We wanted to share a recent article published on LinkedIn by our Director, Georgie Bullen. We felt it was important to share as it described the ‘mixed’ reactions she receives when using a white cane around London.
I’m not a regular cane user, despite being registered as blind, I tend to only use a cane when I’m in an unfamiliar environment or if I’m travelling through places where people are likely to be dragging bags behind them, such as airports-if I am in a place I’m familiar with I will get around very efficiently or if I’m out with friends/family, I will simply grab someone’s arm if I’m struggling.
I make regular trips up to London to meet with existing and potential clients and on each trip I try to schedule around three meetings to make best use of my time. The combination of large crowds, navigating myself through the underground and making my way through unfamiliar places under tight time restrictions means that I need to use a cane.
Any cane user knows that you will experience a complete range of reactions from the general public, but I have never made a conscious effort to note any of them down – so I thought that throughout this last month, I would try to record what kind of receptions the cane received from the commuters of London.
On the Underground:
If someone elderly, pregnant or has young children gets on a train, I will offer them my seat and, generally speaking, when I get on the tube with a cane, I tend to get a tap on the shoulder from a stranger offering me a seat. However, without fail, I have found over the last month that I experience at least two underground journeys a day where the people in the priority seats pretend not to notice me and awkwardly stare down at the floor. (Side note: my visual impairment mainly presents itself by affecting my field of vision, so where you may have almost 180 degrees of field, I have around 15 degrees, but within that field I can see relatively clearly. Meaning I can see people looking away awkwardly). For me, not being offered a seat isn’t generally a problem as I am perfectly capable of standing on the tube, however it does make me concerned to think that this could happen to someone less able who needs to be sat down on the tube for safety reasons. The priority seats are there for that exact reason so if you are sat in one, you should be making a conscious effort to keep an eye out for someone more in need of the seat getting on the tube.
I remember an incident a few years ago which did slightly shock me, I was travelling back from a training camp in the Copper box before the Paralympics in 2012, I got on a train at Stratford during rush hour with my cane in one hand and a large suitcase in the other. As I was getting on, I tripped up over someone’s bag, I didn’t hurt myself but it was clear that I wasn’t managing the combination of obstacles, crowds and my luggage very well. When no one offered to help or give me a seat I just put it down to the fact that it was crowded and they hadn’t noticed my cane. The moment that shocked me was as the train began to empty, and some seats became available near me, I saw two men in the carriage look at me and my cane and then spring into the seats themselves, obviously thinking I couldn’t see them. I was shaken by this as it felt like they thought they were taking advantage of my visual impairment.
I should stress though that generally speaking people are considerate in these situations, the reason that this incident stuck with me was because of how unusual it was.
In the street:
The type of reactions you get when walking along streets in London are completely dependent on whether it is rush hour or not. Two weeks ago I was near St Paul’s underground, it was busy but not rush hour and walking along the pavement could not have been easier! People parted like the Red Sea to make sure I got through easily and when I was on a busy side street with no zebra crossing, a friendly couple saw me waiting to cross the road and offered to help, and even tried to help walk me to my meeting. These simple gestures can be very little effort and yet make such a difference.
However, if I compare this to walking around the streets of London during rush hour, the two experiences could not be more contrasting. I completely understand that people are very busy and are keen to get to their destination, but I end up trying to avoid this time of day like the plague because it turns into some sort of animal stampede where everyone is in such a tight crowd that they don’t have time to spot my cane and simply kick it out of the way.
Generally, I only travel around London one day a week and I am acutely aware that, although I am registered as blind, I have a lot more sight than others, so if I find this experience throws up this many challenges to my fairly limited exposure to London, I can only imagine how difficult it is for blind commuters. I expect that most of you are considerate of others when going about your daily routine, but I hope this still helps people to reflect on their willingness to help someone more in need, as already 4 in 10 visually impaired people feel isolated and avoid leaving their homes, so negative experiences are likely to only make this worse.
