Three Utterly Empty Gestures Aimed at the Blind

 

You could say that any gesture aimed at the blind is an empty one. These are three of my favourites:

Relief Map of Edinburgh

A photo showing part of a bronze relief map with some of Edinburgh's streetscape in the background

This is a bronze relief map of Edinburgh, located at The Mound just off Prince’s Street

 

There is a plaque affixed to this bronze sculpture which reads:

PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF EDINBURGH BY THE STAFF OF MARKS & SPENCER, EDINBURGH IN 1984 TO MARK THE COMPANY’S CENTENARY. THIS RELIEF WAS CRAFTED TO ENABLE PEOPLE WITH IMPAIRED VISION TO ENJOY THE GRANDEUR OF THE CITY.

from Canmore.org.uk

This message is first in Braille, then in relief letters. Isn’t that nice? The important information, that this is a selfless gift from a thoughtful corporation to the poor deficient blindies for their edification and enjoyment, can be read by any literarte English-speaker.

Such a pity that the street names and all other text on the map is only in relief letters, not Braille. So you can count the many lumps and bumps that Edinburgh has to offer the curious traveller, but don’t expect any of those lumps and bumps to convey any useful information.

(I love Edinburgh, despite its cobbles and steps and impossible slopes. I first encountered this sculpture in 1995 while attending the Edinburgh Punk’s Picnic.)

 

Garden for the Blind, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin

A visitor reading the Braille signage in the garden for the blind in St Stephen's Green, Dublin City Centre

A visitor reading the Braille signage in the garden for the blind in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin City Centre. From Yelp.com

Original image on Yelp.com

In St Stephen’s Green, in the heart of Dublin, there is a garden for the blind. It’s safely tucked away from public eyes, in an out-of-the-way nook that you would never find if you didn’t know it was there.

In this little nook is a wall, a little taller than waist-height if you’re standing. Along that wall is a series of bronze plaques, each bearing the name of a plant in Braille and in relief letters. In fact, this was my first encounter with Braille in a public setting, before I had learned to read Braille, and I distinctly remember recognising the “S” by comparing the Braille with the Latin characters. The names of the plants include Lamb’s Ears, a furry-leaved plant I rmember from early childhood, and Lavender, a plant I still make any excuse to brush against.

What a lovely idea. In Dublin’s iconic city centre park, a place specially constructed for blind people to access and appreciate plant-life. Shame no-one told the gardeners. Any time I’ve been there, the plants nearest to those signs bear no relationship to the named plants. On at least one occasion, the nearest plants were spiky and unpleasant to touch and smell. Another good idea gone to waste!

TCD Arts Block

Two images side by side, on the left, of the Arts Block, Trinity College, Dublin, labelled "Bladerunner"; on the right,a screenshot from the movie BladeRunner, labelled "TCD Arts Block"

Spot the difference… From The Daily Edge

Modelled on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, apparently – but they used the wrong type of stone in the bricks, so they couldn’t grow plants in the cavernous ceiling blocks. But that doesn’t explain the Blade Runner motif running through the building, down to the blue toilet lights.

 Fiona Hyde, writing on TheDailyEdge.com

From September 1995 to November 2005, I studied Arts and Humanities in Trinity College, Dublin. All my lectures and tutorials took place in the infamous Arts Block. How to describe this award-winning architectural gem?
When I started, this was a 5 storey building. They built a 6thloor on top in the early 2000s, which meant I was travelling in an outdoor freight lift for a while. And nearly got carbon monoxide poisoning while taking an exam, since the builders’ generator was positioned directly in front of an air-vent intake. But I digress.
The first confusing thing about this building is that the floors are numbered using the  American system. So rather than having a ground floor with the first floor above it, you have level 1 with level 2 above it.
The second confusing thing is that the main floor, at street level, is level 2.
The third, and perhaps most baffling element of the design, is that each floor gets smaller as you ascend. This means there are fewer rooms on level 4 than on level 3.
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL!
Each room is given a 4-digit number, starting with the level number. So there was a tutorial room in the English Department numbered 4012, and the main Philosophy tutorial room was 5012.
But these rooms were not directly above one another, nor were they the same distance from the lift, nor were they in an analogous position in any way to one another. In fact, every floor in the Arts Block looks just similar enough to give you some sense of familiarity, but is laid out just differently enough to give a young person the experience of having dementia.
During my tenure, the room numbers were in black on a perspex panel screwed to the door near its top. Each door had a fluorescent light shining directly down on the door, with the effect that the closer you stood to the door, the more intense was the shine on this perspex panel, rendering the numbers even more invisible than their eye-level-for-giants positioning already did.
In one of my last terms there, one of my classes was scheduled in a room on level 3 I had never been in before. I think it even started 31**, rather than the cosy central 30**s, given it a truly exotic flavour. I don’t even know what the nearest Departmental office was. For the first time in nearly a decade, I decided to make use of something I had walked past repeatedly but never explored.
Tucked away in a discrete, out-of-the-way, randomly assigned corner of each floor was a big brown tactile floor-plan. I had stumbled across these – usually quite literally – on many occasions, thinking “Oh. That’s cool.”  Suddenly, I had the most genuine reason in the world to check it out.
“Ok, so this is the front of the building overlooking Fellow’s Square. So this must be the lift I’ve just come out of. I’ll see what the numbers are in the nearest corridor….”
“#1… #1… #1… Hmmm….”
“I’ll check these rooms further away from the lift. I’m pretty sure that’s the direction I need to go in….”
“#1… #1… #1…”
“…Oh…”
It turns out that this extravagant, visible, and probably costly, demonstration of how inclusive Trinity College was of its blind students was entirely without function. Or it may have had a function, (perhaps ticking a box on a funding form?), which had nothing to do with a blind person navigating the nightmare industrial-institutional fantasy that was, is, and ever shall be the Arts Block.
So there you have it. Three concrete (and bronze and paper) examples of how accessibility is not simply a question of building something and then forgetting about it. Nor is accessibility about non-disabled people deciding what would make their space more accessible without bothering to check with the people they are supposedly benefitting. My conclusion? That these monuments are a gift to the sighted public, so that they can feel smug and warm. And if we blindies and crips can’t make use out of these graciously bestowed gifts, we’re obviously not trying hard enough.

