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Flying

In previous posts, I have written about what it’s like for me, as someone with a visual impairment, to travel by bus and train. This time I’m going to say something about flying.

My first flight was with the Royal Air Force. (No, they weren’t recruiting blind pilots!)

I had always wanted to fly and during my teens my grandmother happened to live in the same retirement village as the mother of the Community Relations Officer at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. A conversation took place and I was invited as a passenger on an RAF VC10 on a training flight.

It was amazing! I was even given a set of headphones so that I could hear what was going on in the cockpit, not that I could understand a word of it.

We flew to Scotland and did several “circuits and bumps” round an airfield there, diving down towards the runway and then pulling up again sharply. To a visually-impaired person, sensation is very important, and I certainly got plenty of that!

I was fed pork pie and orange juice, which I duly tucked into and thoroughly enjoyed, while the poor nurse they had sent up with me, in case I was ill, spent the whole flight being sick.

Afterwards they gave me a copy of the flight plan, signed by all the members of the VC10’s crew.

The first time I travelled on a commercial flight on my own was when I went to visit a friend who was living in Utrecht. I flew British Airways from Heathrow to Amsterdam and was well looked after by their staff throughout the journey. On the aircraft itself, I was in the care of a steward called Cliff. Despite the shortness of the flight, we were still given drinks and snacks. Cliff kept bringing me the uneaten chocolate biscuits left by other passengers. I was much slimmer then and could afford to eat such luxuries!

Over the years, I took flights to various parts of the world with family and friends, but my longest solo flight was to the US. Two years ago I went to visit my niece, who is studying for a PhD at Cornell University in Ithaca, in upstate New York.

I had booked to fly with British Airways but they have reciprocal agreements with other carriers on certain routes and so I ended up flying with American Airlines. I found booking assistance at the airport and on the flight quite a challenge. I kept being batted backwards and forwards between airlines and each number I rang had several menus and no options for disabled assistance. In the end I just pressed a button and hoped for the best. Eventually I got to speak to a helpful young man who set it all up for me.

My sister and brother-in-law kindly drove me to Heathrow. After the initial formalities I was put into the care of a lovely young woman who looked after me very well. Negotiating the various levels of security was fine apart from a slight hiccup when their X-ray machine showed a tall container in my case which they assumed to be liquid. “You can’t take that! Oh, it’s talc, that’s okay,” the official said.

I have to use a wheelchair for huge areas like airports and our second slight hiccup occurred when my assistant wheeled me away from the last security check, where you have to remove your shoes, forgetting that I was supposed to collect them and put them back on again afterwards. I alerted her quickly, though, and we zoomed back to gather up the missing footwear.

The trans-Atlantic portion of my journey was from Heathrow to Philadelphia. I had booked seats at the back of the plane, near the toilets, on the flights there and back, thinking this would be nice and convenient, (if you’ll forgive the pun). However, once aboard my outbound flight, I was told that they had moved me up to a seat near Business Class.

This was great. A steward named Tony looked after me and brought me bottles of water at regular intervals. He also kindly read through all the music options on the in-flight radio and set it up for me. Every once in a while he would check back to see whether I wanted a different option and would read through the menu for me all over again. He even filled out my boarding pass for me and generally made sure I was comfortable and had everything I needed.

One benefit of my new location on the plane was that I was allowed to use the Business Class toilet. This was bigger than the tiny cubicle in Economy. Unfortunately, I forgot that to open the door you had to push it in the middle. For a while I rattled and banged about while Tony helplessly called, “Are you alright, ma’m?” through the door. I had no intention of spending eight hours in a public convenience so I kept going until I finally worked out the answer and released myself back into the community.

At Philadelphia another helpful lady took care of me. She was concerned that I might not get anything to eat and drink while I waited for my connecting flight to Ithaca, so she took me to buy  a cheese sandwich and get a drink, and then waited patiently with me while I enjoyed my snack.

We talked while I ate. I remarked that there seemed to be several people disembarking from my flight who were waiting for assistance. She confirmed that this was the case but assured me that it wasn’t the busiest flight that they’d had. On one flight, 23 people had booked assistance, and all needed looking after at more or less the same time. It certainly made me realise how much pressure these workers could be under.

Once my assistant was satisfied that I was well fed and comfortable, she took me to the gate for the internal flight to Ithaca. This was delayed due to a maintenance issue. There was some banter between the pilot and my fellow passengers including one lady’s suggestion, after we’d been waiting for a while, that we lasso the pilot so that he couldn’t get away. This seemed a little harsh. He wasn’t responsible for the de-icer not working!

