific issues, such as torture. I know this sounds very serious, and it is, but we have fun too. I shall never forget the giant pink cardboard cut-out battle tank created by some of our group to highlight human rights abuses in China.

We have heard some amazing speakers at our meetings over the years. I am always struck by how humble ex-prisoners of conscience are. They are “ordinary” people who do the extraordinary by speaking truth to power whatever the consequences and, believe me, those consequences can be pretty dire. I will never forget being hugged by a former prisoner from the Maldives as though I had done something special. All I had done, along with others, was write letters to the authorities asking for their release. It brings tears to my eyes just to think about it.

Last night’s meeting was our most light-hearted of the year. At this time each year, Amnesty runs its “Write for Rights” campaign. They produce details of prisoners we can send cards to, either directly, or sometimes via their family and friends. We write our cards to the accompaniment of mince pies, stollen, and hot spiced apple juice.

So why do I continue to be involved in an organisation where the printed word which I can’t see is so important and which I have to have assistance to support?

Quite simply, I believe in it.

Whatever my problems may be, they are nothing compared to those of the people we campaign for.

Returning to the mince pies, I am now going to take a break for Christmas and New Year. Thank you for staying with me so far. I wish you all well for the holiday season and the very best for the New Year.

Judith Furse will be back with a new blog post on Tuesday 14 January 2020.

Cubs!

When you aren’t around children much you forget how noisy they are en masse! So why were my PA and I venturing into the lions’ den?

It’s because we were invited to speak to a local Cub pack. They will be working for their “Disability Awareness” badge in January and they wanted an introduction to braille. So we set off in search of said Cub pack…

We arrived at the front entrance of the school where they meet. We spoke to a couple of people who re-directed us to the back of the school. We walked round the perimeter, across the car park at the back, and eventually we found them.

When we entered, we encountered around twenty 8-10 year-olds. I think exuberant would be a good description!

I started by saying a few words about Louis Braille and handed out cards with the braille alphabet on. I then showed them some children’s books in braille which I borrowed from the ClearVision Project for whom I proofread.

Two of the books were print books with braille interleaved on clear plastic. I heard one child pipe up,  “I think I’ve got the hang of it now!”

My PA went over, and turned back the print pages so they could only see the braille. Then she brought some Cubs over to hear me read.

They also loved the tactile books made by volunteers who sew and embroider to embellish the pages. I love these books too, and particularly like the page in Little Red Riding Hood with a door that actually opens and closes. (Little things amuse me!)

They enjoyed trying out my talking kitchen scales. I had provided two clementines for them to weigh.

I then got them to pair up. One child had to close their eyes, take the arm of their partner and let them guide them round the room. I was impressed by the enterprising ones who took their “blind” charges up the steps onto the stage.

They asked lots of interesting questions. One observant girl noticed I was wearing glasses so I tried to explain that I have a tiny amount of sight. She also noticed I was wearing a necklace and wondered how I got dressed and put on jewellery. Another shared his grandmother’s experience of using a liquid level indicator. I’m afraid I just put my finger in the cup when I want to know how full it is!

At the end I was given a rousing chorus of “Bravo!”

We waited to hear them sing “Jingle Bells” and then sallied forth again into the car park.

It was a lively evening. we enjoyed it and hope they did too!

By the way, for those who read my blog regularly: the John Lewis Christmas ad is audio-described. Thought it would be!

Election

You may not have noticed but we are in the midst of an election here in the UK. If you are reading this from outside our borders, be grateful it isn’t happening to you!

The impending election made me start to think about whether we, visually-impaired people, are disadvantaged in the electoral process.

One year, the RNIB made a point of advertising the fact that the three main parties had had their manifestos put into braille. They made it easy by giving you the numbers to ring so I rang and obtained all three documents. There was quite a lot to read, (I think Labour’s was the longest) but I did read them all the way through.

The RNIB haven’t, so far, mentioned any braille versions of the manifestos this year. I’m not sure I can muster sufficient enthusiasm to chase all the phone numbers this time but I suspect the same could be said for a lot of sighted voters. How many people do search out all the relevant manifestos and read them? I’m guessing it’s only a small percentage of the electorate.