 

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Updates: MY GOVERNMENT IS KEEPING ME UNDER HOUSE ARREST

Since publishing this blog post on Friday, I have done this radio interview with local station, Ocean FM:

Then, sitting in the doctor’s waiting room this evening, I heard this segment on RTE Radio 1’s Drivetime:

DriveTime – RTE Radio 1 – Monday 22nd August: Home Care Services

I have e-mailed the programme to point out the connection between the two stories. However, I don’t use Twitter! So please feel free to tweet @DriveTimeRTE

ORIGINAL POST:

Here is a letter I sent to the Physical and Sensory Disability service in the North-West this week:

 

12th August, 2016

Re: Emergency increase in Personal Assistance hours for client with multiple disabilities

To whom it may concern:

I am writing to request an urgent increase in Personal Assistance (PA) hours until early 2017. I am visually impaired and have restricted physical mobility, meaning that I need to use a guide dog and a powerchair to leave my own house for medical appointments, shopping, banking and participating in society. I have outlined the nature of my disabilities and their impact on my daily life in the attached Disability Impact Statement, and my specific requirements from a Personal Assistant in the attached form.

My current guide dog has had to retire due to health concerns. Due to my unusual set of needs, a succession dog will not be available to work with me until early 2017. This leaves me with severely restricted mobility in the interim.

As well as providing sighted guidance for mobility outside the home, my specially-trained dog provided additional mobility assistance within the home. The loss of this essential part of my independent living toolkit therefore has a significant and acute impact on my daily life.

I live alone, and currently have 15 PA hours per week, which are almost entirely used for assistance with personal care, housework and, to a minimal degree, accessing print materials within my own home. I already have very limited access to any assistance with transport or tasks outside the home. Having no assistance dog now means I am restricted to a few essential journeys very close to home (within 1-2 km) on familiar routes with good environmental accessibility.

In my current situation, I cannot visit my parents in Dublin, visit any friends’ houses or participate in many recommended theraputic activities e.g. a group singing project organised by the mental health service to which I was referred by the occupational therapist. If I drop, spill or break something on the floor, I may have to wait for 23 hours before a PA is available to clear it up or find essential items for me. When I need to make a medical appointment, I have to wait until a friend with a car is present before I can arrange a time that I can attend.

The interaction of my visual impairment with my mobility impairment means that I am in an unusually challenging position. These impairments combine in unique and often unforeseen ways to create complex barriers to my participation in society and living independently. As such, they should be understood as a form of “third impairment”, with needs distinct from people with only a physical or a sensory disability. The combination of Personal Assistance, powerchair and guide-dog is an essential tool for my independent living. Without that special combination, I am unable to leave my front door by myself. Without a working guide-dog, I urgently need a much higher degree of Personal Assistance to maintain my level of independence.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours,

Isolde Carmody

 

Within 24 hours of writing that letter, my cat puked somewhere in my bedroom. I couldn’t see where, but boy could I smell it! There would be no PA available to clear it up for me for another 18 hours. Despite keeping my bedroom door closed (the smell was truly awful), my retired guide-dog got in there and helpfully licked up some of the vomit. Since I didn’t know where the vomit was, or whether the dog had eaten all of it, I slept on the sofa that night. The next day, my retired dog was off his food, and had diarrhoea, thankfully in the garden. My PA that morning couldn’t find the vomit, partly because she doesn’t understand animals, so it was 48 hours later that the last of the vomit was cleaned up.

Today, I was told that no new hours had been approved for me. I can’t leave my house. And I won’t be able to go anywhere further than 1 or 2 km until some unspecified time in 2017.

THIS IS ILLEGAL DETENTION

We Forgot to Invite You – The Cruelty of Exclusion Through Thoughtlessness

A few years ago, I had a series of nightmares in which I was forgotten. One involved a group of my best friends getting together and going on my favourite radio show, and I heard the broadcast. They thought it would be a great treat for me, but I was deeply distressed that they never thought to invite me to participate in the show itself.

