Underground, overground…..

Not many people agree with me when I wax lyrical about the smell of the London Underground.  For me the combination of hot rubber, industrial detergent and all manner of human odours is strangely comforting.  Yes, I do like it.  What I struggle with is the fat slug of passengers clogging up every inch of space from the ticket barriers to the platforms.  Somehow you’re supposed to find a hole in the slug’s body and dive through it to the other side, as if your life depends on it.  If you happen to misjudge this move there’s a risk that you’ll get swallowed up into the slug’s huge digestive system and end up being spewed onto the wrong platform somewhere far away.  Timing is crucial when you’re negotiating the London Underground.  One false move and you find yourself being swept along in the wrong direction, feet flailing, arms flapping, heart sinking.
As a visually impaired person, dodging the giant human slug in the Underground is a heart attack in the making.  Last week when I attended the Guide dog of the Year Awards I had to face the beast head on.  Luckily I was accompanied by a travel-wise mate.  Having a savvy mate by your side is a fantastic help, but if you add a hoovering Guide dog and an overloaded rucksack with wheels that don’t wheel – the best made plans crumble into chaos.  My rucksack with the dodgy wheels was kindly adopted by my companion for the duration of our London trek.  All I had to do therefore, was to steer The Hoover.
We would have been fine had it not been for the aforementioned slug of tourists and commuters.  This giant beast wedged its great body between us numerous times, which left us frequently calling to each other desperate not to get separated forever.  Trying to listen for directions with a hoover-in-harness eyeballing every grain on the ground was no mean feat.  Our stress levels quickly peaked.  The effort of remaining calm whilst being swept away by a perpetually moving monster would test the nerves of the most accomplished traveller.  “Where are you?”  I’d call.  “Over here – in front of you!” was the disappearing answer, and we’d be lucky to reunite within the next five minutes.  We lost count of the number of times we had to hunt down an unoccupied space and simply “take stock”.
Another major bane was escalators.  Those massive metal mountains which move up and up and up…!  Guide dogs cannot travel on escalators because of the risk of their paws getting trapped, so every time we encountered an escalator we had to hunt for a London Transport staff member.  This was not straightforward.  When I lived in London in the early 1990’s there was no such thing as Help Points, so it was mere chance that my mate came across a circular white disc at Euston fitted with Help and Emergency buttons.
We didn’t expect any joy when she pressed the Help button, so when a disembodied voice answered our SOS call it was extremely heartening.  London Transport staff were mostly very helpful once we’d located the Help Points.  But there appeared to be no logical system as to their whereabouts, so searching for Help Points became a quest in itself every time we chanced upon a dreaded escalator.  And once the offending escalators were halted hundreds of steps needed climbing.  There was a moment at Oxford Circus when my companion sailed by on a parallel escalator (there has to be some perk for being the luggage carrier!), and I was seriously beginning to wane.  The steps seemed to be endless, and my legs were growing heavier by the second.  As she passed by she called out to me “Come on Claire!” and somehow I found a spurt of energy that I didn’t know I had.  I’m not sure if Trudy felt more tired than I did, but her front paws were definitely sagging by the time we made it to the top.  It might not have been so bad had we not had to repeat this exercise at least ten times!
On our second day we decided to be tourists and visit Buckingham Palace.  Green Park was possibly our trickiest tube station, but we did not know this when we hatched our plans over breakfast.  Puffing our guts out ascending Green Park’s stationary escalator might have seemed worthwhile had the sky not decided to empty its latrine bucket over our heads just as we exited the station.  Playing the tourist in London invariably gets you soaking wet – as we discovered the hard way.  London rain is hard, relentless, back-stabbing, rib-jabbing pain.  It  literally penetrated our bones as we traipsed through Green Park,  vaguely taking in the scene of mounted Police and majestic trees.  I decided to give Trudy the chance to have a free run despite the fact that we were almost drowning.  A group of excited Japanese tourists pelted past laughing at the force of the downpour.  We were unable to share their merriment.
Trudy was dashing about with the bells on her collar jingling in time to the rain.  She seemed oblivious to the cold shards of silver being hurled from the sky.  Herein lies the sorriest part of my tale.   Trudy used her freedom wisely and performed a “busy” on the grass as we neared Buckingham Palace.   I dutifully pulled a bag from my pocket in order to deposit her offering  in the nearest bin.  All the while the rain was continuing to assault our bodies and we were hunched over double.  I turned towards my rucksack with the dodgy wheels and expressed concern that it might look “unattended” while we were retrieving Trudy’s “busy”.  At this point I  wondered where the “busy” actually was, for it had seemingly disappeared.  In fact it had not disappeared at all – it was under my shoe.  This was quite possibly the lowest point of our London experience.  There was a poignant moment of despair and self-loathing,  but once my shoe had been washed in a series of puddles the hilarity of the situation took over.  Laughter is truly a great medicine.  Hence we were able to reach our destination, Buckingham Palace, where we lingered for about thirty seconds.  The rain was still venomous, so we decided to head back towards the shelter of Green Park station.
As we neared the station we came across a Marks and Spencer, and the prospect of a sandwich tempted us in.  Dripping pools of water onto the floor we took refuge behind a huge pillar in order to try to organise our sodden belongings.  Trudy, who was hoovering up crumbs,  shook her waterlogged fur all over a smartly dressed lady .  If that smartly dressed lady happens to be reading this, I apologise on behalf of my soggy hound.  Throughout the watery chaos we were  being watched by a store detective who must have labelled us  “suspicious persons” right from the moment we entered.  Against the odds, we did manage to buy a sandwich and that kept our spirits afloat as we headed back towards the mayhem of Green Park station.  Many escalators, steps, platforms, crowds and near-heart attacks later, we were sitting on the train at Paddington about to start our homeward journey.
Hereford and London are two vastly contrasting places.  When you’re in Hereford, London seems magical, exciting, buzzing, and alluring.  But once you actually hit that heaving hub of humans, the magic fades into unease, and slowly that unease changes to all-out panic.  After just 24 hours of city strife I was longing for the pure oxygen and grassy hills of Herefordshire.  Now as I sit at my desk I smile as I remember pouring over Tubeplanner early last week.  It is a great online resource for would-be Tube travellers, but memorising the stops on the Bakerloo line whilst sitting in your living room does NOT prepare you at all for the brutal reality of the London Underground.  Having said that, I have not ruled out another trip at some point in the future!