Then there are the leaflets that come through the door. I have a sighted PA who would read these to me if I asked but am I going to ask? Probably not. It takes time that I could put to other uses. Many visually impaired people won’t have anyone to read these to them, though.

When it comes to canvassing on the doorstep, I am definitely on equal terms with my sighted neighbours. I can engage in a political argument…sorry, I mean, discussion…as well as anyone else and, provided they don’t turn up while I’m watching Ghost Adventures on television, I may do so.

The physical act of voting raises more issues. I know  a number of visually impaired people who opt for a postal vote which they can get a trusted friend or relative to help them fill in.

This is a good idea but I like to exercise my democratic right to attend a polling station.

There is a system of assistance in place for visually impaired voters who want to vote at a polling station. I can ask at the desk for someone to help me and a member of staff will take me to the booth, read out all the names and put a cross where I ask them to.

I personally have no problem with this and I trust them to act according to my instructions. Of course, if there are other voters around, it isn’t entirely private. The booths aren’t sound-proofed. As I tend to be quite open about who I vote for, I don’t mind this but I could understand others not being happy with it. There are templates produced by RNIB which you can line up with the names on the ballot paper and which enable you to put your own cross on the form. I was only offered this once and I didn’t find it very easy to use but it did, at least, mean my vote was secret.

Latterly, I have gone to vote with a friend and been quite happy to let her put my cross in the desired box for me.

I don’t know if there is a perfect system but it is certainly the case that casting a totally secret vote when you can’t see where to put your cross is a challenge. This will matter to some more than others but perhaps we should be giving more thought to this question. After all, that little cross is at the heart of our democracy.

Adverts

One of the joys of recording television programmes is that you can fast-forward through the adverts.

Alternatively, you can use them as handy waypoints through the programme, allowing you time to do the washing-up, make quick phone calls, check your email and a host of other useful things.

When I do let them run, I take very little notice of them. Apart from the meerkats and occasional tunes such as “Right said Fred” being used for an equity release ad, I couldn’t tell you the straplines or identifying features of many of them.

However, a while ago I pricked up my ears. I suddenly realised I was hearing audio-description – in an ad! Guess who it was for? Specsavers!

Someone in marketing had actually thought seriously about their potential target audience and realised that some of them might not have very good eyesight!

You may be thinking, “But that’s obvious, isn’t it?”

No, it isn’t.

As I have described in previous blogs, even people who are directly concerned with visual impairment don’t always get it right.

Next, I noticed that Amazon’s Alexa ads are audio-described. This does make sense because they appear in association with RNIB.

I started to listen more carefully.

I was quite excited when I found myself hearing the Asda Christmas ad described.

“Aha,” I thought, “other stores have elaborate Christmas ads too. I wonder whether M&S and John Lewis will follow suit?”

Lo and behold, M&S’s Christmas advert is also audio-described. 

You may be wondering why I’m getting so excited about this. After all, I’ve already said that I generally don’t pay any attention to advertisements.

Well, it shows that marketing departments are starting to take visually-impaired people seriously. And so they should! We are real people, potential customers with economic agency.

I promise you, this is a step forward. We may not be in the brave new world yet but we are getting there.

Oh, and the other reason for my excitement?

I love Christmas.

I’m still listening out for the John Lewis ad, by the way, fingers crossed and hovering over the fast forward button!

Fireworks

Most evenings for the past week, I have heard fireworks going off in the area around where I live. The noise of the loud bangs, whooshes and crackles have taken me right back to my childhood.

I loved Guy Fawkes night when I was young. I remember the peculiar joy of making a Guy by stuffing old tights with dried leaves and creating something that resembled a somewhat sinister scarecrow. One year I had the immense satisfaction of burning my hated school beret on the Guy.

I can still taste the hot potatoes, tomato soup and sausages, eaten as we stood by the bonfire. In later years we had more sophisticated food, chicken drumsticks marinated in spicy sauces for instance.