This is a feeling I encounter on a pretty regular basis. I get left out of the things I most want to be involved in because someone – or a whole series of someones – never thought to include me in the activity. Most usually, this is through genuine ignorance or forgetfulness, but that can feel more personally hurtful than explicit prejudice.

This is most often encountered via technology and new media. The scramble to optimise content for smart-phones has left non-visual learners and visually impaired people out of the picture from first principles. What I mean by that is that newer technological interfaces are deeply based on visual interactions. This is in contrast to traditional operating systems which are based on structured text. Text and code are much more open to non-visual representation.

I don’t have a smart-phone. I used to have an amazing mobile phone on the Symbian operating system which was one of the best accessibility aids I’ve ever used. It is irreperably broken now (it’s the motherboard that’s gone!), and I feel like I’ve been left ten years behind the rest of the world. I can no longer get a smart-phone type device without a touch-screen.

There are applications which purport to make touch-screen phones usable by the blind and visually impaired, but I can’t see the value in them. Sending a text message on a touch-screen phone would be like asking a life-long touch-typist (which I also am) to type documents using a point-and-click on-screen keyboard. Now, I know people who have written books using a foot-controlled pointer to pick out words letter-by-letter, but that was thirty years ago. For me, the sensible way to send a text is using the old numeric keypad. It’s galling to be asked to slow down my technological interactions by such a significant factor for the sake of sighted users getting to their information a wee bit quicker.

As my dear friend Felicity Ford put it, the exclusion of non-visual technology users from the smart-tech revolution is equivalent to a shiny new public building going up with flights of steps everywhere. Maybe they will put a ramp in, or maybe wheelies will have to find the servant’s entrance, ring a bell, wait for the back door to be unlocked and negotiate ten minutes of corridors and tiny lifts just to get into the public foyer. And by the time you get into the foyer, you discover that the people you wanted to meet up with have gone out to the smoking area, which is down a fire-escape. You’re left hanging out the door shouting down to your friends. Not the most inclusive feeling in the world.

I encounter both these forms of thoughtless exclusion at least once a day. The one that made me cry most recently was when I was told about a major public meeting discussing the exclusion of women in Irish theatre. I was told about the Dublin-based meeting the day before, and my first concern was that I can’t really travel across the country with less than 24 hours notice. I wouldn’t be able to arrange P.A. time to pack a bag, the train journey would be exhausting and painful, I probably couldn’t book an accessible hotel-room in Dublin less than a week in advance… it’s just not feasible unless I want to be out of commission for a week.

The promotion for this meeting and the associated campaign was largely done via Twitter. I don’t use Twitter. It’s centred around smart-phone users continuously scanning a huge volume of text to pick out relevant details. Any time I’ve encountered tweets over e-mail or other websites, I can’t make any sense of the constant abbreviations, hash-tags, usernames or links to pictures or articles. So I just don’t bother.

When I looked up the associated blog for this campaign, the first thing I discovered was that the tickets for the meeting were already sold out. However, there was a message saying they would try to set up live-streaming for the event, and that there would be tweets sent out over the course of the meeting.

The morning of the meeting, I checked my e-mail and the website to see if there was a link for streaming. There wasn’t. The website said to visit their Twitter feed for links to streaming. I tried going onto Twitter using a web browser, and was utterly overwhelmed by the volume of text, with no clear way of finding the one piece of information I was looking for. Lucky for me, I was on Skype with the wonderful Felix, and even before I asked her, she found the link to the stream.

That link brought me to yet another social media site, but it said I needed Flash to run the streaming (which I already have installed) and suggested using Chrome instead. I don’t know how to use Chrome with JAWS, so I exited Firefox and opened the link with Internet Explorer. There, the page said to try Firefox or Chrome, so I could guess where this chain was leading. It became clear from the streaming site that it was set up to run via smart-phones. The meeting had already been on for half an hour at that point, so I gave up and started to cry.

That was a morning’s work to get nowhere. Five years ago, I would have had it easier. For one thing, web accessibility was all the rage. We had the W3 accessibility guidelines, and companies like Google and Microsoft were busy building in screen-reader features to websites and applications. Then, tablets and smartphones became the huge money-spinner. The sighted world has leapt ahead in terms of communication, information access and entertainment, while non-visual learners find themselves left even further behind than we were in 2010. Assistive technology has come on in leaps and bounds since then, but all the development has had to focus on compensating for an increasingly visual world.

So I repeatedly encounter the feeling that my friends, or potential friends, are throwing these great parties. Some of these parties are upstairs with no lift access. Most of the time, they just forget to invite me.

The Case for Braille

Thanks to the luscious Felicia Day and her Facebook followers, I have just discovered 64 Oz Games. This is a small company creating Braille add-ons for board- and card-games. As well as bringing attention to the service, I wanted to share this particular post about why Braille is the best tool for VIP access to printed materials. It also suggests that the more Braille is available, the more VIPs will learn to use it. This is something I think really needs to be promoted.

