Bad Practice

Even when they’re trying to help those with a visual impairment, people don’t always think things through. Judith Furse shares some of the funnier – and more frustrating – examples of these near-misses and outright failures.

Some years ago, when my mother was still alive, she and I were watching (or, in my case, listening to) Countdown on television one day. The adverts came on and she suddenly remarked, “That’s good.”

“What is?” I enquired.

“They provide braille statements,” she said.

“Who do?” I asked.

She named a utility company.

I rang the company concerned and told them, “I think it’s good that you provide braille statements. I also think it’s good that you advertise the fact but, as your TV ad has music and no voice-over, if I hadn’t been watching TV with a sighted person, I would have been none the wiser.”

They thanked me for my input and I never saw the ad again.

Having a sense of humour, I find this incident quite amusing, but it’s frustrating, too.

I also saw the funny side of things when I attended a patient user-group for an eye clinic. The manager stood up to start his PowerPoint presentation. He began by apologising that the figures in red weren’t as clear as he would have liked.

I spoke up.

“For those of us who can’t see the screen at all, please could you explain what you are referring to?”

To be fair, he did, and, of course, it was reasonable for him to assume there were people there who could see the screen. Given that this was an eye clinic, though, he really should have also guessed that there might be people there who couldn’t.

It’s not that those providing these services are being deliberately difficult. They just don’t think. This is particularly concerning where eye-care professionals are concerned.

I once went into hospital for treatment on an ophthalmic ward. One of the first things that I did was learn the way from my bed to the toilet. This wasn’t easy as it was some way down the corridor from the bay my bed was in, but I managed it.

When I came round from the anaesthetic after the operation, I was in a completely different bed, in a completely different room. Fortunately a nurse did think to tell me this but, to me, this was bad practice in action. Most people are groggy enough after surgery, but if you also have any impairment to your senses, your disorientation is even more aggravated.

I have had years of doctors and nurses in outpatients calling my name and then marching briskly off down a corridor without checking to see if I could follow them.

In all fairness, I should acknowledge that I have encountered some excellent practice too.

When I was being assessed for a hip replacement, for example, I told the nurse of my anxiety about finding my way to the bathroom. Sure enough, when I was admitted, I was right next to it, and they didn’t move me to another bed during the whole time I was there.

Again, my ophthalmic consultant for many years always came and took my arm and personally guided me from the waiting area into her consulting room. There we would have interesting conversations about how I coped on a day-to-day basis.

I mention this last point because, too often, the medical model of disability only looks at symptoms. Most healthcare professionals have no idea how disabled people actually live their lives.

The Missing Braille Documents

Braille is incredibly useful to the visually impaired but, to Judith Furse’s great frustration, there is still a lot of information which is not available in this format.

I have written before about how much I rely on braille for quick, easy and independent access to information. It’s really valuable and important to me. Braille makes my life so much easier, so why, WHY is it still so difficult to get some information in this format?

The fact is that only a tiny percentage of the information that’s available in ordinary print ever finds its way into alternative formats such as braille. So while I receive bank statements and energy bills in braille, I am still fighting to get medical letters in this format.

Yes, that’s right. My doctor sends me letters in print which I can’t read because I am visually impaired. I have to get someone else to read them to me, thereby immediately compromising my confidentiality.

It’s humiliating and it’s frustrating, and it’s only one example among many.

In an age when sighted people have easy access to printed descriptions of products and directions on how to use them, it is maddening not to be able to read cooking instructions on food packets, or easily distinguish shampoo from bath foam. I mean, could you tell the difference just from feeling the bottle or smelling the contents?

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a member of a book group. One of the things we like to do is read plays together, with each one of us reading a different character. My friends do their best to include me, but that means we can only read plays that I can get in braille. You’d be surprised how many aren’t available in this format.

It’s a similar story with my poetry group. There’s a theme each month and each of us chooses a poem related to that theme and reads it aloud at our next get-together. It’s nice to read other people’s choices in advance so that you’re familiar with them, but friends often choose poems from collections which, because they are so large, are unlikely ever to find their way into braille. Poetry in braille is a niche market. The choice is limited.

And then there is question of how I get to read newspapers.

Yes, most newspapers and many magazines are available on line these days, and I’m grateful that text-to-speech software means that I can access them on my computer, although navigation can be slow and clumsy. What I really miss, though, is just being able to pick up a paper and glance through it. I don’t think sighted people realise how much general knowledge they quite casually pick up in this way.

Braille newspapers and magazines exist, of course, but so much that is available in print never finds its way into braille.

Braille Education

Should visually-impaired children be taught in special schools or in mainstream education? Judith Furse weighs up the pros and cons and decides that, despite all the disadvantages, when it comes to literacy, special schools had the edge.