The wonderful part for me, though, was the fireworks. The rockets were frustrating as they often burst into stars too high up for me to see but the other fireworks, well, that was a different matter. Golden and silver showers of stars, bright pinks and greens and the amazing whizzing speed of the Catherine wheels are all fixed clearly in my mind’s eye.

Sparklers were great too. You could write your name in the air and create pretty patterns of sparks.

The next morning, my brother and I would go round the garden collecting the now soggy and unappealing spent fireworks. Why we enjoyed doing this is a mystery to me now. Perhaps it helped us relive the fun of the night before.

At some point our family decided that burning money wasn’t very sensible and that peering at explosives in the dark whilst trying to light the blue touch paper by torchlight wasn’t the best idea either, so, we paid to go to an organised display. To me, it was a disappointment. You couldn’t stand close to the bonfire watching the flames and listening to the crackling sounds and the public had to stand so far back that I couldn’t see a thing.

This is where the whole topic gets tricky. I do think that fireworks are basically dangerous and many people nowadays don’t have long enough gardens to allow for spectators to stand well back from the firing zone. The rational, safety-aware, part of me says organised displays are the best way to watch fireworks. The trouble is, they are a dead loss if you have limited vision.

There is another issue too. Most animals absolutely hate fireworks. They find them terrifying.

I belong to a WhatsApp group for former students of Chorleywood College. This week, several guide dog owners have expressed their desire for fireworks to be banned altogether. One person had to miss a concert she had been planning to attend because she literally couldn’t leave her dog. I am sure if I had animals in the house, I would feel the same.

Notwithstanding all the above, I miss those homespun firework displays of my childhood. I can’t think of any occasion since when I could see such vivid colours.

Perhaps the answer is to have organised displays in uninhabited areas and allow the visually-impaired spectators to stand at the front? I don’t know if there is a perfect answer but, for now, I will have to rely on my memory and imagination.

Landlady

Yes, of course, my main business is running Swindon Braille Services and providing “a fast, efficient and completely confidential service transcribing print documents into braille.” (Just as it says on this website. I checked!) Blogging on braille, disability and issues facing the visually impaired is all part of that business, but have I told you about my side-line as a theatrical landlady?

It all started when my sister forwarded me an email asking for people to offer accommodation to actors and backstage crew visiting our local theatres. She thought I might find it interesting and afford me a little extra income. I decided to give it a go. I signed up and waited.

My first tenant was playing Peppa Pig at the Wyvern Theatre here in Swindon. (Which was highly appropriate, of course as, according to localhistories.org, “The name Swindon is derived from the Saxon words swine dun meaning pig hill or the hill where pigs were bred.”) She only stayed one night but she said she found my spare room comfortable and would recommend me to others.

That all sounded promising.

I then waited for a couple of months for the next tenants. They belonged to a Christian theatre company and came to me through the church. It was shortly after they left that things really took off.

I don’t recall now which play my next lodger was in but he arrived on Sunday and I didn’t see him again until Wednesday.

I think at this point I need to explain how matters routinely unfold. Sunday is travel day. The actor/crew person will arrive at my house, usually in the early evening. Pausing only to note the Wi-Fi password, they leave their luggage and then dash off to the theatre. They generally return quite late that night. As they often rise late and come back late at night, I can go days without actually speaking to them.

When I encountered my tenant on the Wednesday in question I expressed my concern that he didn’t seem to eat anything. I hadn’t encountered him in the kitchen and no food had found its way into the cupboards. (I always offer my guests cupboard and fridge space.) He said that, being a single man, he was accustomed to living on take-aways and they had a microwave at the theatre in which he made Cup-a-Soups and porridge.

I don’t like to sound sexist, but I have noticed that whereas my women guests do make use of the kitchen and even cook and eat proper meals, the men often don’t use the kitchen at all, or very minimally. There have, of course, been notable exceptions to this.