In Ireland, services for the visually impaired are still largely constructed on a medical model. I got totally fed up of being encouraged to use my “residual vision”. The assumption was of acquired sight los, and that it was better to be as “normal” as possible, not giving in to the blindness label. This is very close to the approach of doctors and physiotherapists suggesting anything rather than using a wheelchair. That’s even if not using a wheelchair makes you so exhausted and pain-ridden that your life becomes a round of therapy, exercise and pain management, with nothing else to give your life actual meaning. Sure, I could use the vision I have, and take 2 hours to read one page of print, then have to rest for days before reading the next page. I’d much rather read in a non-visual format, using my “residual vision” to appreciate how the sunset looks this evening.

Anyway, Here’s the blog post!

Why Such A Focus on Braille? – 64 oz games

Web Accessibility – why bother?

So you have a working computer, an internet connection and some assistive technology.  That means you can access any webpage, right?

Wrong

It can be hard to explain what “web accessibility” is all about.  I thought I might furnish you with a couple of examples and a couple of general pointers. First, the examples…

Bouncers of the Internet – No blacks, No dogs, No blindies!

I’m sure you will have come across a “captcha” – that image of warpified text that claims to sort the machines from the humans.  Maybe you’ve even had a whinge about how difficult they can be to see.  If you don’t know what I’m on about, here’s an example from a Google page:

Screenshot of a visual captcha window from Google
Google Visual Captcha

I tried to understand the audio alternative about 15 times, then started to record my effort.  Bear in mind that I use JAWS, a screen-reading program that gives me audio feedback about what’s happening on my screen.  Every time you hear the word “Enter” and a slight pause, I have tried to submit my effort.  Instead of hearing the same audio again, a new audio file loads. I will give you some kind of prize if you think you can understand the words in any of the 16 captcha samples on this audio recording:

And that’s assuming the Captcha challenge even has an audio alternative, and that the button to request the audio alternative is tagged so that JAWS can detect it. These are by no means givens.

PDF – the universal format

PDF has come to be a standard way to access all kinds of texts. Sometimes, I receive a PDF attachment to an e-mail, which is supposed to carry all the information the sender wishes to communicate with me. Often, PDFs are used online for brochures and publicity – often graphics-heavy publications. They are also the standard format for academic papers and articles.

PDFs have plenty of accessibility features… if the author of the document has bothered to use them. More often, the author is concerned with how the text looks on the page, with neither thought nor care for the underlying code that orders the text. Weird things can happen to words in the most straightforward documents, with headings read as if each letter were on a separate line.

Here’s an example of how JAWS interacted with a price list for spa treatments. See if you can figure out what any of those treatments were or how much they cost…

Universal Access to All Knowledge?

The biggest kick in the teeth has to be my attempt to continue academic work. There are digital and online resources available now that I would have given selected body parts for when I was still officially a student. At the time, which is over 10 years ago now, I even attended conferences about digital humanities specifically to make known how they would be indispensible from an access point of view.

However, the effectiveness of digitisation varies wildly. The wonderful Internet Archive project, of which I’m a huge fan, still has no accessible means (i.e. keyboard-only) of uploading content. A search result has to be navigated using “G” to find graphics, rather than marking search result headers as headings. And then there’s the quality of the digitised texts themselves…

The quality of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software seems to have progressed incredibly slowly down the years. Many OCR Engines seem to imagine that long text documents use an awful lot more random punctuation than I’ve ever come across. Exclamation marks (!) often appear instead of letters I and L, and capitalisation seems a matter of taste rather than of syntax. The word “arc” is apparently more commonly used than the word “are”… I could go on. Really. I could.

The fact is, if OCR is to have ANY value, it needs to be proof-read by a human being. Even then, JAWS will pick up the odd lower-case L that has been mistaken for an upper-case I. But just scanning a book and lobbing it up on the internet does not count as “Universal Access to All Knowledge”.

I have no desire to single out the Internet Archive as an offender. As I said, I love the project. It’s what the Internet was sent from Heaven to achieve. The most recent culprit (and I find at least one a week) for bad access I’ve run into (face-first) is Academia.edu. Never mind invisible buttons and menus that can’t easily be reached. Here’s an article I tried to read this evening. Apparently, it’s about Disability Arts. Here’s what JAWS says:

And here’s a few screen shots. I use visual themes on my PC which hurt my eyes less when I need to read the screen (at least I can still do that). The size of the text at the top of the first image should give you an idea of how big it has to be before I can read it. My mum uses similar settings, although she doesn’t use screen-reading software. So this is pretty much what she’d be faced with:

NOTE: This is NOT the fault of contributers to the site. It’s down to the programmers.