At the end of the short flight to Ithaca I was duly met by another airport employee, who was impressed that I had a niece at Cornell. It was wonderful to be wheeled through Security and find my niece waiting for me. Thanks to all the great people I had encountered at airports and on planes, I had made it!

The return journey was uneventful.

At Ithaca’s Tompkins Regional Airport, I was helped by the same assistant who had met me on my arrival. He greeted me with the words, “You’re the lady with the niece killing it doing History at Cornell!” I wasn’t entirely familiar with this idiom, but I took it as a compliment and basked in the reflected glory.

In Philadelphia, I was parked in a wheelchair near the departure gate when a message came over the public address system telling everyone on my flight to proceed to boarding. I was amused and considerably relieved, though, when, after a short pause, the Tannoy sounded again.

“Don’t worry, Miss Furse, we’ll come and get you.”

The flight to Heathrow was fully booked and so this time I did sit at the back of the plane. The staff were very busy but they still took time to help me when I needed it.

Altogether, I was impressed by the level and quality of the assistance I received.

Sport

We have had an exciting summer of international sport to watch here in the UK: tennis at Wimbledon, the men’s Cricket and the women’s Football and Netball World Cups, and much more. So I thought I would share something of my experience of playing sport, albeit with a visual impairment and at, shall we say, a slightly lower level of competition…

When I went to Linden Lodge School, I found that all the boys were football and cricket mad. Everyone got roped-in to playing these games, even those of us who had no idea what was going on. You would be amazed at what kids who love sport can achieve if you give them a ball with a bell in it.

My contribution to the games of cricket was to be a fielder. This meant standing somewhere on the edge of the action, hoping desperately that the ball wouldn’t come anywhere near me!

I did enjoy playing rounders. Having arthritis, I couldn’t run very fast, but I gave it a go and all was well until I collided with another girl, fell and displaced some cartilage in my wrist. It hurt but having my arm in plaster and a sling was also something of a badge of honour and I loved getting people to write on the cast. I had to have help getting dressed and I remember a teacher cutting my sausages up for me in the café at the Science Museum, where we had gone on a school trip. I don’t remember any other occasions when that happened but I didn’t starve, so people must have rallied round.

We had a heated indoor pool at Linden Lodge and I really enjoyed swimming. Sometimes we went twice in a day if we could persuade a member of staff to hang around poolside while we splashed about to our hearts’ content.

Sadly, when I moved on to Chorleywood College, the pool was outdoors and not very warm. I couldn’t swim strongly enough to warm up and my joy in the sport soon dissipated. One of my most vivid memories was our P.E. teacher’s mantra whenever we complained: “No peace for the wicked.”

At Chorleywood we learned both ballroom and country dancing. (All right, they’re not exactly sport but they’re certainly physical activity, so cut me some slack.) I really enjoyed these lessons. I was never very good at doing the steps in reverse but as I am quite small I wasn’t often told to play the male role!

It was while we were doing a lively folk dance, involving couples twirling around and dancing to the end of a line, that another accident occurred. I suddenly found myself on the ground, a little bruised and, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “greatly astonished.” The next couple had started off before I was standing in line and, well, I’m sure you can picture the subsequent collision.

I don’t think the shock lasted long and it certainly didn’t stop me dancing.

I was excused Games because of my inability to run but everyone else had to join in a game called Sport X. I think it was a cross between rounders and a relay race. I know a lot of my school friends didn’t especially enjoy it. I even used to join them in performing a special rain dance which we did sometimes before Games, though it was never especially effective in getting Games lessons rained off.

Although I was unable to run – and never, despite my best efforts, managed to do a somersault – I still enjoyed climbing wall bars and rope ladders in the gym, though I didn’t venture very high.

There were opportunities at both Linden Lodge School and Chorleywood College to try a variety of sports. I went ice-skating at Linden Lodge and some of my friends went running and horse riding. At Chorleywood, many girls took up sailing. Sailing for the blind has been around for many years now and some former Chorleywoodians have sailed to some very exotic places.

You will have seen from the Paralympics that no disability is a total bar to participating in sport. I am delighted that there is even blind tennis now. I am not mobile enough to try it but I hope one day to at least stand on a court to get some idea of the distances my heroes (such as Rafa Nadal) have to run to get to the ball.

Of course many of these sporting opportunities for the visually impaired depend on sighted people being willing variously to ride on a tandem, climb a mountain or accompany a runner and it is great that they do.