It took me a while to get used to the rhythms of theatre people. Quite a number of my lodgers, both men and women, go running while they’re staying with me. One dancer in the panto even signed up at a gym before coming here to book in and leave his luggage.

I haven’t been to every play that my lodgers have been in but I have mentioned before in this blog that two cast members from The Mousetrap stayed with me and kindly arranged for me to go on a touch tour of the set. At the risk of repeating myself, I was greatly impressed with the period detail of the set and props, even down to the use of the correct brown paper and string to wrap the Christmas presents in the play. The panelling on the walls and the 1950s furniture all made the stage feel like a real living room. My sister came with me, and she and I particularly enjoyed having fake snow blown over us when the stage crew demonstrated their snow machine.

One of my favourite shows was The Buddy Holly Story. I had two lodgers that week, one playing a DJ and the other the Big Bopper. As I took the latter up to the loft, (I have a great loft conversion), he exclaimed, “Oh, the penthouse!” and so it has been known ever since. I am proud to tell people that the Big Bopper has slept in my penthouse, and not everyone can say that!

I give each lodger a set of keys and occasionally they make use of my parking space at the back of the house. One lodger, having told me he was leaving during the day, texted me to say that he had left in the middle of the night and that my keys were in the hanging basket at the bottom of my garden. Basically, rather than drop them off at the front door, he had lobbed them over the back wall!

I was brought up to be very security conscious so, despite the fact that it was raining hard, I donned my anorak and made my way across the garden. If any of my neighbours had looked out just then, they would have seen a small figure, hood pulled down over her eyes, reaching up into a hanging basket and sifting through the contents with her fingers. Fortunately I didn’t have to rummage about in the loam for too long before I located the keys.

All my lodgers are invited to sign the visitors’ book. Megan, from The Girl on the Train, which I can thoroughly recommend, drew a bat in the comments section, having noticed how many I have about the place. (At least, I assume that that’s why she did it…)

I have come to really admire actors and everyone connected with the theatre. Many play runs last all year. The cast and crew travel great distances each week, never knowing if they will find a comfortable bed at the end of it. They work hard and manage to keep the play fresh night after night, week after week and month after month. The dedication and energy levels required are immense.

Reading Law

In my last two blog posts, I’ve been casting my mind back through the decades and telling you about my long-ago time as a visually impaired law student in London.

In those days, the only support you got when you went to college was a grant from the RNIB for buying equipment you needed for your studies. For most of us this meant purchasing a variable-speed cassette recorder. This was regarded as cutting-edge technology in 1978. It enabled you to record your lectures and then play them back at double speed in the evening whilst you made braille notes. This was a laborious process but it did mean I got to hear everything twice, which probably helped me retain more information.

There were few textbooks accessible to me. I think I had one in braille and a couple of key ones on cassette. Studying Law involves a lot of reading but quite often you need to read bits from several different sources. It would not have been practical to have had all those books in braille. For one thing, where would I have put them? Braille books are huge.

The rooms in hall weren’t big. To me, having been at boarding school, they seemed quite reasonable. There was a bed, a wardrobe with drawers, a desk, and a few shelves. It was said that a boy on one of the upper floors was building a motorbike in his room and had filled all the available space with the bike parts. I never heard whether he completed the task.

To access the print works that I couldn’t find in braille or on tape, I advertised for readers and a goodly number of volunteers came forward. Some were from the year above me, which was great, because they could explain what they were reading. Even with this help, I still had to work out a system whereby I decided what was absolutely necessary for me to read. I would start with that and, if I had time, I would then read around more fully. Many of my fellow students took the view that they had to read the material anyway, so why not read it aloud? I owe a great debt of gratitude to these wonderful people, without whom I would not have been able to complete my degree.

I found studying Law absolutely fascinating. It’s true that some topics were more interesting than others but overall I really did enjoy it.

Mind you, we had our share of eccentric lecturers. One, who smoked a prodigious amount, once dropped a lighted match into his matchbox and caused a light show which even I could see. Another, who, shall we say, “enjoyed a tipple,” once gave a whole lecture with one leg stuck in the wastepaper basket.