First Screenshot showing a paper on Academia.edu

Second Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Third Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Fourth Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

Fifth Screen shot from a paper on Academia.edu

That’s all I have the energy for right now. This is a big topic, and it affects me every single day of my life. No doubt, I’ll need to rant on it again soon…

Local Coverage – A Small Step toward World Domination

Here’s a quick interview I did on local radio station, Ocean FM, for World Sight Day, Thursday 10th October. My less-than-15-minutes starts around 42 minutes into the show.

https://soundcloud.com/oceanfm/north-west-today-thurs-10th#t=42:00

Mobility Allowance Scrapped

This was posted by my dear friend, Kiwi Katie, in her blog on her business site, Adaptable Solutions.  Katie works as an accessibility and inclusion consultant, and is not a woman to mess with!  She rants so well that I thought it simpler to re-post what she has written about the scrapping of the Mobility Allowance and Motorised Transport Grant.

Pile of Rubbish

Yesterday, the Department of Health confirmed mobility allowance and motorised transport grants would be scrapped, despite Ombudsman recommendation for them to be widened to include people 66 and over.

Worryingly it has taken 13 years, since the introduction of the Equal Status Acts, to realize that people with disabilities exist both under and over the age of 66. Did they imagine that a disabled driver suddenly would not require modifications to their car, over the age of 66? Or that people over 66 never develop disabilities? Honestly, this notion alone is quite laughable.

Assurances have been made that the €10.6 million fund, formerly earmarked for the mobility allowance and motorised transport grants, will be utilised to meet the transport need of people with disabilities. However if this was sufficient to meet the needs of all people with disabilities then the scope of these supports would have simply been widened, as recommended. No matter which way you look at it, the 5000 people that currently rely on these supports will face cuts.

As a wheelchair user and a business owner, I simply couldn’t live my life or do my job without access to a modified vehicle. As a rural dweller, even if public transport was universally accessible, the nearest inaccessible bus stop is over a mile away and services are limited to twice daily.

Whilst the government is all too willing to consider the financial ramifications of the Ombudsman’s ruling, they seem to be completely ignoring the social implications. People are being made prisoners in their own homes and this will impact on society as a whole.

People with disabilities are: Parents whose children rely on them to drive to schools, clubs etc.; Employees / Employers trying to get to work; Consumers that play a vital role in the local economy; Over 65’s with family and community roles that continue long into retirement; Children whose unlimited potential is being stifled.

What is most abhorrent is that the value of people, with disabilities (and their families), has been completely dismissed. In a time when the government is aggressively pursuing measures to bolster domestic activity, people with disabilities are isolated. Continuous cuts in supports and services render full participation in society and the economic recovery, further and further from possible. Not only is this counterproductive, it is simply cruel!

Free Travel!!!!!!!!!! (terms and conditions apply)

In Ireland, people on various state supports are entitled to a Free Travel pass for public transport.  That’s great – and a scheme I think should be spread throughout the EU.  At least, it would be great if not for a few hiccups…

This evening, I arrived at Carrick on Shannon train station, intending to go to Sligo for a NW LGBT Pride meeting.  Now, due to the train timetable, I was due to arrive in Sligo 10 minutes after the meeting was due to start, and I was facing having to find a decent wheelchair accessible taxi once I got to Sligo so that I’d have a chance to get to the meeting before it ended.  But one hurdle at a time…

As usual, the relevant part of Carrick train station was closed.  This turns the station into a platform with a bit of shelter from the rain.  No access to the toilets, no facility to get a ticket before getting onto the train, no possibility of making enquires.  And no one to unlock the little shed where they keep the wheelchair ramp.  But nothing unexpected there – we can’t expect Iarnróid Éireann to pay station masters sufficiently so that they turn up for 10 minutes or so every couple of hours.  I’m sure the station masters have plenty of other essential jobs to be doing…

The next step was a phonecall.  Now usually, I’m heading to Dublin, and I ring the Information Desk at Connelly Station.  This used to work fine, but I think there’s been some kind of change of personnel.  I’ve rung up a number of times lately and said; “Hello.  I’m a wheelchair user, and I’m getting the [insert time here] train from Carrick on Shannon to Dublin.  Could you contact the train to let them know I need a ramp to get onto the train?”  That used to be enough.  More recently, though, I’ve got responses like; “Ok……………….” or “You have to ring Carrick train station” or “What do you want me to do?”.  It can take a bit of convincing and repetition to get these staff members to make one simple call.  In fact, it makes no sense to expect us to call the particular train station we’re travelling from or to on a particular day.  Would we expect a tourist to magically have this information?  Indeed, I’m no tourist, but I don’t have the number for Sligo station in my phone.  So I rang the Iarnróid Éireann customer information line, and was on hold for about 10 minutes.

When a human being finally came onto the line, I gave the usual patter: “Hello.  I’m a wheelchair user and I want to get the train from Carrick on Shannon to Sligo.  I’m at Carrick station now and there’s no-one here.  Can you call the train to let them know I need a ramp to get on board?”  As usual, I immediately had to repeat this – I don’t think people listen to the first part of what I say, and are clearly incapable of deducing that I’m a wheelchair user from the request for a ramp.  When the person on the other end of the line finally understood my simple request, he seemed unsure of why I was asking him.  He commented that I should book several hours in advance.  Now, when I started using a wheelchair, I tried to do this.  The response was either; “Call us back closer to the time”, or “Call the train station you’re travelling from”.  That’s when I saved the direct phone number to the Connelly Station information desk to my phone, and why I gave up following the “official” guidelines.  Besides which, there is usually a ramp at the station itself and on the train – that’s how they get the tea trolley on board.

