Thursday, 22 June 2017

Blind in Britain

If you look at Face Book and Twitter, you would be tricked into thinking that Britain is a terrible place to live if you have a visual impairment. Whilst people with disabilities in this country face barriers on a daily basis, quite often in relation to accessibility, I feel that it is important to highlight how great it actually is to be blind in Britain. I recognise that it is only so good thanks to people constantly campaigning for change, but after being out and about last weekend it really hit home how lucky I am to live in such a disability friendly country.

To give you a bit of background, on Saturday I needed to travel through London to get to my final destination and I needed to repeat the process in reverse on Sunday. Travelling through London solo is something that I have only done once before and that was with Calvin my Guide Dog who gives me more confidence when I’m out travelling by myself. This time it was just me, my cane and the added anxiety of the recent terror attacks. Firstly, before I have even started my journey, I am able to get 1/3 off of my ticket fair with my disabled railcard. There is assistance at my local train station that helps me board the train, find a seat and notifies St Pancras that I am on my way. I am met immediately at the other end by assistance who guide me to the underground and their staff. Straight away someone is available to assist me on to the tube and alerts Paddington to my arrival at the other end. However, once I have boarded the tube and travel a couple of stops an announcement informs us that the train will terminate earlier than planned and advises everybody to get off at the next stop. Quickly I am infused by a wave of panic as I know there is no assistance waiting for me to help me continue my journey. The tears start flowing and the general public rush to my aid, several people willing to help me. Before they can, a member of the underground staff lets me know he has called for another staff member to help me. I make it to Paddington and although I have missed my train connection, I am offered assistance instantly to get the next train that departs in 3 minutes time. They phone ahead to Reading to ensure that I am still met despite travelling on a later service and can get another connection to reach my final destination. When I reflect, it was completely unnecessary for me to have worried in the slightest and it turned out to be the perfect warm-up for the following day.

On Sunday, my return journey started off badly with a 20 minutes train delay. I made it back to St Pancras with the same seamless assistance as the previous day, only to discover that all trains back home had been cancelled. If this was Saturday I would have been hysterical, but this time I was able to keep my head. The StPancras staff member I was with was so helpful in ensuring I found an alternative route home even though his shift was just about to finish. I had to get back on the underground and made my way to Euston. Unfortunately I had narrowly missed my alternative train and had to wait nearly an hour for the next service. In this time someone was able to assist me to use the toilet and I watched in awe as the assistance hub worked tirelessly to make sure people caught their trains. They were clearly under staffed, but even when people arrived with very little time before their train they went above and beyond to enable them to catch it. A journey that was meant to take me about 3 hours instead took me over 6 and a half hours. It was mentally and physically exhausting as well as challenging. Nevertheless, I made it home thanks to dozens of people helping me on the way, both paid members of staff and the general public.

Unsurprisingly, the 6 and a half hour journey gave me lots of thinking time. The list below demonstrates some of the reasons why it is so good to be blind in Britain:

1. Train assistance
2. Disabled person’s railcard (1/3 discount on train fair)
3. National bus pass
4. Tactile markings on the pavement indicating a safe place to cross
5. Tactile spinning cone underneath controlled crossing boxes indicating when it is safe to cross
6. Braille in lifts
7. Braille on medication
8. Talking cash points (ATMs)
9. Audio description on TV, in the cinema and at the theatre
10. Guide Dogs and their right to access all public spaces
11. Disability benefits (DLA, PIP, ESA, Blind person’s tax allowance, disability working tax credit)
12. Access to Work Scheme
13. Discounts for leisure activities usually buy 1 get 1 free (cinema, concerts, theatre, theme parks and other attractions)
14. Specialist visually impaired hotels (Windermere, Teignmouth)
15. Specialist holiday companies (Traveleyes, Seeable)
16. Multiple charities that offer services (RNIB, VICTA, Look, Blind in Business etc)
17. RNIB library (free books in Braille, large print and audio)
18. Accessible menus in many restaurants (large print/Braille)
19. Access to top eye hospitals (Moorfields, Manchester Eye Hospital etc)
20. Accessible banking (talking pin century reader, bank statements in an accessible format)
21. Accessible voting
22. The general public (people aren’t scared to help)

Some people will grumble that the above doesn’t always work or go to plan and they are right, we don’t live in a perfect society. My argument is that we are incredibly privileged to have the option of such a vast variety of services and facilities that allows the visually impaired community to lead independent and fulfilling lives.

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