Despite being hopeless at cricket, I am grateful that we were able to play these games at school. I am sure that the details of my fall and trip to hospital were recorded in the accident book but nobody ever suggested that any of us stop participating. Accidents happen when kids who can’t see are all running around together.

Sadly, these days, some children who are integrated into mainstream schools are not allowed to join in games with their classmates for fear they might hurt themselves. They are missing out on a valuable experience. Not only is it fun to run about, and a natural thing for a child to do, but being part of a team encourages you to try your best and gives you a sense of identity.

(Mind you, I don’t think the house I was in at Linden Lodge School – “Champion”, or maybe “Victory”, I can’t remember which – ever won on sports day while I was a member!)

Spelling – what a capital idea!

I went to a school for the blind when I was 7 and started learning to touch type when I was 8 or 9. It was considered so important that everyone learnt it, because it was one of the ways in which we would need to communicate in the sighted world.

(And, of course, in those days, many visually-impaired people did become audio typists.)

I loved it. We often typed to music to ensure we got a good rhythm going. I remember typing “All the dancers had red dresses,” and “Cut the flowers for the wedding,” as well as many other finger exercises.

One of the things we had to learn was where to put capital letters. In those days, UK Standard English Braille did not use capitals. (US Braille always did, as far as I know.) This was, I imagine, to save space. Braille is very bulky and the number of dots you would need just to indicate capitals would have added to that bulk.

In the beginning, capitalisation was not difficult. We learnt to put a capital letter at the start of each sentence and at the beginning of proper names.

I don’t recall if having read print when I was still sighted helped me with any of this. Given my age, I suspect it only helped up to a point.

After capitalisation, the next problem was spelling. Braille has many contractions. That is to say, lots of words aren’t written out in full. There are signs for simple words such as “and”, “with” and “for”, but there are also more complex contractions. For example, the letters “rcvd” stand for the word “received”.

Both Linden Lodge School and my senior school, Chorleywood College, taught spelling as a lesson in its own right. In fact, at Chorleywood we had weekly spelling tests in the lower forms. But as I’ve tried to show, learning braille creates ambiguities it comes to spelling. What is the right way to spell “received” when, in different contexts, “rcvd” and “received” are both correct?

If the standard words you find in a dictionary are difficult enough to spell, then brand names introduce a whole new level of complexity for the visually impaired. Sighted people see these words all around, on adverts and shopfronts and in social media. We don’t.

Let’s take a simple example.

There used to be a chain of electrical retailers called Comet. Or was it Kommet, or Commet, or Kommit?

It was hard for me to tell. I might guess they would use an initial K to stand out from the crowd, but it would only be a guess. And it would be wrong.

It gets even more complicated with the current trend for inserting capital letters in the middle of brand and trade names, such as ClearVision.

Then again, there are some new words, such as the Japanese import “emoji”, which I have never seen written down in print or braille. This came up when my brother-in-law edited my last blog. I had no idea how to spell “emoji” and I got it wrong.

Now, you might think that this is no big deal, but actually, it is. If you are trying to give the impression that you are an educated professional, it doesn’t look good if it turns out that you can’t spell.

There is no easy answer to this. I am pleased to say that contemporary Unified English Braille does use capitals, but spelling is still a challenge.

This is one reason why braille is still so important. Literacy is about reading. You don’t learn how to spell through listening to a text.

(Disclaimer: Of course, sometimes my errors are just good old-fashioned typos, so perhaps you shouldn’t give me too much benefit of the doubt when I get things wrong!)

Going mobile

Are you reading this on your phone or tablet or similar portable device? There is a very good chance you are. This week I’d like to share a little bit about my own experiences with such devices.

I have mentioned previously some of the challenges I faced commuting in the days before mobile phones were commonplace. When I eventually got access to this technology, it seemed like a huge leap forward. I remember the first time I travelled on my own with a phone. I was finally able to let my family know that the coach I was on was running late. I also felt a wonderful sense of security from knowing that I could contact someone if I were in trouble.

I shared that first mobile phone with other members of my family and it wasn’t adapted in any way to my particular needs. I simply learned which buttons to press to make a call or answer one. A short while later, the RNIB (Britain’s “Royal National Institute of Blind People”) produced a very simple phone which could handle a few saved numbers. This was a step forward in some ways, but the big drawback was that you couldn’t dial numbers that weren’t already saved.

