I was chatting to a professional photographer while waiting to soundcheck for my set at the Inclusive Arts Festival at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town last weekend. You can imagine my reaction when he said with utter conviction that he wouldn’t cope if he were disabled since he couldn’t bear being totally dependent on others.
Naturally this engaged the inner coach in me – I started asking questions about the assumptions he was making about disability, independence and dependence and ability. And it turned into a short but fascinating conversation about how many people view disability.
I’ve found that conversation spinning in my brain for the past few days and it’s given rise to several thoughts on the topic.
I suspect it’s going to take me a few articles to think through all the aspects of this question that have been percolating in my mind, so be warned… this is the first of a series that’ll look into what I believe independence means to someone with a disability, the concept of independence as a continuum rather than an absolute, some of the tools that give us greater independence, and why so often a disabled person feels that asking for help constitutes a failure on their part.
Finally, I find myself feeling intensely frustrated… saddened… surprised that someone who had spent a week immersed in the world of performers with disabilities could be so blind to the talent, skill and, above all, the independence they showed. How could he have missed it – it was right in front of his eyes…
I know, I know, it’s been ages since I published an article. It’s certainly not for lack of anything to write about. After all, I recently got back from an amazing trip to Germany and Poland about which I have lots to share. I also need to gather my courage and write a final post honouring my retired guide dog, Eccles, who passed away after a short illness. Then I want to tell you about some of the exciting blind travel work I’m starting on, and a media interview I did recently.
So yes, I have plenty to share with you.
But somehow I’ve just fallen out of the habit of settling down to write…
Today I took the decision that it was time to fall back into that habit. so here’s just a short note to let you know that I’m back – back home, back writing, and back willing and eager to share more of my experiences living my ordinary life without sight.
I was startled to see that Fiji also neglected to write an article while I was away – clearly she was just having too much fun on her holiday from guide dogging. Maybe I’ll wake her up just now and ask her if she actually plans on writing a post this month. But you know what they say about letting sleeping dogs lie?
All I’m saying is watch this space…
It’s really not hard to find an enticing restaurant in Cape Town, no matter what type of food you’re looking for. I’ve already written a number of reviews of places that welcome Fiji and this is another of those. But this restaurant, Louis on the Block, in Bergvliet, has an added bonus – they’ve made their venue accessible to people who are mobility impaired as well.
Craig, Fiji and I have eaten at Louis on the Block in Children’s Way, Bergvliet a number of times. Not only do we enjoy their delicious, reasonably priced food and good service, but I’m always impressed by how disability-aware they are.
My guide dog, Fiji, is always warmly welcomed into the restaurant. On one momentous previous visit Fiji was offered not just a bowl of water but a snack as well, which she was most put out when I declined. I know some of you may be thinking it was unfair of me to deprive her of her snack when Craig and I got to eat. Here’s the thing: if Fiji learns to look for food at restaurants she’s slipped over the line into begging – and a begging dog is downright unpleasant for everyone!
What really impresses me about Louis on the Block is that the restaurant is also accessible to those with physical disabilities. Though there are steps up to the main entrance, they have a second stepless entrance that’ll easily accommodate wheelchairs. The tables aren’t crammed together so the space is fairly easily navigable, and the restrooms are also spacious enough to allow access to a wheelchair.
Over the years I’ve been to a large number of restaurants that are happy to accommodate my visual impairment and my guide dog. Sadly I doubt the same is true for a person with a mobility impairment. So it’s really great to experience a restaurant that is so aware of the needs of all their customers, no matter what!
If you’ve never been to Louis on the Block in Bergvliet, Fiji and I would definitely recommend you give them a try –with apologies from Fiji for not being able to vouch for the food herself.
Our first stop on the tour of guide dog-friendly places Fiji and I go to was our nearby Woolworths retail store. Today we’re walking just a few steps away from Woolworths and stopping for a cup of tea… or a delicious meal , if you’re feeling a little peckish.