I lost nearly all useful eyesight while I was a still very young. I had been registered blind by the age of seven and sent off to board at Linden Lodge School, a special school for the blind. It broke my parents’ hearts to see me go, but they’d been told by those who knew about these things that it was for the best. They cried when they left me there. I cried too.

Linden Lodge took children from the ages of five to eighteen, but a few boys and girls were put forward each year for selection for the “grammar schools” for the visually-impaired. In those days, the boys’ school was at Worcester and the girls went to Chorleywood College. I passed the selection process and at the age of eleven started at Chorleywood.

You’re probably wondering what was it like, being educated in those special schools.

I certainly didn’t want to go to boarding school, but that’s the way things were done in those days. It meant leaving home and having the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to my family at the start of every term. I made wonderful friends among my contemporaries at Chorleywood, but there were still times when I was desperately lonely and unhappy, especially in the early years. After all, I was just a child. The staff at both schools were professional but distant. Discipline was strict and the ethos, especially at Chorleywood, highly academic. Some of the teachers unbent a bit as we got older but we certainly didn’t have the sort of relationship with the staff that I get the impression kids have today. It was a “them and us” situation.

Looking back, were there any advantages in attending a special boarding school?

Yes, there were, and one in particular stands out: I had an education immersed in braille.

I remember how desperate I was to learn to read again after I first became blind. I had just discovered the joy of books only to have it snatched away from me when my sight deteriorated. To make matters worse, I had also missed seven months’ schooling as I waited at home while Essex Local Authority dithered and dawdled over getting me into a special school.

Despite all the emotional upheaval of leaving home, I learnt to read braille at Linden Lodge School and it was a precious thing. We used it for all subjects and were encouraged to use it to read in our leisure time. Thanks to braille, I could enjoy books again. And because I had the ease and fluency that comes with good training and abundant practice, I was able to do well at school and later go on to complete a degree in Law.

Visually-impaired children in mainstream schools do not get this privilege. Compared to ours, their access to braille is limited and their teaching assistants sometimes lack the detailed knowledge of braille that our teachers and instructors had. As a result, their reading speeds often fall short of the speeds we were able to attain.

With stretched resources there is a temptation to use audio more and more, but this is not literacy. Try it for yourself. Listen to a book and then see how many characters’ names you can spell correctly. See how much of the sentence structure and punctuation you can reproduce accurately.

You wouldn’t say to a sighted child, “I’m going to take your books away and from now on you will learn spelling and grammar by ear only,” so why would you do that to a visually-impaired child?

Braille versus Audio

Has modern audio technology made braille redundant? “Very definitely not!” says Judith Furse. In her experience, braille is still essential.

I need to be able to access information quickly, easily and quietly to get safely and effectively through my day. As someone with a severe visual impairment, that means that I rely on braille.

Let’s start with getting up.

The first thing I do is take my medication. I have two different strengths of a strong painkiller. These are colour coded. I used to have to ask someone to identify which was which and then put an elastic band around the stronger one. Since the European Union issued a directive, however, all medicines are now labelled in braille. Because I can read braille, I now don’t have to involve anyone else in administering my medication.

Next, I may need to take food out of the freezer for later. I shop at the Co-op and they label their ready meals and other own-brand products in braille. No more guessing or finding myself eating lasagne when I fancied cottage pie!

I start work. I am a braille transcriber and proofreader. I have speech access software on my computer but I also have a braille display. It is invaluable. Without it, my work would take at least twice as long and I would waste a lot of paper printing out proofs for checking.

If I want to find out what is on TV or radio, I turn to the braille guides. The audio versions available on line take forever to search through! The braille versions are much quicker.

I often chair meetings at church and at the local Amnesty International group. Without braille agendas, minutes and other necessary documents I would not be able to do this.

Braille enables me to participate in poetry and book groups where we read poetry and plays aloud. I can read the lessons in church and sing the hymns thanks to braille bibles and hymn books.

Besides reading for pleasure I also have a diary, recipe books, and address books, all in braille. I label CDs and tapes in braille. And I continually write notes to myself in braille.

Now you might ask, why do I still rely so heavily on braille when there is so much available in audio formats these days? After all, you can get audio labelling devices, you can listen to books on disks or streamed from the Internet, and you can Google information on your smartphone and listen to the results through its speech function.

You can do all those things with audio – and I regularly do too! But I couldn’t chair meetings without having the agenda actually under my fingers. Even if I wear an earplug so that others don’t have to listen to the distracting chatter of an audio source, I can’t read, skim or search minutes or discussion documents nearly as quickly as I can with braille.

Braille enables me not only to access information swiftly and independently, but to actively participate in life. I wouldn’t be without it.