It wasn’t until I purchased a Synaptic phone a few years ago that I really began to explore the joys of having a mobile. This was an Android phone which a company had overlaid with their own bespoke software. This was done in such a way that the menus were very logically laid out and easy to follow. I learned how to use YouTube and BBC iPlayer and got a lot of use out of it.

There was still a down-side, though. You could only use apps for which the company had written software. I felt I wanted to progress a little and be more adventurous, so I bought another Android phone, a SmartVision2 with Kapsys software. This allows you to use any app, provided it is accessible. In other words, the manufacturers don’t claim that all apps are accessible for visually-impaired people but, if they are, you can use them on this phone.

Which has been fun.

Some apps are easy to use. I love playing a game called “Seven Little Words” and I can text and read emails and have discovered emojis. I have even dipped my toe into the world of social media, but – and I’m sure you knew there was a “but” coming – there are some aspects of social media which drive me absolutely crazy.

Yes, I’m talking about Facebook.

I thought it was time I launched myself into this world where I would know immediately when my family went out for tea and cake!

The idea is fine, but my experience of Facebook is far less satisfactory. The main problem is that it is so cluttered. It is designed for sighted users but what is probably a wealth of visual detail for other users is often impenetrable for me. Each time I open Facebook, I have to wade through the names of endless people I might or might not even know. Eventually, I find “Notifications” and open that, but if I click on a notification, all I get is a long list of things I can do in response to a post which I may or may not have found and read.

Sometimes messages from weeks before pop up for no obvious reason. I was recently confused to find a post from my brother-in-law which he had made while he was on holiday, a holiday from which he had returned two weeks previously. Why?*

(*Editor’s note: it’s because someone had just commented on his post, so the comment was recent, even though the post wasn’t.)

I can’t even be sure that the same screen will come up each time I go into Facebook. Sometimes, instead of “Camera”, “Friends”, “Groups” et cetera, I find an invitation to create a post. This will be followed by a long list of options which I have to wade through before getting to somewhere I recognise.

And, of course, there are adverts. *Sigh!*

I have to ask myself, is all this effort worth it just to find out about my family’s eating habits?

I do know visually-impaired people who are happy with Facebook and it may be that my software isn’t the best from an accessibility point of view, but any app that requires you to scroll through a lot of useless information or irrelevant options is frustrating when you can’t see. You have no idea if, having wasted ten minutes reading this stuff, you are even going to get to your desired destination.

The same is true of web pages. Yes, there are shortcuts I can use to speed up the browsing process. For instance, in Jaws, my screen-reader, each time you press “H” it takes you to the next heading, but without some idea of the layout of the web page, you can spend a lot of time wandering about only to discover that you were on the wrong page all the time!

But I digress. Back to the mobile phone.

I recently tried to use BBC Sounds and BBC Sport. I downloaded the apps but was told that before I could watch anything I had to register. The apps claim, somewhat misleadingly, that this is easy to do.

No, it isn’t!

Finding both the password box and the email box has proved impossible. I shall have to wait until sighted assistance is on hand. It’s a good thing Radio 5 Live Sports Extra was broadcasting the men’s final at Wimbledon from start to finish. If I had had to rely on the app on my phone, my neighbours would have been reeling from the screams of frustration coming from my lounge!

Information technology is a wonderful thing. I couldn’t live without it now and certainly couldn’t run my business. But, as I’ve tried to explain, there are times when it drives me nuts!

Next time you are getting ready to throw your phone out of the window because it is driving you crazy, just spare a thought for those of us who are suffering that frustration without even being able to see the screen!

Images at my fingertips

Last time, I told you about my love of art and started to describe the work of an organisation called Living Paintings. In this blog, I want to tell you about their “Short Stories”, which are small albums of two or three thermoforms on a theme.

These are great. I have recently enjoyed the one entitled “Fashion”. This looked at fashion from the 1950s onwards. I loved the 1960s pictures. The image of Twiggy wearing a mini dress and knee-high boots took me back to playing with my Sindy doll when I was a child.

I then was thrilled to receive their album on space exploration. There was a tactile image of the International Space Station and a diagram of our solar system. This was particularly well-timed as I have been watching Professor Brian Cox’s series on “The Planets” on UK television’s BBC2.

Now I have images from the silver screen. I have had great fun exploring a still from the film “Jaws”. Brody, the police chief, is trying to stab the shark, having thrown a gas canister into its mouth. The shark’s teeth are magnificent!

