Have you ever considered what it is like catching a train when you’re blind? Not being able to see the edge when you’re walking along the platform, and trying to find your way around a large and busy station with the sound of trains screaming in and out of platforms.
For 12 long years I caught the train to work in Simon’s Town and the fear of accidentally falling off the platform was never far from my mind. Okay, the fear was made worse by two bad experiences I had, one when I fell onto the platform, and one when Eccles fell off it. Thankfully, Craig was with me so he jumped down onto the tracks and tossed her back to safety but I can still recall the panic as if it were yesterday.
In Poland they have very simple and effective solutions to how to keep visually-impaired passengers safely away from the edge of the platform and also to help them find their way round train and metro stations. I don’t know what they’re really called, but Craig and I refer to them as blind-lines and Bubble-wrap.
The blind-lines are raised lines on the floor that guide people to and from key places in a station – from the stairs to the platform, from the ticket office to the elevator and so on. A blind passenger can follow the blind-lines with their white canes or with their feet when walking with a guide dog. The blind-lines help them to get from one place to another easily and quickly.
Bubble-wrap are also raised markings that look a bit like cobblestones. They are placed along the edge of the platform and give visually-impaired passengers clear warning that they are too close to the edge. As soon as you feel those raised markings you move back onto the platform to safety.
You may be wondering how Craig and I came up with these particular names for the markings. Well, they’re blind-lines because they really are lines that link places together for blind people. And we use the term bubble-wrap because it looks like someone unrolled the world’s biggest strip of bubble-wrap along the platform and glued it there.
I’m sure I’m not the only blind passenger who finds travelling on trains and metros something of a challenge, and these really simple and effective solutions go a long way towards easing those fears.
Hmm… I wonder what it would take to get them implemented in our railway stations in Cape Town…
On our recent overseas trip Craig and I stayed in 7 different places – that’s 7 different places in less than 14 days. As you can imagine, I need to have techniques to learn my way round a new place as soon as I can.
Every apartment has fixtures: furniture, doorways, windows, even pictures on a wall. I use the fixtures to orientate myself and find my way round the place I’m in.
As an example, here’s how I navigated my way round one of the apartments in Warsaw. The apartment had a large combined bedroom/dining room/kitchen, with a passage down to a second bedroom and the bathroom. The front door into the apartment was on the long side of the passage, with the bathroom on the right and the doorway into the bedroom/dining room/kitchen on the left.
There was a thick mat that stretched most of the length of the passage. I used it to indicate where the doorways into each room were – when I felt the edge of the mat I knew to slow down so I wouldn’t stub my toes on the doorframes.
The main room had a window opening onto a busy street. It seemed like the traffic never stopped. While that was a little annoying in the early hours of the morning, I could use the sound to judge which way I should be facing so I wouldn’t fall over the bed, the table or the chairs. Using those fixtures it took me only a few hours to find my way round the apartment as if I had lived there for years.
Of course, it’s not always that easy. Some apartments, especially those with big open spaces, are more confusing to get around without help. But I usually manage to find some way of navigating a new space without needing sight.
It was our first afternoon in Warsaw, and we were on our way to Łazienki Park, or Royal Baths Park. Every Sunday in summer free piano recitals of Chopin’s compositions are performed at the base of the giant bronze statue of Chopin in the park and we were lucky enough to arrive in Warsaw on a Sunday.
We were surprized when a chocolate brown Labrador guide dog and her owner climbed onto the crowded bus two stops after we did. What an amazing coincidence to see a guide dog on our very first bus trip in the city! The chocolate brown Lab settled down on the floor of the bus and went to sleep as Labradors are wont to do.
We watched as the partners climbed off the bus at the same stop as us, walked across the road and disappeared into the crowds streaming into Łazienki Park. I think I felt something like the awe that my sighted friends say they feel when watching Fiji and I at work – it was wonderful to see that team working together so confidently!
Something unusual happened when it was my turn to climb off the bus. A lady who was waiting to board the bus stretched out a hand and assisted me from the bus onto the pavement. I’d never experienced that before – anywhere in the world. It was a thoughtful and generous gesture for her to have made.
Then it happened on the way home. And on the next bus trip. And the one after that. In fact I can’t recall a single bus, tram or metro journey in Warsaw that a well-meaning member of the public didn’t offer me help when I stepped off. Maybe it’s just part of the friendliness of the Polish people, or their overall awareness of those around them.
Or maybe I just looked like I desperately needed the support… but I don’t think so.
(photo by Craig Strachan)
“Mr and Mrs Strachan, you’ve been upgraded to business class. I hope you enjoy your flight!”
