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.


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!

Garden ornaments

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been using my blog posts to tell you a little bit about my garden and the trees and flowers it contains. This week, I want to talk about all those things which make a garden precious but which have nothing to do with plants.

I have mentioned before that I love statues.

I brought with me from my old house a cast stone model of a mole, and she now sleeps happily in the border of my new garden. She was named Doreen by my nieces when they were small. Why? I don’t know. You’d have to ask them!

I also must introduce you to Kevin.

Many years ago, whilst visiting – yes, you’ve guessed it – a garden centre, my parents and I came across the statue of a medieval monk reading a book. I very much wanted to snap it up there and then but my folks were not keen. Since I have had a garden of my own, though, I have been searching for a stone monk to go in it. Whilst Buddhas and statues of oriental religious men abound, medieval monks are hard to find.

One birthday, my sister handed me a heavy square box. Out of this I drew the statue of a monk. He was holding a bird. “Oh, it’s Kevin!” I cried, much to my sister’s bemusement.

Saint Kevin was an Irish saint who is said to have held a bird’s egg in his hand until it hatched. Why? Who knows? It’s an even greater mystery than the origin of the name “Doreen” for my stone mole!

I was thrilled, though, and Kevin has lived happily in various places in my borders ever since. He had to be rescued from his last location as he had become completely overgrown with foliage but he now resides in a clear spot next to my acer, where I talk to him while I water the garden. I also make a point of clearing the snow from his tonsured stone head during the winter.

Another lovely present was a collapsible coffee table which I can set up outside my patio door, if I ever want to sit in the nicely sheltered spot just there. It provides the perfect place to put down my coffee cup or glass of wine, depending on the time of day.

One September morning, however, I walked out with my table and walked into a huge cobweb.

And I do mean huge!

I waved my arms and legs about in a kind of mad dance and jibbered crazily. It must have afforded the neighbours an entertaining sight, but I absolutely hate spiders. The only down side of gardening for me is that you put your hand in a lot of webs and if you can’t see, you don’t know if any spiders are still there…


But even my arachnophobia won’t stop me from loving my garden and spending time in it. Walking round it is a great way to clear my head, whatever the weather. It is cold and windy as I type this today, but I still went out into the garden first to think about what I was going to write.

A tactile pastime

Last week I started to tell you about my garden. I thought I’d say a little more in this week’s post about the challenges and joys that it brings.

Visual impairment is no bar to gardening and there has been a Blind Gardeners’ Association for years. It is a tactile pastime. You dig a hole, you carefully insert a plant, and then you gently pat the earth round it again. After that you tend and water it.

In practice, when it comes to gardening, my arthritis has proved more of a problem than my lack of sight. I love planting, but a few hours of kneeling by the border digging holes leaves me in a debilitated state and I have to rely on my versatile PA to act as chief gardener in my stead.

Watering took some figuring out, too. I am not able to carry a watering can full of water so my brother attached a hose to the outside tap and I now walk round the garden, unravelling the hose as I go. Once I get to a certain point I have to retrace my steps and start again from the tap in the opposite direction, as the hose doesn’t quite go all the way round the garden.

I have a table and chairs, too (purchased at a garden centre, of course), and the hose has  a tendency to get caught up on these. I have to walk back, try to locate where the hold-up is and free the hose. Then I return to where I was before. Each time this happens, my unhooking operation is accompanied by much dark muttering and unladylike language on my part.

Despite all this, I love watering my garden and, as I go, smelling the scents of the earth and all my wonderful plants. I especially love warm summer evenings when the air is filled with the scent of jasmine, lavender, geranium and my Munstead Wood rose from David Austin Roses.

At times like that, I forget all the aches and pains, and the problems unsnagging the hose. My garden just seems “heaven scent.”

In the garden

Over the last two weeks I have taken you up in the air and travelling across New York state. This week I’m sticking nearer to home. In fact, I’m taking you into my garden.

I was very lucky to grow up in homes with wonderful gardens. They were big enough to run around in and play imaginative games. My mother was a keen gardener and made every one of her gardens beautiful. I loved the flowers and enjoyed listening to Mum talk about them, though very little of her abundant knowledge actually stuck.

When I first moved into my present house, the back garden was gravel, with a few stepping stones, a path to the back gate, and the tubs of a few favourite plants that I had brought with me.

The property had stood empty for some time and the local cats had come to regard the gravel as a giant litter tray put out for their exclusive use. This was thoroughly unpleasant – doubly so, as I couldn’t see what I was treading in. I eventually managed to tackle the problem, however, with a product called “Silent Roar”, which turned out to be made of lion poo. You spread it round the garden and the cats stayed away. It was dry and completely odourless to humans, but not to the more sensitive noses of all the local moggies, who thought that a very big cat indeed had been using their litter tray! Once I’d spread Silent Roar round the garden, they kept well clear.

The garden path originally included a huge stone step. There was nothing to indicate where it was and nothing to hang on to when you got there. I fell down it the first time I went in the garden, so something had to be done about that.

