Judith in California: Part 2 – On the road

Having spent a weekend in San Francisco getting over our jet-lag, on Monday morning we called a cab to take us to the airport to pick up a hire car, or what Americans would call a rental.

The taxi driver was very chatty and, for some reason, he told us all about his exploits in his high-school orchestra. He had had the fun role of clashing the cymbals at the end of a piece of music and demonstrated what he’d had to do by taking both hands off the steering wheel, turning round in his seat and clapping his hands together.

Somehow, we arrived at the airport in one piece!

We were amused to see horoscopes and zodiac signs adorning the walls of the car hire office. Were they lacking in faith in their customers’ driving abilities and looking for higher assistance?

They took us to the car. My father, who wasn’t in those days accustomed to driving a vehicle with automatic transmission, asked for some instructions, so they showed him how to turn the radio on. Apparently no other knowledge was required. Off we set.

My mother expressed her concern fairly early on that Dad wasn’t adjusting his position on the road sufficiently to take account of the fact that she was on the side of the car next to the sheer drop down to the ocean. After a while he got the hang of that but decided to turn the air-conditioning on. The next thing we knew, water was pouring down the inside of the front windscreen. He couldn’t pull over so we continued to drive on while my mother delved in the glove compartment to find the manual, which she then flicked through to find out how to rectify the situation. Eventually everything settled down and on we drove. 

Photograph showing a driver's-eye-view of cars on a highway in rural California.
On the road…

We spent our first night in Monterey.

I had suggested we use the Motel 6 chain as I had stayed in them on a previous trip. Basic but perfectly acceptable. We discovered we were a “1, 2, 3”, which meant one room, two beds, and three adults.

The most entertaining aspect of Motel 6 was the vibrating bed. Usually, one bed in each room would, for the price of a quarter, start vibrating in a very untherapeutic manner. I would love to know if anyone has ever actually found this helpful, but it was certainly amusing.

The coastline was stunningly beautiful. From the wharf at Monterey we could watch otters lying on their backs in the water, their shellfish dinners on their chests, which they would then clasp in a paw and eat.

We sat on the beach at Spanish Bay, listening to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean and soaking up the sun.

At this point my father broke a tooth on an apple, (newly purchased to replace the one confiscated at the airport). We decided not to try and get him any help as we felt that a trip to the dentist might turn out to be quite expensive!

At Carmel we lunched in a country park which, my parents assured me, contained miles and miles of spectacular scenery. We watched ground squirrels scurrying about and observed, with the bemusement of the British abroad, a small child attempting and failing to eat a triple-decker sandwich. Why had her mother given it to her in the first place? What strange customs these people had!

We also visited the Mission Basilica at Carmel where Father Junipero Serra once lived and worked. In the 18th century, he travelled much of the Californian coast, preaching to the native Americans and others, and establishing mission churches along the way. The church was lovely. Father Junipero’s quarters were very basic. He seems to have been a very humble and sincere man.

We stayed at Morro Bay that night.

I should mention a couple more aspects of our stays in Motel 6. I had warned my parents, great tea drinkers that they were, that they would not like American tea, so we brought our own. We also brought our own electric jug kettle so that we could have our customary morning cuppa before setting out to face the day. However, we found the low voltage of the American power supply made the boiling of the jug a long slow process. We also found that the position of the socket meant that it was necessary to balance the kettle on something so that it didn’t pull the wire out.

What handy object did we find for this purpose?

The Gideons’ Bible.

It served us well throughout our trip. We were intrigued to find that not only did occupants of the motel read said Bible, they also wrote comments in the margin. It was sometimes possible to follow an entire discussion by reading the notes and following instructions such as “but also read John 1:2 -5,” or words to that effect. Sometimes the trail would take you through huge chunks of both the Old and New Testament.

What better basis could there be for brewing a good strong cup of tea?