The last image is from “Star Wars” and the script on the accompanying CD is read by Warwick Davis, who played the part of Yoda in scenes where the character, who was otherwise played by a puppet in the original trilogy, was required to walk. In the picture, Luke Skywalker stands next to C3PO and R2D2. R2D2 is projecting a holographic video of Princess Leia begging for help. I’ve seen the movie but I hadn’t appreciated at all what this projection looked like. The picture I had in my head of C3PO wasn’t too far from the mark, apart from the joints at his knees, which I hadn’t expected to be so pronounced.

As you might imagine, I also love sculpture. I still recall a school trip to a sculpture exhibition at the Tate Gallery in the 1970s. Some of the details have faded but I remember a beautiful bronze casting of a smooth shiny snake. A model of a ballet dancer performing an arabesque was fascinating. There was also a sculpture of a woman’s head cleverly represented as though she had wet hair after swimming.

In Japan, visually-impaired children are taught sculpture as a matter of course. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of some of their work. There was a truly brilliant cabbage made by quite a young child. My favourite, though, was a piece called “Dream Tower”. It was a rectangular shape, denoting, perhaps, a block of flats. There were “windows” which you could reach into to find parts of the human body, such as arms and legs. This sounds macabre, and perhaps it was, but then I have somewhat macabre tastes!

Nearer to home, in Swindon we have an event called Open Studios, where local artists display their work. I have purchased paintings and enjoyed exploring sculpture and wooden carvings. One year, I visited the studio of local sculptor, Pat Elmore. She generously let me touch everything in her exhibition. I would have happily spent hours stroking her models of animals and admiring a girl’s head with her hair streaming away. This was so cleverly done that I still marvel at how she got the effect.

There is another local artist, Lynette Thomas, who produces unique mosaics. She collects objects such as broken china, old dolls and bits of tile. You name it, she can use it. When she had an exhibition at a local pub a couple of years ago, she allowed the mosaics to be lifted down so I could reach them and explore them thoroughly. There was a fantastic piece featuring skeletons which was inspired by the Mexican Festival of the Dead. Other themes included the green man, grief and magic.

Lynette asked me about  my perception of colour and how I appreciated art. And then a wonderful thing happened: she asked if she could create a mosaic for me! So I now have, hanging on my wall, a truly individual artwork with objects and words inspired by what I said. There is even a miniature hurdy-gurdy which plays a tune when you turn the handle! I consider myself very privileged.

Living Paintings

I love art. As a small child, I used to love making pictures and I continued trying to paint and draw even when most of my sight was gone. I was blessed with an artistic mother who described the world around me in vivid detail, so I always had pictures in my head, even when I couldn’t actually see the things imagined. Later, I became fascinated by the pioneering artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was hard to visualise their artworks, though, so I was thrilled when I discovered an organisation called Living Paintings.

Living Paintings produces tactile representations of works of art.

I have to back up a bit here. When I was at school, diagrams, such as maps in Geography, were made of something called “thermoform”, a type of plastic. A map would be created from, say, bits of string for rivers and cut-out shapes for land masses. Then a sheet of heated thermoform would be rolled over it, and, hey presto, the thermoform would take on the shapes, which would then be raised on the plastic.

The amazing technicians at Living Paintings use all sorts of clever tricks to create their tactile artworks, including carving shapes from wood, but the end product is the same as with thermoform: a sheet of plastic with raised images.

When you sign up with Living Paintings, they send you a box with ten or so tactile sheets in it plus an audio CD, a package which they refer to as an “album”. The artworks in the album will be linked by theme, maybe a particular artist (the Monet album was one of my all-time favourites), or perhaps a topic such as “Weather”. Each track on the CD relates to one of the pictures. A narrator will describe the artwork, including the colours used, the size of the original image, the medium used to create it – for example, watercolour or oil – and then you will be talked round the picture. As you feel the artwork with your fingers, there may be large raised areas to denote cloud, shiny smooth areas for water, and ridged areas to convey foliage. It is wonderful to be able to get “hands on” with great works of art.

They even represent highly visual artworks such as Mondrian’s coloured shapes. Using a different texture for each colour, you can appreciate something of the artist’s intention.

I even wonder if some works of art are more interesting as tactile images. Take surrealism. What, to the sighted person, is an anarchic jumble of objects can be really pleasing shapes to the touch. I particularly enjoyed the bunch of bananas in Giorgio de Chirico‘s 1913 painting “The Uncertainty of the Poet”!