Despite their vagaries, the academic staff were all very supportive, although it was hard to get them to give me handouts in advance so that I could braille them or have them read to me.

This was back in the age when nearly every student social took the form of a disco but once a year we held a seriously posh dinner at the Law Society. The girls wore long dresses and the boys smartened themselves up and we had some great speakers including John Mortimer and Lord Denning.

When it came to graduation it was decided not to have a ceremony. I think there was some talk of not wanting outdated rituals. A few of us eventually rebelled, however, and faked the ceremony so that we could have pictures of ourselves in gowns. One of my friends hired a gown and we took turns to wear it and be photographed. It was much too big for me and miles too long so I stood on a table so that it hung properly. The scroll in my hand, immortalised in a framed photo, is not actually my degree certificate but a conveyancing tutorial handout.

Student on the move

In last week’s blog, I began to tell you about my time as a visually impaired law student at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London and is now the University of Westminster. Let me pick up where I left off…

Having been to boarding school, I was used to looking after myself. I had been changing my own bed sheets at school since the age of seven and I was accustomed to being away from home. I think this all helped to make the transition from school to college less traumatic than it was for some people.

Finding my way around was still a real challenge, though.

The Law School itself was not too difficult to navigate. The canteen and library were on the lower floors but from there on up all the floors were laid out identically. When I started my studies, the corridor walls were white while the tutorial room doors were dark blue, which made it relatively easy for me to distinguish them. I simply had to count the doors along the corridor to the room I needed. In my third year, however, they painted the doors a light mushroom colour which I found much more difficult to see. Fortunately, by then I had got a feel for how far along the corridor each room was.

The lecture theatre was on the 11th floor and the lift only went to the 10th so I did have to do some stair climbing. This was a bit slow with crutches, but not insurmountable.

If I had to go far outside the building, I used a wheelchair. I think it is to my friends’ eternal credit that I was never tipped out on our way back from the pub last thing at night. On the other hand, I did make a convenient carrier for stolen goods and a purloined salt and pepper set would occasionally be concealed about my person.

One of the disadvantages of being at a central London college with widely scattered facilities rather than being on a campus is that you regularly have to travel long distances from the hall of residence to your particular faculty. I couldn’t use the Underground without a lot of help but, after advertising, I did find fellow students with cars. As I had been issued with a parking permit, a benefit normally restricted to staff, they got the perk of being able to park in the Law School car park and I got a lift to and from my place of learning.

It was a good system, but I still didn’t manage to get a lift every day. I had to hire a lot of taxis and minicabs in the course of getting my degree.

College Daze

I have written a few times about life at school but I don’t think I’ve talked about my experience of higher education.

I studied Law at the Polytechnic of Central London, which is now the University of Westminster. As well as my visual impairment, due to my arthritis, I was walking with crutches at the time. This meant I couldn’t carry a long cane either for mobility use or to indicate to others that I couldn’t see. As you might imagine, this complicated my life a little.

I was allocated a room in a hall of residence in Marylebone Road.

You may have seen the concrete jungle opposite Madame Tussauds. That monstrosity housed the School of Management and the hall of residence. The latter was 21 storeys high and in high winds people on the upper floors could see ashtrays and mugs move across their desks.

I was originally given a room on the 15th floor but when it was mentioned that in the case of fire the lifts would be turned off, I pointed out to them that I would never make it out of the building. They then moved me down to the 5th floor. I explained that, in the event of a fire, I still wouldn’t be able to get out of the building alive. The Law School’s answer to this was to warn me in advance whenever there was going to be a fire drill. No one ever answered my query as to who was going to warn me in advance when there was going to be a real fire!

I shared a galley kitchen with 11 other people. There were six girls’ rooms on one side of the building and six boys’ rooms on the other, with a common room in the centre.

I will come back to the kitchen in a moment.