Those have to be amongst the most welcome words a traveller can hear, especially when having just spent 9 hours travelling from Cape Town to Dubai. The thought of spending the next 6 hours in transit to Warsaw suddenly seemed a lot less exhausting.
And believe me, the answer is yes, business class is all it’s cracked up to be – the food was great, the service attentive but not invasive, and the additional seat room was amazing, especially for Craig, who is 6ft2.
But there were a couple of things that I‘ll need to figure out if traveling business class becomes a more regular occurrence for us.
Ironically, one of the positives of business class was something of a challenge to me as a blind passenger. In economy, provided we’re sitting within a few rows of the bathrooms, I can usually make my way there on my own, only needing to bother Craig if he’s sitting in the aisle seat. I simply move my hand from one seat to the next to support me as I walk down the aisle. This isn’t possible in business class – the seats are spread much further apart to allow space for each seat to convert into a bed. That means I can’t reach from one seat to the next.
Another aspect of business class travel that is usually a positive is the increased amount of privacy that the seat design allows each traveller. There is more space between the seats… Okay, there is space between the armrest of the seat on the left and the armrest of the seat on the right, unlike in economy where the armrest of the seat on the left IS the armrest of the seat on the right. On our Emirates flight the privacy was enhanced by the tablet computers that were attached to the armrests between Craig’s seat and mine – one for each of us.
And that made it hard for me to attract Craig’s attention if I wanted to ask him a question or needed his help. And yes, I did figure out how to detach the tablet… but then what? Where could I put it?
I’m not saying either of these detracted from the pleasure of travelling business class, or that either of them would make me hesitate if offered the opportunity of doing so again. It simply means I need to find different ways to overcome those challenges.
Let’s hope I’m given the opportunity to do so soon…
Craig and I were squeezed into our tiny economy seats travelling from Cape Town to Dubai. As he often does, Craig was flipping through the airline magazine to see what was on offer as entertainment during the flight.
I admit I seldom watch movies when travelling. I find the audio tracks are usually slightly distorted which makes it hard for me to understand. It’s also a little unfair for me to constantly ask Craig to describe what is happening onscreen, especially when he is watching a completely different movie. So I tend to ignore the inflight entertainment and simply listen to a book on my Plextalk Pocket book-reader, or to music on my iPod.
As you can imagine, I was startled when Craig read me the announcement in the Emirates magazine that the airline was now offering some movies that were accessible to blind and hearing impaired travellers. They are the first airline to offer this service.
An audio description track is an additional sound channel that describes what is happening in each scene, so blind and visually-impaired people can watch a movie independently. Likewise, closed captions are sub-titles of the spoken parts of a movie for those who cannot hear.
I think it’s great that Emirates is taking the needs of their disabled passengers into consideration. I’ll admit I didn’t actually watch any of the movies – I was totally wrapped up in my book and only reached the enthralling conclusion shortly before we landed in Dubai. But that’s not the point. The fact that Emirates is giving us the same access that sighted travellers have is a huge step forward and I think it’s fantastic. Well done, Emirates!
And maybe next time I travel on Emirates I’ll actually watch one of the movies.
I was totally stunned to realize that today is the 4th October. Last time I posted an article was late in August, which leaves me with the question of what happened to September?
In reality, September has been a busy month and I have tons to share with you. I have several experiences and observations from my recent travels as a blind tourist in Poland, as well as updates on my speaking and writing. I also have a few articles about changes in my life that have given me a greater degree of independence.
September may have slipped by without my noticing it… But I promise normal transmissions will resume this month!
Right now I feel like a child on the night before Christmas – only one more sleep and then Craig and I will be jetting off to Poland on holiday for 2 weeks!
I’m aware that statement probably raises a few questions:
• What does travel offer a blind person?
• And why Poland?
The answer to the second question is very simple: we have extended family who live outside Krakow in Poland
The answer to the first question is a little harder to put into words: It is true that I don’t have the same experience that Craig does when we travel. Sightseeing is a totally different experience without sight. However I am able to gain a remarkably complete experience of new places by using my other senses. I have devoted an entire chapter of my book, A Different Way of Seeing, to how I indulge my love of travel and how I gain the greatest amount possible from it, but you’ll still have to wait a few months before you can read that – but please feel free to ask by commenting on this article if you want to know more about how I travel.
I’m not going to post articles while I’m away but will let you know how I experienced Poland as a blind tourist when I get back… and share some of my photos as well.
Stay well while I am away and I’ll speak to you again soon…
I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to read and review an advance copy of fellow blind female South African author, Leann Hunt’s new book, What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know.