Living Pictures don’t just provide interpretations of paintings. Another of my favourite albums was the one containing thirteen images from the Radio 4 series “The History of the World in 100 Objects”. Of these thirteen images, the one which impressed me most was the representation of Hokusai’s woodcut “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. My sister and brother-in-law bought me the print for my birthday last year and my amazing PA produced a tactile version for them to give me as a birthday card. This is now framed in my office and you can see a photograph of it on my website.

If you fancy ordering a tactile card, her talent is boundless and I can braille a message if required. Of course you don’t have to confine sending tactile cards to visually-impaired people. Everyone enjoys an interesting gift card, don’t they?

Egypt

Writing about my encounter with an Irish druid last week reminded me of my experiences with Nubian sailors in Egypt. I’ll share them with you now.

(The experiences, that is, not the sailors.)

Some years ago, I went on holiday to Egypt with a group of friends. We started in Aswan, where we boarded a boat to Luxor.

We were walking along, heading for the boat, when suddenly I was swept up by a sailor who carried me off in his arms. My friend raced along behind shouting, “Where are you taking her?”

(I was too surprised to say anything!)

Unfortunately, the sailor’s English wasn’t equal to explaining, so we just hoped for the best.

I was duly carried onto our boat in some style.

From then on I hardly ever had to walk on and off the boat. As it was not unusual for us to have to walk across other boats to get to ours, it did make alighting and disembarking slightly easier.

The crew treated me with great care in other respects too. If we had to wait for our boat, I was never left standing. A seat of some kind would always be made available.

Then there was the buffet.

One night we had a buffet meal. I was walking round with my friend while she told me what foods were on offer so that I could choose what I wanted to eat. The waiters were appalled! How could she be so heartless as to make a blind lady actually walk round a buffet? They shooed her away, sat me at a table and proceeded to bring platefuls of food, far more than I could possibly eat.

One of our guides was a charming man who insisted on taking my hand and guiding me, even though I was always with someone from our group. He had a lovely sense of humour and, when we had to bend down to walk under the boat cables stretched across the path, he would say, “Now we play the limbo.”

I was intrigued by him as he had a very good guiding technique. It wasn’t until the last day that he told us that his brother was blind.

I was very touched by the kindness and thoughtfulness of all these people even if, at times, it was a mixed blessing. I’m not saying that I want this level of attention in my day-to-day life, or for railway staff to scoop me up in their arms to put me on the train to Paddington, but I was on holiday and prepared to accept the help in the spirit in which it was given.

By contrast, the people on duty at many of the historical sites completely failed to grasp that I couldn’t see, despite much sign language and miming, and were not at all happy about me touching carvings on pillars. For all that, I still loved walking round the temple at Karnak, visiting the Valley of the Kings and standing where priests had conducted rituals 3000 years ago.

Perhaps the most amusing episode was being courted by a bar owner in Luxor. As my friends and I sat drinking, he brought me various gifts: a napkin, a postcard of Luxor, and a plate of salad. Then he asked me to marry him. He explained that he had one wife already. I’m not sure if this was supposed to reassure me, but I politely declined his offer!

Train trials

I talked about bus travel in a previous blog. This time I’m going to say a bit about what it’s like to ride on trains if you have a visual impairment. I could probably write a book on this topic, (but you can breathe a sigh of relief, because I’m not going to!).

In the old days, before, say, the 1990s, you couldn’t book assistance in advance on railways in the UK. You just turned up and hoped that the staff – or members of the public – would be helpful. Generally, they were.

For four years, I commuted between Slough and London Paddington and daily ran the gauntlet of delays, cancelled trains, and varying degrees of help. I did tend to travel with the same passengers each day, though. They got to know me and were very supportive.

It was not unusual for platform changes to occur and I would often have to rush from one end of Paddington station to the other. (Did I mention that I have severe mobility problems?)

On one particularly bad evening, the platform my train was scheduled to leave kept changing. I finally sat down in a carriage only to hear a voice come over the speaker.

“This service has been cancelled.”

I was so exasperated I said out loud, “It can’t be cancelled. I’m sitting on it!”

A man across the aisle chuckled, and then offered to assist me to find the new platform.

My parents used to fetch me from the station in the evening after work, but this was in the days before mobile phones and I had no way of letting them know if I was going to be late. If I was delayed and a railway employee was assisting me, I would sometimes ask them to contact Slough for me, but I could never know for sure whether they would.

Sometimes, they did.

One evening, my mother arrived at Slough station, looked up at the train information monitor and was surprised to find herself reading, “Mrs. Furse, your daughter will be on the 21:20.” This flashed up several times, just to make sure she didn’t miss it!

That was great, but those assisting me weren’t always so reliable.

