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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.

Level Access

My brother-in-law, niece and I recently went to a concert. (If I was cool, I would say I went to a gig, but I’m not really cool!)

We set off in the car in the dark and wet, looking forward to a good night out.

My brother-in-law had done his research. He had been told by the venue staff member he spoke to that there was some disabled parking at the front of the building and a car park at the back with disabled parking. Predictably, the parking at the front had all been taken by the time we arrived, so we set off to look for the alternative.

There it was: a long-stay car park with some spaces reserved for disabled “blue badge” holders.

I have mentioned before that I have some mobility issues. My brother-in-law had been told there was level access from the car park to the venue.

Now, when you hear the words “level access”, I wonder what comes to mind? A nice, straight, smooth path, perhaps? Maybe something a little less perfect but still navigable by arthritic or wheelchair-bound people?

This was neither. This “level access” consisted of steep ramps and steps! In what universe does “level access” include steps?

Fortunately, I can cope with steps, provided there aren’t too many and they aren’t too steep, but a patron in a wheelchair would have found this path nearly impossible.

So, what went wrong?

Did the person my brother-in-law spoke to not know how difficult the route was and just say what she thought the customer wanted to hear? Had she been given the wrong information by another member of staff? Did she genuinely think steps didn’t matter?

It is very important for venues to give out accurate information. It is also important that the information is easy to find.

To digress: a few years ago, I went to The Doctor Who Experience when it was in Cardiff Bay. The only telephone number I could find to enquire about access issues turned out to be a call centre whose staff could give me no venue-specific information at all.

When we got there, my escort helped me to touch the exhibits but we were admonished by a member of staff. We explained that I couldn’t see. They said we should have phoned in advance and they would have made suitable arrangements for me. I said I had tried to.

The staff running the exhibition turned out to be lovely people who let me touch most of the objects on display. I even got to stand in a Dalek and pretend to shoot people, so all was well in the end!

Back to the gig. (See, I can be cool when I want to.)

We eventually got inside the venue. The theatre was nicely appointed but soon another issue arose. My niece took me to the disabled toilet and while she was waiting for me, an able-bodied lady came and queued up. After a minute or two, this lady realised she could use other facilities not specifically designated for the disabled and off she went.

Now, I’m not the sort of person who would stand in your way if you were desperate and the only available toilet was the disabled one. However, you might bear some points in mind. Some people have conditions that mean they take longer in the loo than most people. If they have been prevented from using the disabled facility because an able-bodied person has nipped in there, they can, and have been known to, miss the start of the concert. You might think this is a trivial matter but if too many able-bodied people use facilities designated for the disabled they can be causing disabled people real distress or putting them at a disadvantage.

Okay, lecture over! Let me tell you about the music.

Joshua Lee Turner is a young, multi-talented singer/songwriter who has a hit channel on YouTube called Josh Turner Guitar and a passion for the music of Paul Simon. He’s currently touring the UK with a band and the South African Cultural Choir in a show entitled Graceland: Live and that’s what we went to see.

In the first half, they performed a number of Paul Simon songs and the South African Cultural Choir sang some amazing numbers from their home country with all the energy and enthusiasm we have come to love since Ladysmith Black Mambazo first found their way onto our CD players.

In the second half they performed the entire Graceland album and did two encores. It was fabulous and if the show comes to a venue near you, I can thoroughly recommend it.

Just as a post script: I noticed that there were two auditoriums at the venue and in the other one The Girl on the Train was being performed. Coincidentally, I had two lodgers from the same production staying with me two weeks ago. It’s a small world!

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.

Inclusion

How accessible are churches and other places of worship?

I’m not just talking about physical access, for all that lifts and ramps can be very important for those, like me, who have mobility problems. I’m talking about whether, once inside those places of worship, you can participate in the activities that go on there alongside able-bodied people.

I’m talking about inclusion.

One important area of my life is church. What I’m going to say may apply to places of worship of many faiths but I can only speak from my own experience here.

An important element of the Christian faith is the written word. If you happen to have a printed bible handy, just look and see how many pages it contains. It’s probably a single volume with around 900 pages. Now let me tell you about my braille bible. The New Testament alone is in five very thick braille volumes. I do not possess the entire Old Testament (I have a mere thirty volumes) because in my previous house I had nowhere to put it all. I could probably find space in my current home but a braille bible is so huge, I would still have to store it in various different parts of the house.

(An aside: years ago when I worked at the RNIB braille production unit in Goswell Road, we used to gather round a tea trolley twice a day for a break. Many people have never experienced this delightfully old-fashioned custom. It was a great opportunity to chat and we would regularly muse on various issues relating to braille and sight loss. I remember one day that we had a discussion about how much space you would need for the Gideons to leave a braille bible as well as a print bible in every hotel room. We envisaged guests having to climb over vast piles of books in order to get into bed!)