When I explained to this guy that there was no point ever trying to ring Carrick and that I didn’t have the number for Sligo, he still seemed reluctant to take any action.  I asked if he could call the train, and he said “I’ll see what I can do”, which doesn’t inspire great confidence.  He was let off the hook by the train pulling into the station at that moment, as he said, “Someone on the train will probably help you.”  Great.  Thanks.

The guys (and gals!) who work on the train itself between Dublin and Sligo are fantastic, and they know me well by now.  Shortly after the train pulled in, three guys, including the train driver, were on the platform to sort me out.  They went up and down the train to find out where the ramp was stashed, but to no avail.  I commented that the ramp was used to get the trolley on board, but apparently the ramp had been left behind at another station.  The lads then got on the phone to raise the elusive station manager – no joy.  It started to piss with rain, a serious tropical downpour, and the lads conferred about what we should do. Pretty immediately, they offered to order a taxi for me, saying that the previous week there was someone at Boyle station who had to get a taxi to Dublin, all paid for by IÉ.  It was coming up to 15 minutes after the train was supposed to leave, and I was dubious of being able to get an accessible taxi at that time of the evening.  It could have been up to an hour waiting on the train platform, followed by an arduous journey in a taxi without the snack food and tea I was depending on getting from the infamous tea trolley.  So I declined their offer, promising to write and e-mail of complaint, waited for the rain to abate and wended my way home.

This is far from the worst train travel experience I’ve had in the last 6 months.  One evening, getting the last train from Carrick to Dublin, it was the usual scenario of no-one home at Carrick station.  When the train pulled in, I was waiting a while for a ticket inspector to emerge.  Finally, the driver himself came out, as there was NO OTHER STAFF MEMBER on the train.  He and another passenger found the ramp, got it out and put it in front of the train door.  In hindsight, I was a little uncertain of the ramp’s stability, but didn’t say anything.  [I tend to operate on the “passing as blind” basis in these situations: if I “give away” that I have some sight, then I won’t get the assistance I need to deal with my visual impairment.  And it’s come to my attention that using a wheelchair tends to trump having a guide-dog: it was only when the staff at the Hotel Isaacs in Dublin offered me assistance based on the visual impairment that I realised how little of that support I get these days.]  So I started up the ramp.  When my front wheels landed on the train, the back wheels shot the ramp out from under me and landed on the platform.  It turns out that these ramps have a strip of grippy stuff at the end to hold the top edge of the ramp in place, but it only has it on one side.  The ramp had been put on the wrong way around.  How was the poor train driver to know this?  Is it so hard to design a ramp that works equally well whichever way round it is?  So I was sitting half on the train and half on the platform, taking a few moments to be thankful that Carrick is NOT one of the many stations around the country with a yawning chasm of doom between the train and the platform.  The driver and the helpful passenger somehow managed to lift the heavy back end of my chair and enable me to get all the way into the train, even though at the time I didn’t want them to touch the chair.  In  power chair, you have a low centre of gravity, and an assistant can’t help to push you unless the motor is disengaged, so it’s rare that someone else pushing or lifting can be of any help.  And my concern is that someone rushes to help and then I drive over and break their foot, or they break their back trying to manoeuvre the unweildy bulk that is the chair.  My usual comment is: “I’m not going to share the chair!”

That incident left me quite shaken, and since then, whenever a ramp is put down for me, I ask someone to put their foot on the bottom to keep it steady.  But that’s not actually the worst experience of the last six months.

The DART Incident

My oldest friend in the world got married earlier this year.  For her hen night, afternoon tea was arranged at a posh hotel in Killiney the Saturday after St. Patrick’s Day.  This worked well for me, as I was to be in Dublin to go to Áras an Úachtaráin on Paddy’s Day itself.  Getting there was a whole ‘nother story…

I was staying at Hotel Isaacs right beside Busáras, where I was treated really well by the hotel staff as well as the restaurant.  The former were delighted that my assistance dog was called Isauq like their hotel; and the latter were fascinated by a dog enjoying crunchy carrots, on one occasion delivered in person by the manager.  It seemed simplicity itself to get the DART from Connelly station across the road to Killiney station, but I still rang my pals at the Connelly info desk to be sure to be sure.  I got the usual “Sure, just come over to the desk when you get here.”  Which I did.

Now, there was some big match on that day, and Connelly was pretty busy, but that’s not unusual for a city centre station on a Saturday.  I went to the desk, repeated my request, and was led over to the DART platform and successfully deposited on the train.  All well and good.

The train pulled into Killiney station, which I was actually aware of since they’ve finally got audio announcements on the DART (they didn’t for years – a real pain for VIPs!).  I made my way to the carriage doors, pressed the button and the doors slid open.  I sat and waited for someone to come with a ramp.  Nothing happened.  I looked down at the platform, six inches away from me, but utterly impossible to get to.  The doors started to close.  I pressed the “Open” button repeatedly, but with no effect.  The doors slid closed in front of my face and the train pulled away again.  “Ok,” I thought to myself.  “We’re not far from the terminus at Bray.  I’ll get off there, make a complaint and get the next DART back to Killiney.”