One particular journey sticks in my mind. I had been in Shrewsbury for a meeting. When I arrived at the station to make my way home, a railway staff member came out to assist me. He kindly put me in the waiting room, so that I would be warm and comfortable, and assured me that he would come back to put me on the train.

I waited.

Time passed.

I waited some more.

The room was very noisy and I couldn’t hear the train announcements, but after a while I began to suspect that my train must have departed, so I asked a fellow passenger. She duly checked, and, yes, the train had already come and gone. She found the staff member who had been assisting me. He had been busy. He had forgotten me. He was apologetic.

In missing my train, I had also missed my connection at Newport but he put me on a train stopping at Bristol and agreed to phone home for me. As usual, I had no way of knowing whether he actually would. His track record was not encouraging.

The train pulled out of Shrewsbury station. I was relieved to be moving at last but was anxious about what would happen when I arrived at Bristol.

I needn’t have worried. I was whipped of the train and taken to the supervisor’s office where, to my pleasant surprise, I was given a mug of tea and a Danish pastry.

Sipping the tea, I remarked, “This is the best thing that’s happened to me all day.”

“Well, Madam,” he replied, “You’re at Bristol Temple Meads now.”

There are times when local pride is a very fine thing.

I then asked, a little timidly, if I could go to the Ladies. The supervisor wasted no time. He recalled the female announcer from her duties and took over from her at the microphone while she escorted me to the staff amenities. As we walked along, we heard his voice echoing over the station PA.

“My colleague is on an errand at the moment, so I’m doing the announcements.”

They looked after me so well that when I finally arrived home, three hours later than advertised, I was much less stressed than I might have been. And, yes, Shrewsbury had called my parents, although Bristol did too, which was a great reassurance to me.

After I had recovered, I wrote a letter of complaint to Shrewsbury station and a letter of thanks to Bristol Temple Meads. I got a £20 voucher from Shrewsbury and a thank-you letter for my thank-you letter from Bristol.

Bristol will always have a soft spot in my heart!

Things have changed since those hit-and-miss days. Now there is a system. You can phone up and book tickets and assistance in advance. You are given a reserved seat and a railway employee helps you onto the train and another helps you off at the other end. I still feel anxious when they sit me down at the station and say they will come and get me, but I am usually sitting near the information desk, so it is less likely that I will be forgotten.

At Paddington, I get to ride on one of their wonderful electric buggies, which helps a lot as there is a long way to walk from the platforms to the taxi rank.

It’s a much better way of doing things and I don’t miss the worrying, haphazard train journeys of times past.

You did get to meet some interesting people, though.

I once encountered an Irish druid on the way from Swindon to Stroud in Gloucestershire. He offered to help me when we reached our destination and as there is a big step down and a large gap between the train and the platform at Stroud, I accepted with alacrity. Rather than offering me a hand or an arm, however, he scooped me completely up off my feet and my friend waiting to meet me at Stroud station was amazed to see me being carried off the train like a babe in arms!

School science

Did you enjoy science lessons at school? Were you good at theory or did you like getting your hands dirty? I preferred the latter, but more on that story later, as they say on Dead Ringers.

My first science lessons were at Linden Lodge School. I suppose I was 9 or 10 when Biology entered my life. We had a great teacher. She had a plastic doll with no front and no insides. There were plastic organs which we learnt to fit into the doll…hopefully in the right places! If you could get the ridged piece of plastic representing the intestines clipped into the abdomen, you were on target.

One day an amazing thing happened. Our teacher brought in a pig’s head and a lamb’s oesophagus, lungs and liver. You never forget your first experience of sticking your finger into a pig’s brain! For the first time in my life, I got some real understanding of how the body worked.

When I moved on to Chorleywood College at the age of 11, I was introduced to Physics. This mostly went over my head, mainly because of the maths. My practicals weren’t a great success, either. I shall never forget the day I dropped my density bottle on the floor. It was made of glass and full of water, and made quite a mess. The cold, terrifying voice of our teacher rang out.

“Who has dropped their density bottle?”

She said it in the tones of one who was about to banish me to hell for committing such a cardinal sin and it is the only memory of that year which has stayed with me.

Oh, apart from a comment on my report: “Judith expects to achieve maximum results with the minimum amount of effort.”

Well, don’t we all?

Chemistry was less opaque but still not very interesting. We spent a whole year shaking different substances in test tubes to see if they changed colour which, given we were at special school for those with visual impairments, was something very few of us could appreciate. We also heated iron filings over Bunsen burners for some reason which escapes me now. Those of us with long hair were  supposed to tie it back but I tended to flout this rule and, as I leaned forward to check if my burner was alight, the smell of singed hair would regularly fill my corner of the lab.

