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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O! What A Beautiful Dog!

Being out and about with an assistance dog is a mixed blessing.  Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t be without a guide dog any more than I’d poke my eyes out.  But there’s always a downside, and the main obstacle to freedom with an assistance animal is Other People – aka “Morons”.

Morons, like bacteria, are everywhere.  Even people with intelligence, reflectiveness and compassion can fall victim to Temporary Canine-Related Moronia [TCRM] when they unexpectedly encounter an assistance dog.  And unless you have a friend with an assistance dog and you’re visiting them at their home, every encounter with such a dog is unexpected.  Particularly since most people never look down in the course of normal day-to-day activities; meaning that many people begin an assistance-dog-encounter with the sensation of a wet nose in the palm, or a wagging tail against the leg, or the yelp of a helpless beast who has just had their paw or tail stood upon.

For us humans who have dogs as an extra limb[s] or sense, these encounters also have a particular character.  Some have the shape of another person [Moron] jumping in shock or fear; then either apologising or talking to an animal who clearly doesn’t have the faculty to answer their direct questions; e.g. “Aren’t you beautiful?”, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you then?” etc.  I leave it up to my canine companion to answer those questions if he sees fit.

Then there are random statements from strangers.  I call these “statements” because I have yet to think of a polite, relevant response.  These take the form:

(a) “That’s a beautiful dog”,

(b) “Does he take good care of you?”

and occasionally something like

(c) “God bless you”.

My inner responses to these, which I’m simply too nice to utter aloud, go something like:

(a)        “Thank you, I made him all by myself.”

(b)        “Yes, he makes my dinner, brushes my hair and picks up my poo.  No, wait – it’s the other way around.”

(c)        “Even if there was some kind of omnipotent being, which there patently isn’t, don’t you think the available evidence rather points to him having cursed rather than blessed me?  Lifetime impairments and chronic pain seem an unnecessarily obtuse way for an all-loving deity to show their favour, don’t you think?  Or maybe, and I favour this alternative myself, ‘He’ has a seriously fucking sick sense of humour.”

So generally, I respond to such statements with a wan smile if I can be arsed; or with feigned deaf-blindness if I can’t.  And let’s face it, most Morons can’t tell the difference between deafness, blindness and idiocy.

Another symptom of TCRM is the loss of the ability to read.  Most guide dogs and assistance dogs have their role written in English (or other native / widely understood tongue) somewhere on their person.  My dog has a luminous strip on his lead saying “Guide Dog”, as well as a day-glo sign attached to his harness reading “Please don’t distract me, I’m working”.  These clearly turn to some sort of gibberish in the minds of people suffering from TCRM, since I have been asked “Is that a racing dog?”; and been refused entry to businesses that display a sign saying “No dogs allowed EXCEPT GUIDE DOGS”.  Mostly, Morons just feel free to attract the dog’s attention – sometimes when we’re halfway across a road – or just approach the dog directly to pat his head and purr babblingly into his ear.  A precious few humans seem to be able to shake free, at least in part, from TCRM to ask if they can pet the dog.  However, the TCRM still prevents them from being able to perceive whether I’m in the middle of a private conversation, commercial transaction or in a hurry to get to work.  Even if I say “no, sorry, he’s not allowed to socialise when he’s working” or some other polite way of saying “fuck off”, the Moron will often attempt to draw a lecture on dog breeding or training out of me.  (Very few wheelchair users get stopped on the street by a stranger who wants to admire their chair and discuss design and engineering.)

An added difficulty that arises from this constant interference is not obvious at first, even to the person using the guide dog.  When your dog goes everywhere with you, it gets to know your friends and colleagues.  Those friends who come round to your house to hang out also get the opportunity to play with and cuddle the dog when it’s off duty.  So when you go to meet a friend, in a crowded café or busy bar, the dog recognises its friends and makes its way toward them.  This is really helpful if you can’t recognise someone until their face is inches away from yours.  However, if all the Morons reach out to cuddle and distract your dog as you try in vain to squeeze past their drunkenly immobile arses, the dog starts to hink “we’re making loads of new friends tonight!”  When the half-cut barfly then turns to engage you in dog-related conversation, it can take some time for the human to realise that this isn’t an old friend or even a vague acquaintance, but rather some old lech who could potentially become a stalker. (This happened to me, albeit when I was using a white cane rather than a guide dog.)

Finally, there is the sheer boredom of having The Dog Conversation countless times per day.  Temporary Canine-Related Moronia can go undiagnosed for years if the sufferer has regular contact with dogs.  Therefore, when a TCRM patient approaches an assistance dog, they already have an interest in, and stories about, dogs; often those suffering most acutely have experienced loss of a particular canine companion who bears some resemblance to the assistance dog in question.  [In fact, independent research suggests that the virus thought to cause TCRM adapts itself to a particular breed and gender of dog.  Although any dog would make a decent host, with the human acting as vector [carrier], the virus is most strongly attracted to the breed and gender of dog to which it initially adapted.  The virus may even drive its human vector to ask questions about the age, sex, pedigree and character of the assistance dog as a means for the virus to establish the suitability of its new canine host.  Once it has identified a viable host, the human vector must make physical contact with the dog, paying no attention to other humans in the vicinity, to enable the virus to transfer to its new host.]  Thus, The Dog Conversation replicates itself exponentially, as we smile and nod politely and remember that we are ambassadors for all people with disabilities…

 Isauq (Isaac) on the bus, looking a bit fed up.