Judith in California: Part 1 – San Francisco

The lovely sunny weather we’re enjoying here in England at the moment is bringing back memories of past holidays. The one that particularly comes to mind is my second trip to the USA…

Many years ago, I used to work for the braille production unit at the RNIB. When the organisation moved this unit from London to Peterborough, however, many of the staff, including me, took the redundancy money and ran for the hills or, in my case, the United States, because I used my money to take my parents on holiday to California. I thought they would enjoy it.

We flew out of London Heathrow, appropriately enough, on Ascension Day. My father was not a happy flier and so it wasn’t an auspicious start when take-off was delayed. The laid-back American pilot assured us that said delay wasn’t because the crew were getting nervous, though Dad clearly was. After this unpromising start, he survived the flight quite well, but was then thoroughly alarmed by the plane’s sharp banking round some tall mountains on our approach to LAX. Despite Dad’s fears, though, the pilot brought the aircraft down smoothly and taxied us to the terminal without incident.

I had booked assistance because of my mobility issues and my parents were very grateful for this. They said they would never have found their way round the airport on their own. Fortunately, they only had to follow me in my wheelchair. Apart from my mum having to surrender her apple to customs, there were no dramas and we made our connection to San Francisco without incident.

Why San Francisco?

Because a friend of mine from college was living there. She met us at the airport and took us back to her house for a cup of tea (and it was real tea too, not the Americans’ idea of tea!).

I thought it would be a good idea to spend a weekend in San Francisco acclimatizing and recovering from the journey before picking up a hire car, so my friend booked us into a motel.

Photograph of San Francisco
San Francisco

San Francisco is known for its restaurants and we did have some excellent meals out. (I also recall eating KFC in the motel room on one occasion, but you can’t live it up all the time!)

The first place we visited was Fisherman’s Wharf. We bought clam chowder from  a street stall and ate it sitting on the kerb. Well, we were on holiday, so we were letting our hair down!

One day it rained but, no matter, we sheltered in the Cable Car Museum. Basically, this was a room under the streets where you could see the mechanism that powered what we would call a tram system. After trains and buses, trams were my father’s favourite thing. Mum and I just sat on a bench and let Dad revel in the excitement of looking at a load of cables.

My father was a clergyman and it was his custom to find churches for us to attend when we went on holiday. California was no exception. He searched the phone book in the motel, made a couple of calls and Sunday found us at the First Congregational Church.

We were warmly greeted at the door and had pink rosebud stickers affixed to our coats to show we were visitors. During the service, visitors were invited to stand up and it turned out that we made up a large proportion of those present. It was Memorial Weekend, when the dead of all wars are commemorated in the States. We were interested that candles were lit for members of the church who had died, but most of them were not military veterans but people who had died from AIDS.

That evening, we attended choral evensong at Grace Cathedral. It couldn’t have been more different from the studied informality of the morning’s service with the Congregationalists. This was worship on the grand scale: formal, liturgical and awe-inspiring. It was a wonderful experience.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Colour illustration of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party by Sir John Tenniel, from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

Another week in lockdown. Another week in this strange new reality.

Perhaps it is fitting that my PA and I have been proofreading a braille transcription of Alice in Wonderland. There are no hookah-smoking caterpillars in my garden (as far as I know), but as I sit in different chairs around my table drinking tea, coffee or wine, depending on the time of day, I could easily be at the Mad Hatter’s tea party!

In some ways life hasn’t changed that much. I get up and start work at the usual time and keep to my daily work routines. On the days when I don’t have much work to do I try to spend the time constructively, keeping abreast of emails, talking to friends and family on the phone, and dealing with any church business that needs to be done now.

On the other hand, as I sit in my office, I am aware of how quiet my street is. I no longer hear the children arriving and departing from the pre-school across the road. I don’t hear the older children coming down this way at around three o’clock in the afternoon every weekday. The occasional family strolls past, no doubt out for their Boris walk, and I occasionally hear pedestrians exchange a word or two as they pass by.

On the other hand, if I sit in my back garden, everything sounds much the same. Families are outside enjoying the sunshine. I chat to my neighbours over the fence. I hear the odd car come and go. I have even noticed a few more birds singing joyfully, which lifts my spirits.