The highlight of the year – and I use the term advisedly – was when our teacher demonstrated the amazing effect of setting light to magnesium ribbon. It was so dazzlingly bright that even those of us with minimal residual vision could enjoy the spectacle.

I still enjoyed Biology at my senior school but, as with other science subjects, struggled with the theory. The practicals were more demanding, too. Our first dissection was a bull’s eye. We discovered that the poor creature had had a cataract. We empathised with it on that point, though not, alas, on the fact that its eyeball was in pieces on the table in front of us. The rat was the most interesting victim, though. We managed to spread its intestines several times round the table, which was a good way of learning just how much tubing we have wrapped up inside us.

I hope you weren’t eating your dinner while reading this. (If you were and are now feeling a little queasy, I apologise!)

I do think, though, that my experience of learning science is a good illustration of how much information the sense of touch can convey and how important it is, when you are visually impaired, to get “hands-on” with the subject you are studying.

Touch tours

In my last blog post, I waxed lyrical about the benefits which the audio-description of television programmes, cinema films and theatrical performances has brought to those with visual impairments. I also mentioned that there have been other exciting developments which provide improved access to the world of live theatre.

Let me tell you this week about my favourite of these: the touch tour.

Many theatres run touch tours and invite visually-impaired show-goers to arrive a couple of hours before curtain-up and actually walk around on the stage. It’s wonderful! You’re allowed to handle props and costumes and even, sometimes, to meet cast members, who kindly give up their time to participate.

The audio-describer will also be there to introduce themselves and tell you a little bit about the show so you can understand the context before the performance starts.

I have experienced some great touch tours. Wearing the crown on the set of David Greig’s Dunsinane was amazing! Walking up and down the street scene in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, opening all the doors of the houses, was like playing Wendy houses for grown-ups. You should have seen the grin on my face!

Sometimes the information I gain from a touch tour proves indispensable for understanding the nature of the performance I will later experience. That was certainly the case with War Horse. I would never have been able to visualise the puppets from a verbal description. It was also a great privilege to touch the horse puppets and have their operators explain how they worked.

Whenever there are stairs on the set, I always have a strong urge to climb them. I think there is a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk impulse in me that makes me want to find out what is at the top. On the set of Brian Friel’s Translations at the New Theatre, Oxford, there was a rustic stairway going up to a hayloft. The organisers of the touch tour refused me permission to climb this on health and safety grounds. Spoil-sports!

(Another great part of that set was the floor. It was made to look like rough ground in the countryside and it felt rough too, creating a good impression of the atmosphere they were aiming for.)

I did a little better when I went to see Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year. In addition to the thrill of chatting to actor Tamsin Greig, I also got to explore the production’s fantastic set. It was in the form of a revolving stage, divided up into a series of different “rooms”, including a chapel, and one with a long table. The best part, though, was the garden, complete with topiary and a fountain.

Later on, various actors would jump into the fountain at different points during the play. Thanks to the touch tour, though, unlike most of the audience, I was in on the secret: despite the actors’ cries of shock, the water in the fountain was actually kept pleasantly warm.

But I was talking about flights of steps… The set for Twelfth Night included a magnificent staircase which I found completely irresistible. The helper nearest to me kindly “turned a blind eye” (if you’ll excuse the expression) and I duly went up a little way. The stairs were very steep so I didn’t venture too far. It did help me appreciate how hard the actors were working, though, as they ran up and down them during the performance.

I was also fortunate enough to have a touch tour of The Mousetrap at my local theatre, the Wyvern. This came about because I am a “theatrical landlady”, providing accommodation for actors and stage crew who come to put on shows here in Swindon. One of the team involved in this production was lodging with me and, when they heard that I was going to see a performance, they arranged for me to have my own personal tour of the set.

This turned out to be a wonderfully detailed recreation of a 1950s living-room. The wall-panelling was skilfully reproduced and the period sofa was actually very comfortable. (I know, because I got to sit on it!) They even made sure that the Christmas presents were wrapped in the right sort of brown paper and string.

Possibly the most fun part of the tour was experiencing the snow machine. The stage crew turned it on for me and let me feel what is was like to be in a fake snow story. The flakes were feathery light and melted very quickly.

Family and friends who have accompanied me on these tours have loved them too. If you ever get a chance to go on one, do take it!