In fact Sostanza, the coffee shop/restaurant we’re about to visit is so close to Woolworths that I usually instruct Fiji to find the counter in Woolworths and navigate my way from there – when we first learned our way to the coffee shop Fiji tried going straight there, stopping at each table to say hello to the people sitting there. It wasn’t long before I figured out that it was easier for me to navigate from Woolworths, so that’s what I taught her to do.
Over the years my guide dogs and I have had issues gaining entry into a fair number of restaurants – not a lot, but enough for me to call the instances easily to mind. But we’ve never had a problem at Sostanza– in fact, they’re welcoming to all dogs, though I think Fiji and her guide dog colleagues are the only ones allowed to sit inside; other dogs have to sit in the corridor.
We’ve had a number of funny experiences at Sostanza – like the 5-year old girl who was convinced Fiji was cold lying on the floor and sacrificed her own seat-cushion for my dog. And the day Fiji was pulling to get to the people at the table behind me and it was only after I’d chastised her that I realized we knew them. And last week a Jack Russel was whining piteously to be allowed to come and play with Fiji – and Fiji simply turned her back and went to sleep.
Sure, Fiji often has people coming across to pet her but I’ve never had to yell at a fellow patron for trying to slip her food, and it’s a great opportunity for me to tell people about the amazing work being done by the SA Guide-Dogs Association in training these remarkable animals.
Not only is Sostanza welcoming to guide dogs, they also serve amazing food – whether you’re looking for a tasty breakfast, a scrumptious lunch or just a slice of cake with your tea or coffee. As for the pizzas… Well, let’s just say that Sostanza makes what I consider to be the best pizzas in Cape Town and leave it at that!
I doubt you’d be interested to hear about the other places Fiji and I visit at the Old Bakery Centre – especially since one is the cash machine and the other we only went into by accident when the passage to Woolworths was temporarily blocked. So we’re going to go further afield on the next stages of our tour of guide dog-friendly places.
In the meantime, anyone feel like a pizza?
A little while back I said I wanted to start a series of articles recognizing places that were welcoming to my guide dog. Here’s the first of those articles.
I live in Lakeside, in Cape Town. Our closest shopping area is the Old Bakery Centre, so named because it used to be a bakery. When we first moved into the house I would regularly wake to the scent of freshly baking bread – Mmmm…
So I want to take you on a tour of some of the local shops and restaurants who not only accommodate, but go out of their way to welcome my guide dog and I – and the Old Bakery Woolworths is going to be our first stop.
Fiji has been trained to walk straight to the counter where the tills are located in Woolworths. Whenever we enter, the employees greet me and either offer assistance immediately or politely ask me to wait for a minute or two while they finish up with their current customer. Then they assist by collecting the items I need and bringing them so I can look at them before I pay. Admittedly it’s a small Woolworths and my needs aren’t overly complex – besides which, I keep my shopping list short since I’ll have to carry everything home in a backpack.
On occasion I accompany the assistant to select the items I need, especially if I’m buying fresh produce, but usually I stand out of the way and let the assistant manage the process. Yes, I am aware that there are several apps and other assistive technology devices that would let me shop pretty much on my own and maybe one day I’ll do so. For now I just find it easier to shop this way and the assistants are amazingly efficient in how they help me. And it makes a huge difference to me.
I’ve heard of so many cases where a visually impaired person has been refused entry into a shop because they have a working animal with them. We’ve even had a few instances where it’s happened to Fiji and me, even once in a different Woolworths. So I’m truly appreciative of the amazing service I receive at the Old Bakery Woolworths in Lakeside.
The next stop on our tour of local places where my guide dog is welcome isn’t far away. In fact, next time I want to tell you about the coffee shop/pizzeria right next to Woolworths, who also look after Fiji and me as if we’re royalty.
But that’ll have to wait for another day…
It won’t surprise you to know I have a fairly extensive global network of blind and visually impaired people on social media. I also listen to several podcasts by and about people who are visually impaired. Recently I’ve been amazed how often I’ve heard stories of people being refused access to places and services because they have guide dogs.
Which got me thinking – Fiji and I have been working together for just over 2 years. Add that to the years I worked with my previous guide dogs, Leila and Eccles, and you land up with a scarily large number.