Leanne’s book is a practical guide on how to assist a visually impaired family member, friend or colleague who is struggling to grow from dependence to independence. She describes the psychological impact of blindness as well as the various stages she herself worked through in coming to terms with her disability and gaining independence. Leann’s is an inspiring story that is full of courage.
Though I personally did not experience anything near the same level of isolation and dependency that Leanne did when losing her sight, I could relate to her story. The book gave me reason to reconsider my own journey through blindness and I found myself gaining additional insights into my own life from both the similarities and the differences in our situations.
I will admit to having reservations about the word “every in the title, what Every Blind Person Needs You to Know, as I believe it is too simplistic to assume that the same process will apply to all blind people. However, there are certainly aspects of Leanne’s book that will be useful to each reader.
I would recommend Leanne Hunt’s book, What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know as a valuable resource for anyone supporting a blind or visually impaired person battling to discover how to increase their level of independence.
You can purchase What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know at www.blindyetfree.com/books
Recently my guide dog, Fiji, has shown me in no uncertain terms that micromanagement does not work. I’ve always known I preferred being able to control what was happening around me, but had never thought of myself as a control freak… till now.
My first lesson in micromanagement happened 5 months ago when we introduced Fiji to the other dogs at home – a process that we had been thoroughly briefed on by the guide dog trainers. Remember that we needed to introduce a new member into a team that had long since sorted out their personalities (dog-alities? Canine-alities?) and their processes. Potentially it could have been a difficult time for everyone concerned.
On the drive home I gave my husband, Craig, long and detailed instructions on how we were going to proceed. Yet when it came down to it, all those instructions went straight out the window – which is where Fiji tried to go as soon as she saw the rest of her new doggy family. And very soon Fiji was playing happily as an integral part of the pack.
So much for my trying to micromanage the situation!
My second lesson on micromanagement took place a few weeks later. Though I had no issues with Fiji while we were walking our routes, she had a tendency to become highly excited when around people, which I felt I needed to manage as some people do not like dogs. I sought advice from the guide dog trainers and it helped… a bit.
Then it dawned on me that the times I was most stressed about the issue and tried hardest to keep her under tight control were the times my highly sensitive guide dog reacted to people most strongly. So I took a conscious decision to relax and only react if it was warranted… and the situation eased almost immediately. Once again it appeared that my trying to micromanage the situation was not the most effective response.
Since then I have tried to incorporate this learning into my leadership activities, and my life has become less complicated, less stressful and less busy. I’m trying to resist double checking that every task that the team needs to accomplish is being done. I’m trying to let people resolve their own minor conflicts while being available if I am needed. I’m also trying to let go control and trust in the process rather than planning every minute detail of every possible eventuality that might possibly occur.
I’m definitely not perfect and there are times I don’t get it right – either with the teams with whom I’m working, or with Fiji – but I’m finding there is less conflict and more collaboration since I’ve started trying to let go of control by micromanaging the team.
It is really not hard to find an enticing restaurant in Cape Town, no matter what your preference in cuisine happens to be. I am constantly amazed at the number and variety of restaurants we have. But I sometimes wonder if finding a restaurant is as easy for someone living with a disability?
Disability access is a subject close to my heart. I’ve decided to write reviews of places that impress me – and those that horrify me – in terms of how accessible they are. I suppose my recent article about the SAB Newlands Brewery should technically be considered my first, but this is the first that will appear under the Accessibility Review category.
Recently Craig, Fiji and I had dinner at Louis on the Block in Children’s Way, Bergvliet. Not only did we have a great, reasonably priced meal with good service, but I was impressed by how disability-friendly they were.
My guide dog, Fiji, was warmly welcomed into the restaurant and was offered not only a bowl of water but a snack as well, which Fiji was distraught that I refused on her behalf. Now, while it might sound very unfair that Craig and I got to eat while Fiji did not, the truth is that if she learns that she might get food when we do she will learn to beg – and a begging dog is downright unpleasant at a restaurant.
What really impressed me about Louis on the Block was that the restaurant was also accessible to those with physical disabilities. Though there were steps up to the main entrance, they had a wider door that was easily accessible to a wheelchair..
No, I didn’t happen to notice it. Nor did I ask (though I must do so when going to restaurants in the future). But at one point in the evening the restaurant’s owner and one of the wait staff crossed to the double door to assist a lady in a wheelchair to enter and join one of the tables having dinner.
The whole experience left me feeling very positive about the restaurant and enhanced my enjoyment of the evening.
Well done for going the extra mile, Louis on the Block!