The DART pulled into Bray, and the train emptied its passengers.  I waited by the door again.  Again, I looked at the platform immediately in front of me, that might as well have been 20 miles away.  The doors started to close again.  I repeated the futile button pushing, probably saying “No! No! No!”, and started to shake and cry.  The DART pulled away again, then stopped a short istance from the station, and went silent.  I lit a cigarette and called the Connelly information desk again.  I did my best to explain the situation, although I’m pretty sure I used the phrase “I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do.”  I spotted a staff member walking past the dormant train, but he didn’t seem to notice me.  Connelly said they’d contact Bray station and get me sorted out.  Shortly after that, the driver of the DART came back and apologised to me profusely. He told me that a passenger who’d got off at Bray told them I was still on board.  The “system” [a term I use quite loosely here] is that whover puts you on the DART tells the driver where you’re going and whereabouts on the train you are.  No one had told this driver I was there.  He told me to stay on board, that he’d be returning to Bray shortly, and that he did.  At Bray, other staff members came to talk to me.  They were furious that they hadn’t been told I was on the train.  They also told me that there was no staff at Killiney station, and that the best thing would be to get off at Shankill and they’d get me a taxi to Killiney

At Shankill, I finally got off the train.  The station master called for an accessible taxi for me, which only took an hour to arrive.  Throughout this time, I was also calling my friends at the hen party, who were also trying to find a taxi to get me there.  The taxi driver, when he arrived, was genuinely helpful and sympathetic: he was also the first taxi driver I’ve had who bothered to tie the chair down in the back of the taxi.

I had a great evening wit my friends, although the hotel itself was a bit of an access nightmare, with weird lifts, entry and exits via a disused, unlit lobby, and the most ridiculous adventure through back corridors and 45 degree ramps to get to have a cigarette.

My journey home was not nearly so traumatic, although there was a good reason for this.  The station master at Shankill put me on the DART in a carriage which was marked with the wheelchair symbol.  As I pulled in beside the door, I noticed a handy little intercom, enabling someone like me to contact the driver in the event of, say, not being able to get off the fucking train.

So, those are the highlights of my Free Travel over the last six months.  There are plenty more stories from farther in the past, and I’m sure there’s many more delightful anecdotes to come.

Please, sir, may I come in?

Bad Access is Bad Business

Here are some questions you can ask a venue or a service provider to find out if what they’re offering is genuinely accessible:

 

1)          Does your premises have level access from the street?

>  [i.e. no step or lip at the front door]

 

2)          If there is a step or lip, is there a ramp available at the premises to allow a wheelchair user to enter?

 

3)          Is there an accessible toilet on your premises?

>  Is the accessible toilet and the area leading to it kept clear of cleaning equipment? [Many premises treat an accessible toilet as a broom-cupboard, which means it isn’t actually accessible]

>  Is the accessible toilet clearly signed and kept unlocked? [If an accessible toilet is habitually kept locked, it can mean that someone wishing to use it has to “ask permission” to use the toilet, or the key can get “lost”!]

 

4)          If the premises has more than one floor, is there lift or ramped access to every level of the building which is open to the public? [e.g. the Garravogue in Sligo is mostly accessible, except for the “Library Lounge”, which has a few steps to it, and no ramp on the premises.]

 

5)          Is there a member of staff at the front desk who can greet and guide people? [A helpful member of staff who will ask anyone if they would like assistance can make up for a great deal of bad architecture!]

 

These are just a few questions which will get you a clearer response than just asking “Is your premises accessible?|.  By asking these questions any time you are scheduling an event, then more and more businesses become aware of what makes a real difference to people with disabilities, and people who are simply having a bad day!

A Grand Day Out

So, I realise it’s about half a year since I last ranted on this blog.  For my adoring public, my deepest apologies.  There’s no excuse, I just haven’t been bothered with it.  This does not mean that life as a wheelchair-using guide-dog-owner has been peachy.  Read on, if you want to be billiously outraged.

One day out in Dublin and Carrick on Shannon

 

I recently ventured down to the Big Schmoke to attend a meeting.  The trusty Merita and Quasi were my companions, and the train journey was not unbearable.  The staff of CIE have clearly had some pretty harsh training on how to deal with those awkward people who insist on having disabilities.  Of course, some of the staff are just decent human beings with an ounce of common sense, but even those members of staff who panic at the sight of anything out of the ordinary have been whipped into shape, and are, overall, genuinely helpful and have a fair idea of what to do when faced with a Crip.

Even better, though, was my tame taxi driver in Dublin.  He has a sister with a disability ( not a surprise – most people who work in the disability sector do so because of a personal experience, rather than a passionate commitment to equality), and is cheerful, helpful, CHEAP and honest.  He got me from Harold’s Cross to Temple Bar in 20 minutes, including loading Merita on and off the taxi.  Hooray for these decent people – they make life that bit more bearable.