But, yes, braille bibles are really big and cumbersome, multi-volume works. You can imagine the problems this causes when I want to take a bible with me to church. When I attend bible study, I only take the appropriate volume along with me. When I take my turn on the reading rota and read in the service, I copy the reading out beforehand and just take the braille print-out with me. This is far preferable to heaving a large book onto the lectern.

Of course, this kind of participation can only happen if there is good communication. I need to know the bible passage well in advance.

I remember the first time I read the lesson at my current church. I was solemnly escorted to the lectern on the platform. It took me a while to get there! (These days I read from a lectern on the floor of the worship area.) Once I was at the lectern, no one could see me at all, because I am so short. (Neither I nor my escort realised there was a step to stand on for just such occasions.) The congregation knew I couldn’t read a print bible, so when they heard a disembodied voice ringing round the room, many of them assumed, I discovered later, that I was reciting the reading from memory! The illusion was shattered when I started reading from the lower lectern, however, because everyone could see that I actually had a sheet of paper with me.

That’s a little about the challenges of bible reading for the visually impaired, but what about hymn books?

Many churches these days no longer use hymn books, instead projecting the words of the songs onto large screens. This solves some problems but creates new ones. It makes it easier to introduce new songs and does away with the business of handing out hymn books and tidying them away at the end of the service. Not everyone can read ordinary print, and large-print hymn books can be heavy and unwieldy, especially for elderly people with arthritic hands. The use of screens can help solve these problems and also leaves people free to raise their arms or clap their hands, if they are worshiping in churches where such practices are the norm.

The words on the screens still have to be big enough for everyone to read, of course, and the screens have to be positioned so that everyone can see them. If they are not raised sufficiently high, you may not be able to see them if you are behind someone who is much taller than you are. My brother-in-law tells me that in his church, there was a lady with bad arthritis in her neck for whom it was very painful to raise her head to look up at words on a screen. You have to choose your text and background colours carefully, too, because some combinations are very hard to read.

Frankly, though, if you are visually impaired, screens are not much help.

In our church, we have a printed order of service which is also projected on a big screen at the front. This is where I am very lucky. Not only can I read braille but I have the means of braille production. I am sent an electronic copy of the service in advance and I can braille it during the week, along with the hymns, so that I can fully participate in the service on Sunday. I do possess a braille hymn book but it is in eleven volumes so I prefer to copy out the hymns and take single sheets. I have a large collection by now so often don’t have to braille any new ones.

My ability to braille documents enables me not only to take my place on the reading rota but also to lead bible studies and chair meetings. As I have mentioned in this blog before, braille is essential for these activities. I can braille notes for a bible study and I have the agenda, minutes and any relevant reports literally at my finger-tips in meetings.

Whilst I am pleased to be able to play my part in church life – and, with access to braille and assistance from fellow church-goers, I hope to continue to do so for many years to come – I am aware that not everyone is so fortunate. What about those older people who, when they can no longer see the screen or read the admittedly large-print order of service, find themselves unable to join in?

I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions but we should keep asking them, always making sure we consult those most keenly affected. We need to listen carefully to their answers.

Access

Not everyone was happy when the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act came into force here in the UK.

The Act states that public buildings should have “reasonable adjustments” made for the benefit of disabled people. The social commentator Rod Liddle was vehemently opposed to beautiful old buildings being mangled, as he saw it, by the inclusion of lifts and ramps. He saw no reason why someone in a wheelchair should not have to go to a back door and press a buzzer or be lifted bodily out of their wheelchair and carried into, say, a busy restaurant, in front of the other customers.

I wonder if he would feel quite so sanguine if it was happening to him but the point is this is not just about physical access. It’s about human dignity and the message society is sending out to disabled people.

There used to be a BBC Radio 4 sketch show called “Yes, sir, I can boogie” which included material by disabled writers. One skit had an able-bodied person turning up at a theatre. The theatre-goer is outraged to be told he can only see the show if he is prepared to be winched up in the service lift and sit at the back of the auditorium. It made the point nicely. This is the sort of thing disabled people have put up with for years.

Access is not just a question of physical obstacles. For those of us with sensory impairments, there are other issues as well. Someone with a hearing impairment may need a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter or a hearing loop system.

Visually-impaired people need … well, what do we need?

Some buildings thoughtfully provide braille labels on doors but if you don’t know they are there or where to look for them, you will never find them. I’m certainly not going to feel around doors in strange buildings, assuming I can find the doors, on the off-chance that there are braille labels!