I am very fortunate. I got a grocery delivery from Tesco this week. I still have people assisting me with important domestic tasks.

Many visually-impaired people aren’t so lucky.

I have heard of shops refusing to allow visually impaired people to enter because we can’t see the markers on the floor intended to keep us six feet apart. In fact, keeping a set distance from others is well-nigh impossible if you can’t see where the other person is.

Many visually impaired people are still finding it difficult to get delivery slots with the major supermarket chains. Whilst it is great that some of these shops are offering allotted times to key workers and vulnerable people, these times are often early in the morning, when many of those vulnerable people couldn’t possibly get to the shops. Many of them have to wait for carers who might not arrive until lunchtime, and who are themselves dependent on public transport which no longer runs with the same frequency or reliability as before.

There will be a lot of visually impaired people who never leave their homes throughout this entire lockdown because no one can get close enough to guide them and they can’t practice social distancing without help.

I’m not blaming anybody. This is a new situation for all of us and we are having to learn how to cope as we go along.

Next time you applaud the NHS – who certainly deserve our praise – just spare a thought for the kind friends and family members who are taking the time and taking the risks in queueing patiently outside shops in order to help their disabled friends and relations to survive.

Lockdown

Are you reading this in lockdown?

Wherever you are, it is likely your movements have been curtailed to some extent.

It all happened so quickly. Two Mondays ago I had a meeting here with two of my fellow church trustees. We started to discuss this new virus and declared that we wouldn’t rush to close the church down.

The next day people who had booked rooms at our building started to cancel. Next, speakers for our midweek meetings started cancelling.

I sent an email round the trustees with some options for when we would hold our next meeting. Within two hours of this, all the participating denominations in our ecumenical partnership – the Baptists, Methodists and United Reformed Church – all contacted us to tell us to shut everything down.

And so we did.

All the groups I am involved in and all the meetings I was due to attend, all gone, gone, gone.

It felt surreal.

So how is it in lockdown for a visually-impaired person?

In some ways I am lucky. I work from home and, at present, still have work, so my daily routine hasn’t changed that much. As you might guess from my last three blog posts, I spent the first eight days of the crisis trying to get all my specialist software working properly on my new computer and learning how to use the latest version of Microsoft Office. I didn’t have time to think very much about the virus.

Since then, life has fallen into a pattern of sorts. The big difference, of course, is that I’m seeing fewer people. My PA is still getting my shopping but rather than coming in to work with me in my office, she has taken home with her some print copies of children’s books that I am checking so we can proofread them over the phone or via Messenger.

My cleaner, who, I suspect, can’t afford not to work, is still turning up once a week. We make sure that we are hardly ever in the same room and she wears gloves the whole time she is here. At the end of her work, I hand her her cash in a money bag, to minimise the contact between us.

I did have an “interesting” visit to the doctor’s surgery, though. It happened like this.

I have to have regular blood tests. I received two text messages on my mobile phone the week before my latest appointment. One was a reminder and the other said, “Ring before attending.”

I tried calling the surgery the day before the appointment. I couldn’t get through, but I did manage to speak to someone first thing the next day. She told me that if I hadn’t been contacted by the nurse, I should come in. I duly called a taxi. The driver had spent part of the morning taking key workers to their places of employment around the town. Apart from that, he said, there was little trade.

We arrived at the surgery.

The driver kindly helped me in. There was a barrier of chairs preventing patients from getting too close to the reception desk. I called my name across the no-man’s-land. I was told to go upstairs.

Easy for you to say!

After I had explained that I was visually impaired, the receptionist came out from behind her desk and made her way around the barricade. She then guided me upstairs. I made sure I didn’t touch her skin when I took her arm, but she assured me she was wearing gloves.

The surgery was eerily quiet. The nurse called me in and tried to guide me in such a way that I hardly touched anything.

