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…
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.
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…
Last week I was asked to facilitate a workshop on what it is like living without sight in a visual world at Tygerberg Hospital. When the event organiser and I arrived at the hospital we walked to the nearest bank of lifts, only to discover that they were not working.
No problem – we just went to the next bank of lifts… and they were also not working.
Finally, after walking around the hospital building for around 15 minutes checking each lift we passed without success, we eventually found what felt to us like the only working lift in the entire (huge) hospital.
I know many of you will be asking why we didn’t just take the stairs… Well, my workshop was on the 11th floor.
Enough of my story – why am I telling you this?
The fact is that as we were rushing from one lift to another I could not escape the thought of what this must mean for a hospital, where people often need to be moved by wheelchair or in hospital beds, where people may be on crutches, are aged, or simply do not have the same degree of mobility as I do. Not to mention the vast number of visitors, staff, doctors, nurses who need to navigate the 11floors of the building.
How on earth was that possible with so many lifts out of service? What implications resulted from those lifts being out? And how many unnecessary problems arose because people could not freely move around the hospital? That was when I came to realize that, though I may be blind, at least I have the gift of mobility and though I would not have enjoyed climbing the stairs to get to the 11th floor; at least I had the capacity to do so.
Last weekend a visually impaired friend of mine went to Gold Reef City to ride the rollercoasters. Imagine her amazement when she was told that she could not ride because she as blind. When she posted about the experience on Facebook it turned out that this had happened to other visually impaired people over the past year or so – that it was policy.
I am very aware that I do not have all the facts beyond a very brief explanation given by my friend on Facebook, and that there are always two sides to a story, but still, I find myself in something of a quandary.
In principle, I agree wholeheartedly with the outraged comments from other visually impaired people at the apparent discrimination of this policy. But I want to know more details before I add my voice – I admit that I cannot think of a good reason why a visually impaired person should not be able to go on the rides, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And if there is a valid reason for the policy, then our outrage might be inappropriate.
I think it is important to get all the facts… to see the whole picture… so that we can be sure we act on the correct conclusions. Responding when we have only part of the information can be inadvisable at best, and dangerous at worst.
As an addendum: my friend has just reported that Gold Reef City are willing to meet and discuss the policy, so perhaps this will have a happy ending after all.
It takes me a long time to start using a new application on my iPhone or computer. I had a Facebook profile for years with nothing on it, before I sat down and worked out how to find my way round the basic features. LinkedIn was no different –I had a very basic profile set up, but just never seemed to get round to learning how to use it.
My main reason for procrastinating about technology is that there is simply no way for me to quickly scan the application to figure out how it operates. I have no choice but to read every single word of every single line so I can see what options are available to me, and that takes time. As a result, often I just don’t bother.
In August 2015 I attended a workshop on LinkedIn for Speakers run by Charlotte Kemp and that gave me the skills… and the courage… to start working on my profile. And I (cautiously) started using LinkedIn.
About a month ago LinkedIn updated the iPhone application and suddenly it all became unfamiliar once more. I can honestly say that I no longer know where to find anything and that once more it is too much of a bother to try and figure it out… at least for now. I still haven’t gathered up the courage to open LinkedIn on my computer in case that has changed too.
I know I will get round to it at some stage soon, and I know that updates are necessary and are often beneficial… but unfortunately knowing that by no means diminishes the frustration I experience when having to start from scratch and relearn an application after an update.