It has been a LONG four years waiting since London 2012 for the next Paralympics, but the time has finally come again for the #SuperHumans to take centre stage!
London 2012 forever raised the bar for the Paralympic movement, as it truly did attempt to bring the Paralympics ‘Parallel’ to the Olympics and its legacy continues to resonate as we lead into Rio..
Since the Olympics ended, there has been much discussion as to how successful the Rio Paralympics would be; with fear that the budget cuts and lack of tickets sales would take the Paralympics backwards, rather than forwards. While we will not be able to answer most of these questions until the Games conclude, there is no doubt that records will be broken, medals will be won, and icons will emerge over these two magical weeks.
Although GB is not represented in the Goalball tournament, as the GB Women’s Goalball team narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Rio Paralympics, we will be glued to the schedule/results!
Soak up as inspiring sport as you can over the next two weeks as Tokyo is a long way away! #LetsGoGB
Many people don’t appreciate being visually impaired also means being unable to drive, therefore much of a blind person’s ability to be independent relies on using public transport. This implies a level of assistance may be required from Rail staff; whether it is as simple as reading out what platform a particular train is on, or having to guide someone who is visually impaired through a busy train station, this can be the difference between a VI person feeling confident enough to travel or staying isolated at home. Indeed, complete way of life, including employment, can be affected by their experience of the public transport system.
Govia Thameslink Railway (the train operating company that operates Great Northern, Thameslink, Southern and Gatwick Express) recently took the decision to attempt to increase their front-line staff’s visual impairment awareness through Team Insight events. This was kicked off with four half day events between the 21st-28th June. Throughout these sessions, over 60 of their front-line staff participated and took up the challenge of putting themselves in the shoes of visually impaired people.
It’s fair to say that each event began with a slight atmosphere of ‘I am not sure I want to be here, I bet it will be just the same old training we’ve all done a hundred times before’, but within minutes we could sense that we’d won them over and by the time we got to the refreshments break in each session, the groups were buzzing with enthusiasm and all sharing stories on the different ways they’ve assisted visually impaired people through their stations or how they’ve been amazed at the independence of VI’s they’ve met.
At the end of each session we gave the option for the participants to fill in feedback forms – 39/44 completed forms gave 5/5’s for both their enjoyment of the day and for how much the event raised their visual impairment awareness.
Below is a brief selection of some of the comments made on the completed feedback forms:
“Thanks for giving me the opportunity to be part of such an ‘eye closing’ event. Learnt a lot about visual impairment”
“Thank you for opening my ears and mouth”
“The whole experience was great, very insightful considering I work with V.I.Ps (Visually Impaired People)”
“Probably the best course I have been on while working in the railway industry”
“I was very relaxed because of the friendly manner of the trainers”
“Made to feel that everyone was important”
Stuart Cheshire, Passenger Service Director said afterwards “This was a truly cracking course that helped our stations staff get first-hand experience of what it is like to be visually impaired. We do our very best to help everyone travel with us, whatever their abilities or impairments”
Not only did the GTR staff actively participate with all of the activities, but during their break, and indeed after the event had finished, many took the opportunity to try on simulation spectacles, try using a white can and asked us many insightful questions on visual impairment. We were delighted with so many assurances that this was one event that would truly influence them moving forward in their working life.
Recently, our Director, Georgie Bullen published an article on LinkedIn about how Visually Impaired people are discriminated against in the workplace and the reasons she believes this happens. We felt it was only right to share the article on here as one of the main reasons Georgie founded Team Insight was to try and educate employers on VI awareness, in the hope that she could help to change the unemployment rate.
Are we blind to the discrimination of visually impaired people in the workplace?
If you were faced with the CV of someone who was visually impaired, would it have any impact on whether you felt you could employ them? Whether it be a conscious belief that blind people are not capable or skilful employees, or whether it is simply the fear of making some sort of ‘Politically Incorrect’ statement that would offend, like ‘See you later’, the simple fact is that visually impaired people are not gaining employment.