Afterwards, the nurse put a pair of gloves on me so that I was protected in the taxi home. She was concerned that I didn’t know what I might be picking up. She also kindly gave me two spare pairs to take home.

One of my regular drivers picked me up. I hastened to reassure him that I wasn’t wearing gloves because I was infectious and that it was simply a precaution. He took it in his stride but, like the other driver, told me how little work there was at the moment.

Apart from that, I’m home every day, grateful that I have a garden to walk out into to get fresh air and a change of scene. My heart goes out to those who don’t have this facility.

Given that we are all now so isolated, I am profoundly glad to be living in a time when technology allows us to still keep in contact. WhatsApp, the phone, email and Messenger are all helping me to keep in touch with friends and family. I also enjoy my niece’s weekly pub quiz, live from her lounge on Facebook on Monday nights. (The link is here. You’ll have to send her a Friend request, but make sure you mention that you’re a friend of her Auntie Judy!)

Our poetry group is going to meet on Zoom and I was able to participate in a church-related meeting on that platform yesterday.

What of the future?

Among other things, I am concerned that I will miss my chiropractic appointment, which is due next week but, as my grandmother used to say, “Worse things happen at sea.” (Why a woman who lived in Buckinghamshire, which is nowhere near the sea, was so fond of this saying, I simply can’t imagine!)

I hope that, wherever you are, and whatever your circumstances you are remaining well and keeping sane. If you get really bored, you can always read all my past blog posts!

No internet!

When we installed Windows 10 on my PC, my copy of Windows Live Mail stopped working properly.

My brother suggested Mozilla Thunderbird as an alternative email program, and kindly installed it for me remotely using TeamViewer.

Needless to say, Thunderbird looks completely different to Live Mail, so I am having to learn how to use it from scratch. Fortunately, a friend who is visually-impaired uses this program, so she was able to help me learn my way around it. My brother also found a list of keystrokes for me, which has proved very handy.

At last, everything was working.

Then I lost the internet.

Well, my PC did. I could still converse with Alexa and use my phone, and my lodger was able to use her laptop, but my desktop machine just wouldn’t play ball. My lodger kindly spent a chunk of one evening trying everything she could think of to get it working again, but to no avail.

The following day I phoned my internet provider. They tried to be helpful but we kept coming up against problems.

“Is your router black?” they asked.

I replied, “Sorry, I’m visually-impaired. I think it is.”

“Is there a yellow wire coming out the back of it?”

“Sorry, I don’t know.”

“Can you trace the wire from your router to the computer?”

“If you could only see the mound of wires I have here! No, I don’t think I can do that.”

And so on.

In the end I thanked them for their time and rang off.

My next step was to call my local computer shop, who have looked after my IT hardware for many years now. My trusty local man came out and tried to sort out the problem.

Eventually, he said that my PC seemed to be connected to a public network. He changed it over to our own private connection and, for a few precious minutes, I got the internet back.

Then it went again.

Apart from those few minutes, I had been without the internet for three days by this point and I was getting anxious. Not only is it vital for work but it is also something of a lifeline.

On Saturday morning, lo and behold, the internet came back from wherever it had been sulking and all was well. My brother accessed my computer remotely for me and found how to change the connection from the useless public network to our own private one. Wonder of wonders, after he’d shown me how, I could even do it for myself.

Until today, that is, when I found myself lacking a connection again and tried to follow the instructions we had compiled at the weekend. Different messages were coming up to those we’d encountered previously and I couldn’t work out how to get to where I needed to be.

If you are reading this, then you’ll know that I did finally manage to get a connection for long enough to email this blog post to my brother-in-law so that he could publish it on my website. And if that all happened, then I can’t even begin to tell you just how relieved I am!

Just like the Queen

You may recall that late last year, I spoke about visual impairment to a local cub pack in readiness for them to take their disability badge. Louise Kutzner from Vision West of England and I returned last week to help them through the steps required to earn the badge.