Despite all this ranting,  I must admit to occasionally enjoying The Dog Conversation, and letting certain people off the No Touchy He Worky rule.  No amount of general irritation could possibly detract from the incredible freedom given by working with an assistance dog.  This rant is usually internal: I express it here for the dual purposes of entertainment and edification.

THE NEW (or maybe not-so-new) APARTHEID

I first met Kiwi Katie about four years ago, when I was still using my legs and she had just started using a wheelchair.  The Citizens’ Information Board was conducting research into the housing needs of people with disabilities, and this was their final focus group: one which actually included a few people with disabilities.

Katie caught my eye – or more accurately, my ear – as another articulate, young and motivated person with disabilities.  It was something of a relief not to be the only person talking in the room.

We finally got a smoke break, and Katie and I got to talking.  At some point in the conversation, she described the experience of using a wheelchair as “apartheid”.  I was shocked.  It’s a very loaded term, especially for those of us who witnessed the release of Nelson Mandela with joy.

But Katie went on: “I can’t go in the front door – I’m sent around to the servants’ entrance.  Our toilets are segregated.  I can’t use the mainstream bus service.  I can’t get onto a college campus or into an employer’s business premises.”  And I saw, to my horror, that she was right.

 

The parallels between the experiences of people with disabilities and people living in an ethnically segregated regime were deliciously demonstrated for me in an unexpected form.  “Better Off Ted” is one of those rare, witty, intelligent, satirical US sit-coms – and yes, it got cancelled after only 2 series.  The “sit” of this particular “com” is a department of a massive and sinister multinational corporation, “Veridian Dynamics”, and the characters work in research and development and product testing – from cow-free beef (“the meat-blob”) to weaponised pumpkins via glow-in-the-dark squirrels.


*** SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! ALERT! THERE’S A SPOILER COMING! ***

 

In one episode, “Racial Sensitivity”, one of our scientist buddies finds things in the lab mysteriously turning themselves off and on.  He tries to activate the motion sensors which control the lighting, then the doors, the toilets, drinking fountains, the lift… all to no avail.  The heroic Ted (his boss) goes to find out from Veronica (Ted’s boss) what’s going on.

The answer turns out to be that the company has upgraded all the systems in the building from being motion activated to being light activated; specifically, light reflected off human skin.  This means “it doesn’t see black people”, which Veronica is told by her superiors is a positive thing, since it sees Asians, Hispanics and Jews.

Rather than reverting to the old system, the company starts to install “Manual Drinking Fountains: For Black Employees Only”and the like.  Our scientist buddy at the centre of this says; “Thank God we don’t have a company bus”.

Their next attempt is to employ a bunch of minimum-waged white guys to follow every black employee around to “activate stuff” for them.  But Human Resources is concerned that this is discriminatory recruitment practice, so they’ll need to hire another black guy to follow the white guy who’s following the black employee, then the second black employee will need another white guy to follow him, and so on ad infinitum.  The case is finally made to the company bosses that they simply didn’t have the parking to employ every human being on the planet by 2012, and the old motion detectors are reinstalled.

 

The experiences of the black characters in this episode finding themselves unable to open doors, turn on the lights or use the lift are instantly recognisable to a lot of people with disabilities.  It even follows the parallel “solutions” of installing separate facilities for us, or of employing “normal” people to bridge that gap for us.  When the central character in these events (Lem) decides he’s had enough of this segregation, he says to his colleague, Phil: “I still have my dignity! Now will you please come with me so I can use the toilet!”  Sound familiar, fellow mutants?

 

This may be quite a convoluted way of making a point, but I think it’s a good exercise in context, perspective and humour.  It is valid to describe the supports and services and basic amenities available to people with disabilities as “apartheid”, and it is also valid that this is schocking.  So it should be.  I have no idea whether the writers of “Better Off Ted” had any thought in their head about disability rights issues, but they have nonetheless created a challenging, effective and funny picture of what it takes for person with disabilities to do those “simple” things that others take for granted, be it using a toilet or walking through the front door.

Adam Hills – Spokesperson for Mutants

A couple of YouTube clips of Australian comedian Adam Hills’ stand-up show, “Characterful / Joymonger” – some of the best commentary on disability in mainstream media!

My manual wheelchair, decoratively inspired by Adam Hills

My manual wheelchair, decoratively inspired by Adam Hills

Thus far, I’ve been unable to locate a clip of his suggestion to replace the term “disabled” with the term “mutant”, because “you’d think twice before parking in a Mutant parking space”.

 

The beginning of Adam Hills’ stand-up show where he introduces his sign-language interpreter.

Near the end of the stand-up show, Adam talks about some of the ridiculous comments and bureaucracy encountered in relation to disability