After the meeting, the fun really began.  I had a few hours around town before meeting a friend, so I thought I might go SHOPPING.  I have commented more than once that it’s just as well that most charity shops are small, overcrowded and pokey, because if they were spacious, vast and accessible, I’d be a lot broker than I already am.  But I made a good stab at going around a few stalls, inadvertently destroying several display stands, using my lap as a shopping basket until the contents pour all over the floor, and generally having to say “EXCUSE ME” very loudly and repeatedly.

Then, the greatest challenge for a wheelchair-using guide-dog-owning person when out for the day – where can the dog and I go for a wee?  Being an alumnus of a certain city centre university, and having lived on campus there for a few years with said dog, I thought, “Ah, sure, I know where there’s a loo in there, and Quasi knows where there are some convenient bushes”.  (Bushes convenient for her, not for me, although not out of the question if desparate).

So in we trundled to the hideous 1960’s Arts Block of the unnamed city centre university, and headed to the secret lift (“we couldn’t have just anyone [st]rollingin to our premisis as if it was a national monument”) to avoid the baffling number of unnecessary steps between the street level and the toilets.  But before I got to the lift, a friendly blue sign told me I didn’t need to navigate the lift in order to relive myself of my biological burden.  A little experimentation later revealed a sign (not in Braille, of course) telling me to go back to the desk to ask permission to go to the toilet.  Off I went, and was presented with a bunch of keys.  I asked which would open the toilet, and was told “Ah, any of them will do it”.  Back I went to the hip-width, wheel-depth corridor which unnecessarily promised “access” to the locked toilet.  Now, I don’t have swollen joints, I don’t have a degenerative neurological condition that affects my dexterity, I don’t have Parkinsonian shakes, but it still took about 10 minutes of trying each key several times before I succeeded in inserting one which actually turned.  Then, it was simply a matter of super-human strength to turn the locking mechanism itself, and gymnastic manouevering (with a 360-point turn), to get my click, petite wheelchair in the door.  Closing the door behind me was similarly fun, due to the two wheelchairs being stored in this “accessible” toilet; presumably in case two paralytic students knacker themselves shagging in there and have to be wheeled back to their rooms.

The deed got done in any case, and even Quasi found a convenient corner (outside) after a bone-rattling trundle across the cobbles.  I’m sure there are those who might derive pleasure from this experience, but for me, it was just a teeth-gritting chore for which I was glad to have an empty bladder.  Next stop was my bank, my “home” branch, only 100 miles or so from where I live, since banks are incapable of transferring records within their own business within a single jurisdiction.  I took this opportunity to visit the bank because my local branch (about 1 mile from where I actually live) failed to remove the 20cm step at their front door when they did their expensive refit last year, rendering the friendly wheelchair-signs on their automatic doors completely redundant.

The “home” branch of my bank, being in Dublin city centre, is an old building, and that’s ok if a bit of thought is put into internal layout.  In this case, it meant a cargo-lift to surmount the 5 or so steps to the business level.  I squeezed into it, with Quasi being particularly crushed, but could not reach the 6 foot or so behind me to pull the non-automatic door closed so that the lift could operate.  A passerby did the honours this time, and we jerked in an impressively low-tech fashion up to the main level.  No assistance was offered by staff to help me find a free counter, or navigate the bizarre maze of head-height (waist-height to a mobile adult male) ropes that took random twists just so that Quasi would get confused, continue in a straight line, and clothes-line me into unconsciousness.  Managing to avoid this peril, I found an attended counter which only came up to about my chin.  I made my 30 second transaction, and then attempted to leave.  The lift again.  I got in (bearing in mind that my luscious powerchair is more compact that a manual wheelchair I previously used, and that I am not large), with Quasi squished in beside me.  I got us down, where a woman with a buggy was waiting to use the lift to go up.  The door wouldn’t open.  I fiddled with every button at my disposal, including bring the lift up a bit and then down again.  The door still wouldn’t open.  I pressed the alarm bell, which succeeded in deafening me and the dog.  I fiddled with more buttons, tried brute force on the door, with the woman on the other side doing likewise.  I pressed the alarm bell TWICE MORE with NO EFFECT.  It was another attempt at taking off and landing again that finally got the door open, and I left the premises with no sign of any member of the bank staff responding to the air-raid siren of the lift alarm.

I AM NOT IMPRESSED!!
In fact, I am changing bank, since I can’t physically enter either my “home” branch or my local branch.  So much for 15 years of custom.

The rest of the day was fine, until I got back to my home-town of Carrick and had to run the gauntlet of The BridgeThere is barely enough space here for two mobile, slim adults to pass each other on the pavement, let alone a chair and a dog trying to pass a buggy or ten tourists or an idiot with two insane yappy-type dogs intent on savaging Quasi while dancing into on-coming traffic.  But that’s just an everyday occurrence round here, along with pavements slanting in three plains with a carefully-placed lamp-post exactly in the middle of the pavement, with some exciting pavement potholes and random placing of pavement dishes.  But that’s just the price I pay for choosing to be crippled in a small rural town with no funding from central government and rocketing unemployment.  Silly me!!