If there was a national standard for braille labelling in public places, it might be made to work effectively.

If, for instance, all doors were routinely labelled and those labels appeared, say, near the door knob each time, it would help some visually impaired people to navigate their way around. For example, it might make it possible to find a hotel room independently. Because the whole building is often unknown, however, some visually impaired people, myself included, would need more help than this. I would prefer a sighted person to guide me around, certainly in the first instance, and, if the stay was short, quite probably the whole time. It can take a while to learn your way around strange premises.

A problem that particularly affects visually impaired people is large, open-plan spaces.

At Swindon railway station, for example, there used to be a taxi rank virtually outside the front entrance. You now have to cross an open area to get to it. This is not helpful and is potentially dangerous as cars are coming and going all the time. I always book assistance and so have a member of staff with me but more mobile and independent visually impaired people who would have been able to get a taxi without official help in the past are now more dependent and at much greater risk.

Even the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) comes unstuck sometimes. I attended a course at their headquarters in London a few years ago. When the course was over, I was put in a chair in reception while, supposedly, a taxi was call for me.

After a long wait, I decided to approach the reception desk to ask what was happening. Where was it though? I had to cross a huge open area, head for the general sound of talk and hope for the best. I was not impressed.

I feel, therefore, that when architects, developers, building managers and whoever else this responsibility falls to, are thinking about access, they should consult with a wide range of disabled people. They will need to be flexible and to understand that we are individuals. What suits one visually impaired person may not suit another and they may need to include a variety of solutions.

Of course, no one is expecting every building to perfectly fit the needs of every single disabled person, but more could be done.

We should continually strive for inclusivity, even if that means doing things differently sometimes or taking a leap of imagination to try to understand how it feels to be treated as a second-class citizen. After all, no one wants to be consigned to the service lift of life.

Handle with care

I belong to a number of internet groups for visually-impaired people. There has been an interesting discussion on one of them recently, namely: How much physical contact is appropriate when a sighted person is trying to guide you?

It all started with an item on BBC Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” programme. I didn’t hear it myself but I gather that a visually-impaired woman was saying that some sighted people had touched her inappropriately when assisting her.

Now, I have never had this happen to me. I have known of physically disabled people being taken advantage of by some taxi drivers in this way but the particular incident I have in mind took place many years ago and I would like to think things have improved since then.

However, it is a useful discussion to have.

I think that most of us who have grown up visually impaired are accustomed to higher levels of physical contact than sighted people would expect to experience on a daily basis. In fact I have had sighted people be reluctant to take my hand in case “someone got the wrong idea.” It isn’t always clear who “someone” is but it would never occur to me to worry about that sort of contact.

The fact is that contact is necessary. If I want you to guide me somewhere, I will need to take your arm. If I visit a physiotherapist and they are demonstrating exercises, I need them to actually show me what to do. In my Yoga class, I am quite happy for my Yoga teacher to manipulate my arms, say, to show me how a particular movement is made.

The link between the above examples is that I have chosen them. I have given permission for the physio and my Yoga teacher to touch me. I have usually said to my sighted guide, “May I hold your arm?”

What is not acceptable is for a sighted person to grab me willy-nilly without checking that I am okay with that. For one thing, to be grabbed unannounced can make you jump out of your skin!

(There is an exception to this. If I’m about to be run over by a bus, please grab away!)

Healthcare professionals are very careful these days to seek your permission before making contact and, to be honest, despite what I have said, if someone is genuinely trying to help, I’m not going to cry “foul.” But in any context, best practice when working with the visually impaired is still to ask whether we need help and, if so, what help do we need and how should it be delivered.

In other words, something like this:

You: “Can I help you?”

Me: “Yes please, I need to get on this train.”

You: “What would you like me to do?”

Me: “Please may I take your arm?

That kind of thing.

Some visually impaired people will have had trauma in their lives which may dispose them to react violently to physical contact, especially if it occurs without warning or permission. Others, I’m afraid, are just rude. Ignore the rude ones. Most visually-impaired people, though, are grateful for offers of help and appreciate being asked.

Which is not to say that these encounters always run smoothly. I was once on Paddington Station quite late at night and was trying to ascertain whether I was about to board the right train. The man I asked, however, was so anxious about missing the nearly-last train that he didn’t listen. Instead, he just kept shouting, “Is this train going to Reading?”

If he had calmed down, I could have told him that if it was the train I hoped it was, yes, it would stop at Reading. We could have helped each other. He would have been reassured and I would have been helped to a seat.

Still, life doesn’t always run to script. I think we both reached our respective destinations. I certainly don’t recall having to sleep on Paddington Station so I must have got home somehow!