On the first night I plucked up courage, knocked on my neighbour’s door and asked if she was going to the canteen for breakfast the next day and, if so, could I come with her. She said yes and the next morning off we went. I did eventually learn my own way there although it wasn’t easy. You had to go down to one of the lower floors, up some stairs, and across the area linking the hall to the School of Management. This last sometimes contained moveable stands displaying students’ work, which conveniently served as unexpected collision hazards for visually impaired students like me. (I seem to recall exhibitions of work by the students on the photographic arts course, so perhaps they were housed there as well as the management students. I can’t remember!) You then had to go upstairs again and, finally, you came to the canteen.

It was all of a bit of a trek and after a while I started getting my own breakfast. I did use the canteen sometimes in the evenings though.

The Law School also had a canteen. Obviously, I couldn’t identify the food on offer or carry a tray so, if I was on my own, I just turned up at the counter and one of the staff would help me. They were really good about this.

I remember one particularly cheerful guy – I think his name was Bernard – who was great. One morning I turned up for breakfast in the canteen and, as far as I could tell, seemed to be the only person there.

“Hello beautiful,” he said.

I turned round, thinking that someone had crept up behind me, before realising that it was Bernard addressing me from behind the counter. In those days, this sort of banter came without consequences. I didn’t mind. His cheerful demeanour was reassuring to me as one who very much needed his assistance.

I said that I’d return to that student kitchen I shared with 11 others…

I am amazed we didn’t all suffer regularly with salmonella. Piles of dirty plates would sit in the sink, sometimes for days. I once had to sit on the floor to stir my scrambled eggs because there was literally nowhere to put the pan down.

One day, one of the boys came into the kitchen whilst I, the blind girl, was trying to cook on the inadequate oven, and asked me how to boil an egg. He must have been truly hungry.

Somehow, we all survived!

Schemes for the Deaf

Over the years I have had a variety of jobs and one of my favourites was working for something called Schemes for the Deaf.

Yes, you did read that correctly.

During the 1980s, when unemployment was rife, the government here in the UK created a nifty way of getting some of us jobless folks out of the statistics. They created “community programmes”, which were short-term contracts doing useful work in the – yes, you’ve guessed it – community. One such programme in the area I was living in at the time was called Schemes for the Deaf.

The aim of the scheme was to enlighten the public about the problems faced by hearing-impaired people and give them tips on how to communicate. Those of us working for the programme were given training in communicating with deaf people and in presenting our message to the public and off we went.

We worked in teams and went into schools, shops, and anywhere people would have us.

I loved the school visits. We mostly worked with children in the 7-9 age range and they were fantastic. They would cotton on quickly to the fact that I couldn’t see and I would often find a small hand in mine and a child would guide me across the classroom.

Each member of the team did a different activity with the children. Mine was holding up a poster showing lots of different things happening, all of which would generate sounds a deaf person wouldn’t hear. There was a helicopter, a bird singing, a telephone, an alarm clock and much more besides. The children would sit on a mat in front of me and have to pick out all the different objects, actions and events on the poster which would make sounds they thought couldn’t be heard.

The teachers said watching the children interact with me was an interesting exercise in itself. Normally the children would simply have pointed to things on the poster, but they soon realised that this wouldn’t work so they had to describe what they were looking at. I felt that in this way, as an unplanned consequence of my involvement, they were not only learning about sound and deafness but about sight loss and the need to communicate effectively.

I should perhaps say that I am using the term “deaf” because that was the term that was used at the time. In any case, we weren’t trying to give small children a nuanced understanding of disability. Today, however, we would usually say “hearing impaired”.

Okay, lecture over!

We often did return visits to the schools and the children would give us pictures they had drawn of our visit. This is when I discovered that a little confusion had arisen through having a blind lady talk about deafness. I still have some of the pictures the children gave me and below my image they have written things like, “Someone came to talk about deaf people. It was a lady. She was blind.”

The work was hugely enjoyable but, in the way of so many jobs at the time, it wasn’t long before we were made redundant. In their desire to get us into the world of work, the government had taught us an important lesson: how to survive having your job taken away from you.

Still, I am grateful for the time I spent on the scheme because I enjoyed it so much.