The tubs were also proving difficult to maintain and my plants were not thriving. I took advice from friends with gardening know-how and they explained that tubs were harder work than borders because you had to keep watering them.

That surprised me. Maybe tubs weren’t the way forward after all.

My flowers weren’t flourishing but an idea gradually began to grow. Why not have a “proper” garden with borders?

And, of course, a proper garden should have a tree in it.

I started to get BIG ideas.

A friend recommended a local family firm called Down to Earth who did landscape gardening, and I employed them to transform my gravel back-yard into something more pleasing.

They paved the majority of the space, which is not large, and managed to level off the huge step which I had fallen over. (You can’t even tell where it was now.)

I chose tactile paving so I would get some sensory interest from walking on it.

They also created two borders, one on each side of the garden, and put up a fence with attractive trelliswork.

The final touch was the addition of a stone circle in the middle of the paving, into which they planted a silver birch. I chose a silver birch not only because they are such elegant trees but also because they are supposed to attract the insects that bats eat.

Now I had my “proper” garden, I sorted out the remaining tubs, bought some hanging baskets, and started to plan.

This is probably where I got a bit overexcited.

My brother and I spent a lot of time on the Internet searching out scented plants and, before I knew it, I was sending off for some.

I then discovered the joy of garden centres. I couldn’t go to one of these establishments without buying something or, more often than not, several somethings. The borders and tubs started to fill up. I had to get more tubs.

In short, I found I was my mother’s daughter!


Last week I told you about my flight to the USA to visit my niece, who was studying in the small college town of Ithaca in upstate New York. I thought this week I would mention one or two highlights of the trip.

Sitting in my niece’s flat, sipping water after having just arrived from the airport, I could hardly believe that I’d done it. I had got there, and it was an amazing feeling.

Our first outing, apart from shopping, was to a parade which was the climax of a local festival. This was a fascinating event. Every institution and community group in Ithaca seemed to be participating and there was an abundance of colourful floats. There was a “Seventies” theme to the parade so many of those taking part were wearing Star Wars costumes which my niece described to me as they rode past.

The prize for the most unusual costumes, though, must go to those worn by staff and volunteers from the local family planning clinic who did an interesting line in dressing up as contraceptives. Somehow, I can’t imagine that happening in the Swindon Spring Festival!

A couple of days later, we hired a car and set off for Niagara Falls. It was a large vehicle which I had to climb up into, (I think I have mentioned that I’m quite small). On seeing a picture of it on Facebook, my brother’s comment was, “You didn’t have to hire Thunderbird 2!”

We bought doughnuts, my niece’s customary way of starting a road trip, and off we went.

If you have been to Niagara Falls, you will know that the spray fills the air for miles around. If you take a trip on the Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you right to the foot of the falls, you run the risk of getting absolutely soaked, so they issue you with a plastic waterproof garment that feels rather like a large bin bag. I wrestled with this briefly before giving up and letting my niece dress me like a toddler.

How can I describe our trip on the Maid of the Mist? I said last time that sensation is important when you can’t see. Well, I got sensation! As well as the movement of the boat, there was the roaring of the falls – and they are loud!

Then there is the water. It’s everywhere. The air is full of it.

We got pretty wet!

It was all worth it though. What an amazing experience!

We stayed in a nearby hotel overnight and the next day visited an aquarium. This specialised in rescuing injured marine mammals, including visually-impaired seals. Yes, they are very prone to cataracts, apparently. The keeper had to make a noise to let them know where to come and get the fish. I felt a sense of empathy for them and was glad they were being cared for by such lovely people.

After that we returned to Ithaca, only to set off the next day by bus to New York City.

The journey takes four or five hours so we passed the time playing cards. My niece likes a game called Dominion. Prior to my arrival, she had found a US company which produces adhesive braille labels for various games and had sent for a set of labels for Dominion. Earlier in my stay we had spent a whole evening sticking them on the cards. Now we reaped the reward of our labours as we whiled away the hours playing several rounds of the game. It is quite  complicated, but by the time we reached the city, I think I was just about getting the hang of it.

We stayed at the Cornell Club. I had never stayed in a club of any kind before and it made me feel like someone in a P. G. Wodehouse novel. We had a huge room which boasted a sofa and a desk besides two large, and very high, beds.

My niece had arranged for me to have a touch tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or “The Met”, as everyone calls it. This seems to be the New York equivalent to the British Museum and we had a guide all to ourselves showing us round the Egyptian exhibits. I do like to get hands-on with a sarcophagus!

Later, we took a horse and buggy ride in Central Park. I leaned back on the cushioned seat and imagined I was a lady in a Henry James novel. The guide kept pointing out places where various scenes in films and TV shows had been filmed. I hadn’t seen any of them but, fortunately, my niece had, so I let her chat to the driver while I pretended to be a Victorian lady of leisure.

Among our other outings was a trip to have ice-cream and coffee on the East Side. This, apparently, is a trendy thing to do, so I put aside my genteel 19th century persona and, just for a while, pretended I was a cool dude instead.

It was all a great adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed my trip.


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.


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!)