It’s my f**king money….

This post is going to be about what it’s like to manage your money while blind. I’m sure there is plenty of prurient interest in the best way to scam a blindy, but I’m not going to cover that here. I am going to talk about just how useless, ableist and thoughtless government agencies and banks are when it comes to treating us as human beings with rights like everyone else.

My metaphorical eye (actually my ear) was caught by this Irish Times headline on 7th April 2020:

Coronavirus: Lack of electronic transfers for blind allowance causing hardship

The article by Social Affairs correspondant, Kitty Holland, was discussing the piecemeal approach of the HSE when it comes to issuing the Blind Welfare Allowance.  Some regions are offering to issue the payment via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT), while other regions persist in sending out a physical cheque, which needs to be taken to a physical bank branch and physically lodged into an account. In this era of social distancing, self-isolation and cocooning, this presents a real challenge to blind people trying to stay healthy.

But the problems are deeper, further back in time and more bizarrely convoluted than that. Strap yourselves in…

You’re blind, not disabled….

If you are “registered blind” in Ireland, you are special. I mean that in the worst possible way. In terms of social welfare supports, we’re not treated like other disabled people. We receive the Blind Persons’ Pension, not a Disability Benefit. As the “Pension” part of our payment suggests, the payment is managed by the Old Age Pension office – just one of many examples of structural ableism, lumping the disabled and the elderly together. I’ve been a pensioner since I was 18.

Here’s one example of just how ludicrous that system is. While I was at university, I went onto the “Back to Education Allowance” – another misnomer, as I had been in education continuously since the age of 2. The allowance meant I could access an annual book allowance, and could essentially hang on to all my other benefits. When I finally left university, I was setting up as a self-employed sole trader, and wanted to switch onto the “Back to Work (Enterprise) Allowance”. Again, a misnomer, as I hadn’t been technically unemployed. Again, this was a scheme that facilitated me hanging on to benefits while setting myself up as self-employed. Imagine the day when I rang up the Old Age Pension office:

“Hello; I’m currently on the Back to Education Allowance, and I want to switch to the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance.”

“Ummm…. Hang on there while I transfer you to someone else.”

I got transferred about 5 times. Sure why would anyone in the Old Age Pension office know the first thing about either Educational or Work benefits?

So what’s this Welfare Allowance thing?

Good question. On top of the weekly Blind Pension, whereby I qualify essentially for the maximum amount of social welfare, there’s a means-tested Blind Welfare Allowance. I get this monthly, and it’s meant to “offset the additional costs associated with being blind”.  It’s not enough to pay for specialised eyewear, magnification, Braille production, assistive technology or even having a working iPhone, (rapidly becoming the de facto do-everything assistive bit of kit for blindies). My Welfare Allowance tends to cover getting an order of toiletries, some books, new underwear…. anything that isn’t a daily or weekly expense, but requires a bit of capital. Shouldn’t that kind of thing be covered by the weekly basic payment? Yes; yes it should, as many people on emergency benefits during the Covid-19 crisis have discovered. As soon as there was a massive increase in the number of people signing on for unemployment benefits, those who expected their jobs back afterwards kicked up shit about how little money they were expected to live on, and the government increased that payment from €220 per week to €350 per week.

I dream of such riches.

But there’s Braille on ATMs, right?

On to the banks. These are becoming less accessible as time goes on. The Braille markings on ATMs are really just adding insult to injury. Fine, I can tell that this is button number 1 and that is button number 6. But there’s no way in hell of finding out what those buttons actually do. I once tried to use an ATM that had a little headphone socket to hear what  was on the screen. In fact, I deliberately moved my account to that bank (which no longer exists) because they had a lovely ramp up to their door, push-button doors into the branch and this magic ATM. Imagine my surprise when no audio came through my headphones. It might have had audio information when it was first installed, but no-one had checked that it was still working. They might never have checked it at all.

But I’m sure many bankers have seen those Braille-marked buttons and assumed that it made the machines totally accessible. The concept can be quite difficult to explain to Ableds. I once had to explain to a local authority that their info-terminals were no use to a VIP, even with JAWS installed. If you can’t see the touchscreen, how do you know which part of the screen to touch to make it talk?

Then there’s the increased automation of bank transactions; a transparent move by corporations to save money by employing fewer humans. This is the same trend that has seen smaller, rural branches cut to destruction. My local bank branch has a load of machines which they do everything in their power to make you use instead of going to a counter and speaking to a human. By “everything in their power”, I include the practice of charging 600% for a “staff-assisted” transaction in comparison to an automated transaction. I’ll say that again. If you go to a counter and lodge your Blind Welfare Allowance cheque with a member of staff, it will cost you 6 times as much as using one of the machines.

Why not just use the machines?

I sincerely hope, dear reader, that you can guess where this is going. The machines are not accessible to VIPs. Furthermore, in my local branch, they are surrounded by privacy shields which don’t provide enough space to get near them in a wheelchair . So disabled clients have no choice but to make “staff-asisted” transactions, and pay 6 times as much for the privilege.

I’m not even going to approach the tawdry history of my struggles with online banking, especially with the use of card-readers with tiny buttons and invisible screens. Back to the Kitty Holland article…

Cheques and Balances

Aside from the usual thrill of coming across any mention of disability in mainstream media, this article grabbed my attention because I had just been sent a letter about this very issue. And yes, I mean a letter. In tiny print. In the post.

