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.