In all that time I’ve really never had a major problem accessing places and services with my dogs. Sure, there have been times that I’ve been challenged about bringing a dog into ashop or restaurant, but we’ve always managed to resolve the problem then and there.
And yes, there have been times I’ve become frustrated at the increasing amount of bureaucracy that’s required when travelling by air with Fiji but, believe me, the administrative hoops Fiji and I have to jump through are minor compared to what some of our international colleagues have to.
I’ve also heard horror stories from friends in other cities in South Africa, so maybe Cape Town is just a really special place. To be fair, I haven’t experienced problems in Johannesburg but Fiji and I haven’t really travelled much together outside of Cape Town– at least, not yet!
Fiji and I regularly go to new places and make use of services and are usually welcomed and treated with respect. So I want to start acknowledging some of the places she and I go and acknowledge their fantastic service to us. .
Why not suggest a few places you feel we ought to try – if we can get there, we’d be happy to do so and share about our great experiences. And we’d love the opportunity to show the rest of the world what a great place Cape Town is to work with a guide dog
At first I was thrilled when my bank, First National Bank, released an iPhone app. For years I had been using telephone banking but increasingly it wasn’t serving my needs. The thought of being able to use technology to do all my banking appealed to me. So I downloaded the FNB app and started to play…
At first I was fairly happy with the usability of the app, especially since the in-built screen reader on my iPhone allowed me to access most of the information I needed to complete any transactions. Then FNB updated the app and it all went a little crazy.
Now the app is a mash-up of accessibility and inaccessibility – I know which button I need to tap to log in (though I had to get sighted help so I could label it rather than simply having a screen full of things simply invitingly labeled as “button”), I can sort of get to the point where I’m ready to make a payment to a beneficiary… though I can’t access which account I’m paying from, and I can’t see the details of the transaction I’m about to make on the screen with the equally inviting button that encourages me to confirm the payment- hey, is it too much to ask that you show me the details you want me to confirm?
Two months ago I tweeted FNB to engage with them about the problems I’m having accessing the app. Their support guy was very quick to reply and assure me it would be investigated… and I’ve heard nothing since.
Which is why I’m writing this article in a fit of extreme frustration – I’ve banked with FNB since I was seven years old… but maybe it’s time for a change!
Despite the ominous storm clouds that had dogged our way from Athens, the sun was shining down benignly when we arrived at the ancient Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. It may sound odd, but I believe the nearby storm clouds made our appreciation of the magnificent ruin perched precariously on the top of a cliff even more profound.
I Have no doubt the view from the ruins across the ocean must have been breathtaking, but it wasn’t the view that literally took my breath away – it was the sense of how exposed to the power of the elements we were and how totally insignificant I felt in comparison. And while my notoriously poor head for heights was happily absent for most of the trip to Greece, it struck back with a vengeance this once!
Hmm, I seem to have wandered from the point of this post – it’s not to focus on the weather or on my attack of height-head. I actually intended to write about how impressed I was that the site made a significant effort to be accessible to those travelling in a wheelchair.
I’ve commented before on how difficult it must be to make a protected heritage site accessible to wheelchairs. With the exception of the ancient Roman site at Fishbourne Palace in Chichester, UK which is easy to navigate using the raised wooden walkways that give wonderful views of the beautiful mosaiced floors, there are few ancient sites that have managed to find ways to make accommodations for those whose mobility is impaired. ,
I know my insights into the realities of wheelchair travel are imperfect at best, but here’s my attempt to describe what I imagine the experience of visiting the Temple of Poseidon might be like for someone using a wheelchair. Access to the entrance of the site from the parking lot was easy with only a very gentle slope up from the parking area which is large and would allow for easy movement of a wheelchair in and out of a vehicle.
I’ve hauled myself up enough so-called wheelchair ramps that are in reality no more than badly converted flights of stairs to know that the gradient of the access ramp at the site was gentle enough to make it navigable. And, while I imagine that accessing the actual site of the ruins might pose some challenges, at least the site had a viewing platform from which the magnificent ruins and the surrounding ocean could easily be seen.