I could tell that it was from the HSE because their logo was on the envelope. So I didn’t even bother opening it until my trusty PA came round. She’s my trusty PA because she’s the one I trust to see me naked, file my private papers and have access to my bank details. When she arrived for work, I handed her the letter, saying “This is probably another normal-print letter from the HSE saying: We’ve just realised how ludicrous it is to keep sending you cheques when you’re not supposed to leave the house at the moment, so here’s a form you can’t read so that we can finally lodge the money straight into your account, which will also save your extravagant bank charges.” To my astonishment, my PA said “Yes, but not in those exact words!”

To recap, this was a letter and a form being sent out exclusively to blind and visually impaired people. Neither the letter nor the form was in an accessible format, and the form required filling in by hand. Their only nod to alternative formatting was the possibility of emailing the completed form back to them. So when I emailed it to them, this was the body text I included with my message:

Please find attached my form requesting a change to receiving my blind welfare allowance.

  • The letter should have been sent in an accessible format – I use Braille
  • The form should have been available in an accessible digital format.

My rights to financial autonomy and privacy have been violated, as I had no choice but to get a third party to fill in this form. Further, the form was not specific to people in receipt of benefits, and as such, was confusing and made us feel like an after-thought, not a priority.

As you are managing a fund specific to blind and visually impaired people, you should instigate policies of informational accessibility as a matter of urgency. It is your obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), to which Ireland is a signatory.

Why do I still have to send these messages to government agencies? Especially those tasked with supporting VIPs and disabled people? It’s getting old, and the novelty is wearing very thin.

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Here is the text of what I said in the above video:

 

Hello!

You may or may not know that, for the first time in the up-coming referendum, blind people – finally – have won the right to a private ballot. Up until now, there was no way to have a private ballot if you couldn’t read the ballot paper and write on it yourself.  As a  work-around, for many years, people like myself have been entitled to the postal vote. But in fact, this was a system that was set up for people who could not physically get to a polling station on the day of the vote. So it was used as a way of ensuring that people with disabilities, particularly in rural areas, could still manage to get a vote.

However, it was not a guarantee if you had a disability. A couple of years ago, in Dublin, my mother was turned down the postal vote because she had a guide dog and access to public transport.  It was deemed that she could get to her polling station without any extra assistance. So then it became an issue of: How are you supposed to vote privately when you can’t see the ballot paper?

Robbie Sinnott succeeded in taking a case to the Supreme Court [*] under the Equality Act [**]. It means that, this time around, in polling stations around Ireland, there will be a Braille and large print template that will sit over the ballot paper, which will facilitate people with visual impairments and blind people being able to vote on their own. However, this does not extend to the postal vote.

I am going to demonstrate to you why it does need to be extended to the postal vote. I have difficulty leaving the house sometimes. My pain condition fluctuates massively from day to day, as do my energy levels. It could well happen that, on the day of a vote, I would not be able to get out of bed or out of my house. I am also visually impaired. So I am going to show you why the postal vote needs to have that template as well, in order to make sure that I also have the right to a private ballot. Which, currently, I don’t.

[In this section, I am going through the papers in the envelope containing my postal ballot paper]

This arrived in the post the other day. [Opens envelope.] Inside, there is… well, there’s a big paper-clip, so I know there’s a load of things clipped together.

So, that is what looks like the ballot paper. Now, in this case, it’s a referendum, so there’s only a yes or no. That’s relatively simple for me to work out. However, I’ve been presented with ballot papers with twenty-plus names on it. In that case, trying to make sure that you’re writing in the correct box beside the correct person is a real lottery.

If there’s one thing an election shouldn’t be, it’s a lottery.

It also includes forms, and these forms and directions and all the rest of it – they’re all just in ordinary print.

I can’t read that!

In fact, I have to get my Personal Assistant to go through all the forms, fill out any bits of information that need to be filled out, and she just puts an X where I need to sign – and I sign it. Also, she has to determine which is the correct envelope to put the correct bit of paper in. I’ve been given two here and… [shrugs] I don’t know what’s on them!

And then… I think this is the instructions, which, again, my Personal Assistant has to read out to me.

Given that it’s a referendum, obviously it’s quite straight-forward. There’s a “Yes” and a “No”, and I’m pretty sure the “Yes” will be on top and the “No” will be underneath. Nonetheless, the principle of me also being able to access a Braille and large print template, which is a frame that would fit over the ballot paper… I think it has all the text, but in much larger print, and it also has Braille. I’d be able to lay it on top of the ballot paper, read the Braille, then there would be a nicely, clearly marked tactile box. I’d be able to stick a pen into the correct box and make my mark.

I can’t do that under the current system, and therefore the government has not yet actually extended the private ballot to all the citizens of Ireland of legal voting age in every other respect – apart from disability.

That needs to change.

Remember to get out and vote, however and wherever you’re doing it.

The referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland takes place on 25th May, 2018… unless, like me, you’ve already voted!

[* The case was won in the High Court]

[** I was thinking in terms of the Equality Act 2000, which has had a number of updates since. The link takes you to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the statutory body for protecting and advancing human rights and equality in Ireland]

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.

 

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