In the UK, less than 27% of visually impaired and blind people of working age are in employment. When you compare this to the non-disabled working age population in the UK, where 73.6% are employed, one begins to appreciate the enormity of this issue. Even on comparing the visually impaired population against the general disabled population, there is a huge disparity where 46% are in employment. So why is it that, either consciously or unconsciously, we view visually impaired people as unemployable?
I believe one of the main factors contributing to the unemployment rate, is a general discomfort interacting with visually impaired people; it’s the feared awkwardness of ‘should I go in for a hand shake?’ or should I avoid saying “Nice to see you” for fear of causing offence.
There is no shame in not knowing how to handle a new situation, but we should not let our fear of making a social faux pas affect decisions on whether to give a visually impaired candidate an interview. The best way of dealing with such a situation is to be frank, to ask questions regarding accessibility prior to the interview for example ‘Do you need any special assistance or requirements’ should not offend. (Side note: Visually Impaired people say phrases like ‘See you later’ all the time, do not make an unnatural effort to sensor yourself!)
Another factor that may be a disincentive to employment are the ‘supposed’ costs associated with employing a disabled person: some visually impaired people require support workers or specialised equipment and employers are under the false impression they would bear the bill. However, there are a number of schemes, such as the Government’s ‘Access to Work’ programme, which exist to fund these additional costs.
There are instances where there will be no ‘direct’ discrimination, but visually impaired people will be blocked from even completing an application due to its inaccessible nature. This can be down to issues such as the application itself being unresponsive to programmes which allow visually impaired people to enlarge and modify resources, or it can be down to the format of the application, as there are some which will not allow them to continue if they fail to meet certain criteria such as being able to drive. Yet in many employment situations a visually impaired person would be entitled to use a driver/taxi through access to work and their other skills may be entirely otherwise appropriate to the position. Employers should consider whether their application process in unknowingly discriminating.
It should be acknowledged these appalling employment statistics cannot necessarily be blamed entirely upon the employer some responsibility must also be due to the nature of the impairment and it’s affects upon the individual. Many visually impaired people feel undermined by their disability, self-conscious, and suffer from a lack of confidence which may easily deter them from seeking employment. It is important to understand that visual impairment can be a very isolating disability. To actually apply for a job demands the individual may have initially had to overcome many of the barriers that come with their disability.
Getting a job is a very competitive process for everyone and deciding who to hire is in itself a challenging task, there will often be only minor criteria differentiating the applicants, but when considering the pro’s and cons of each candidate, visual impairment should not automatically come down as a con. Many would argue that visually impaired that visually impaired people make even better employees as they’ve had to work ten-times harder to earn their position and they will be keen to over-achieve in their work to prove their doubters wrong.
Unemployment rates amongst visually impaired people are a major issue and it is time for us to open our eyes to it. As a caring society we should make a conscious effort to improve our short comings.
It’s 2016, which means we are only months away from one of the biggest celebrations of disability sport, the Paralympics!
The London 2012 Games drastically changed perceptions of disability sport, so we can only imagine what lays in store for us with the Rio Paralympics.
Georgie Bullen, our director and member of the GB Women’s Goalball team, has fond memories of competing in the Copper Box during the Paralympics, “we were used to competing in empty sports arenas, so it came as quite a shock to walk out for our first game and have thousands of people willing us on to win”, she says “Not only was the level of support amazing, but it was the first time I really felt we were taken seriously as athletes, until then it had always seemed like people thought ‘Oh bless them, they’re giving it a go’, London really did change attitudes”. Although it is unlikely that Georgie, and the rest of the GB Women’s team, will be at Rio as they are the ‘official Reserves’, Georgie says “I really can’t wait for the Games, it’s just such an inspiring display of disability sport”.
With a little over 200 days until the Rio Paralympics, we are all buzzing with excitement to see what will be achieved by Paralympics GB and we hope you all become inspired to give Paralympic sport a go!