Once again I entered the lions’ den. I don’t know quite what was going on when I arrived but, as far as I could tell, between twenty and thirty small children were involved in some kind of noisy game entailing a lot of running about and shouting. Louise and I sat down at a table and eventually the children were corralled into groups and brought over to work with us eight or so at a time.

One of the activities was for them to demonstrate that they could write their name in braille. At home, I use a manual device called a Perkins Brailler to generate printed sheets of braille, but although it is portable in theory, it is also incredibly heavy, so I had decided not to bring it with me. Instead, I gave each child a card with the braille alphabet on it and encouraged them to make the patterns of the dots with pen and paper. Some got quite proficient and were writing their first, middle and last names – and, in one case, the names of their siblings – in no time at all. Others took a little longer, but they all had a good go at it.

After that we talked to them about guide dogs, explaining what they do and how you mustn’t approach them if they are working. Then I showed them my long cane and demonstrated how to use it.

I also told them how to approach a visually-impaired person and did my best to make it clear that you shouldn’t just grab them without warning, but should ask nicely if you can help!

The children asked a lot of questions, although it was very hard to hear their high-pitched voices against the considerable background noise in the room. This is something I may have mentioned before. Sighted people unconsciously lip-read to some extent. Those of us with little or no sight don’t have that advantage. In a noisy environment it can be hard to hear what people are saying. Despite all that, I think I managed to answer all the children’s queries.

After we had done our bit, the leader asked us if we would like to stay to the end. We had been intending to pack up and go but when we discovered that the cubs were going to be given their badges that very night, we agreed to remain. We were duly given chairs in front of the stage. Once the cubs had lined up in their sixes, a boy was brought forward to be sworn in. Then the leader announced that they should all come forward “and shake the lady’s hand.”

What???

Apparently I was going to give out the badges!

This was, in many ways, the highlight of the evening for me. I was handed a pile of badges and twenty-four small hands were thrust into mine. I’m sure they would hate me to say it but they were so cute!

It was quite a routine. Handshake, “Hello, and here’s your badge.” Handshake again, “Hello, and here’s your badge,” and so it went on. By the end I had begun to appreciate a little of how the Queen must feel when she is handing out honours!

It was an evening well spent.

Anniversary

Open the champagne and cut the cake, it’s my anniversary!

Well, maybe it’s not that exciting but I have been writing this blog for just over a year now. In fact the actual anniversary was 5 February.

I must say I can hardly believe it. I didn’t set out to become a blogger. My brother-in-law, who runs my website and social media, suggested I write an article for the website. When I finally produced something, he decided, as it was a bit long, to chop it up and create a blog, and the rest, as they say, is history. (Or a year’s worth of blogging about braille, visual impairment and disability issues, anyway!)

I am surprised to find myself in this position for a couple of reasons.

To start with, while my life can be enjoyable and interesting, it is not, on the whole, eventful. Yes, I have done exciting things such as travelling to the US on my own to visit my niece (see earlier blog!) but, mostly, I live a quiet and ordinary life. I often wonder what on earth I can find to write about.

Secondly, while my visual-impairment and arthritis do profoundly affect my life in many ways and I try and describe these in my blog, the reality is that I am not always thinking about them. Like millions of others, I just live my life, going from day to day and concentrating on the next thing that needs to be done.

So what have been the positives?

Blogging has proved to be an excellent way of explaining about disability. Most people don’t understand the practical issues faced by those with a visual impairment and I believe that education is the best way to promote equality and integration.

I also want people to feel they can ask questions without fear of offending me. Blogging about my experiences has created opportunities for them to do this. It’s fascinating to discover the things they want to know!

And it has been a learning curve for me too. I have had to think about how I do things and find ways of conveying some of the obstacles I face.

Then again, there’s also been the fun of sharing some of the joy I experience despite my disabilities.

So I am very grateful to you, dear reader, for being interested enough to keep reading my posts. I hope you’ll keep going with me as we venture on together into the uncharted territory of a second year of blogging.

And you never know, I might do something really exciting one day and tell you all about it here. You wouldn’t want to miss that now, would you?

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!

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.