While I didn’t check if there was an accessible restroom at the site, the giftshop was accessible and had wide aisles for ease of navigation.
I’ve found myself wondering whether it’s better to be able to walk through the ancient ruins yet not be able to see them, or to be unable to get into the centre of the sites but still be able to view them and am not sure if there’s an easy answer – like most things in life, I guess each has advantages and disadvantages. And certainly complete access is the goal to strive for in any destination.
But it was good to see that the Temple of Poseidon and it’s curators at least had taken the needs of those with a mobility impairment into consideration and tried to accommodate their wish to see this beautiful site.
Sometimes it’s easy to criticize organisations that aren’t accessible to a person with a disability. Today I want to highlight a company that is going over and above the call of duty to make their products available to those of us who are visually impaired.
As many of you know I’m a prolific reader. Okay that may not be as true now as it was a few years ago, when I had lots more time on my hands – nowadays I seem to have very few precious hours to curl up with a good book and simply lose myself in a story. But I still love reading and appreciate any access to books that I can access without having to spend ages standing mindlessly flipping pages as the desktop scanner converts a book into a format I can read.
Unlike many of my blind friends overseas I don’t have access to libraries like Bookshare and others that provide e-books to us… nor do I have the funds to buy as many books as I’d like to have to feed my insatiable book craving.
Enter Baen Books…
Baen Booksare a publishing house who specialise in several of my favourite genres of book – fantasy, alternative history and science fiction. Some time ago, Jim Baen, founder of the publishing house, decided to make the titles available at no cost to blind and visually impaired people who register with the site.
I’ve been registered with Baen Books for a few years now and love the ease of simply logging on to the website, skimming through the authors and books that are available and downloading what I choose. It’s also simple to navigate through the process of searching for books and downloading them. I try not to abuse the privilege… but there are just some authors that I can’t resist!
Of course, their books are also available for sale online through their website. So, if you enjoy reading these genres, please consider supporting Baen Books and the wonderful gift they offer to those of us who are blind and visually impaired.
Here’s where you can find them: http://www.baenebooks.com/
Hmm… which reminds me, it’s about time I popped onto the website to download the next in Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series…
I recently had the opportunity to test-drive a C-Pen Reader. For those who have never heard of the C-Pen, it’s a portable device designed to assist persons with reading and language-related learning barriers to access print material in an audio format.
It looks a little like a highlighter pen and the basic idea is that when you run the “nib” of the pen across a line of text it will immediately read it using either the small speaker on the pen itself or headphones.
When I read about the C-Pen Reader I wondered if I could use it to access print materials as someone who is blind, although it’s generally not marketed for this purpose. So that’s what I set out to discover…
I found the C-Pen Reader fairly easy to use. While I couldn’t run the pen across the page very fast, I didn’t find the optimal speed uncomfortably slow. I didn’t have to wait too long for the audio feedback, and I felt the speech quality and accuracy was fairly good.
Personally I found it hard to keep a straight line across the page and to move from one line to the next with any degree of accuracy. I’m sure there are any number of ways to resolve both these problems and I’d find a way to do this if using the C-Pen Reader on a regular basis.
While switching the C-Pen on and off was simple, I couldn’t find a way to get audio access to the menu system so would only be able to use the full features of the C-Pen Reader with sighted help or by remembering the patterns to access each function.
My husband, who is sighted, noted that the C-Pen is designed for people who are right-handed. He said while he would be able to use the device as a left-handed person, that it was not entirely comfortable to do so.
My conclusion was that, while the C-Pen Reader is undoubtedly a useful tool for it’s stated purpose of assisting individuals encountering reading and language barriers, there are easier ways for me to access print materials as a totally blind person. I think the device might be useful for an individual who have sufficient sight to make out the location of the printed words, but for whom the audio would be a benefit.
Overall I feel the C-Pen Reader is an interesting little device that I urge you to investigate if you feel it might be of use to you.
With thanks to Edit Microsystems for letting me test-drive the C-Pen Reader – find out about their products on www.editmicro.co.za