Going blind – what then?

Many people have asked me whether I’d rather be blind than deaf, or if I wish I’d been born blind rather than lose my vision at 18.  I never have much of an answer to these questions, as I can only deal with what I know.  For a lot of people, going blind is their “worst nightmare”.  I met this nightmare head on when I became a paid up member of the “blind community” in 1989.

Although I was born blind in one eye due to a condition known as coloboma/microphthalmia, this did not prevent me from attending a mainstream school.  I  considered myself to be more or less the same as my siblings and other children my age.  When I gained a place at St. John’s College, Oxford, to read Classics – I thought I was entering paradise.  I loved Classics, and still do in my heart.  But this is where my life took an unexpected turn.  During my first year I experienced a sudden onset of glaucoma and within weeks my useful vision had more-or-less disappeared.

I felt utterly helpless and at the mercy of other people.  For a short while I  tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, though reality came down on me pretty fast.  It was obvious that I could not continue at Oxford, so plans were made for me to attend the Royal National College for the Blind.  But I had no intention of readjusting or rehabilitating.  All I wanted was to see again.  That was my one and only mission.  Therefore I resisted all help and refused to consider using technology.  In those days assistive technology was fairly basic.  The BBC computers with early versions of JAWS had absolutely no appeal for me.   If anything, technology scared me –  I couldn’t even type my name.  Everything was beeps or bumps.  I wanted to obliterate beeping clocks and tactile mats.  They were reminders of my blindness and I pushed them away.

So my first days at the Royal National College for the Blind were pretty hellish.  There were some people who, like me, had recently lost their vision.  Others had never been able to see, and others could still see but not particularly well.  The thing I found most difficult was being surrounded by blindness.  It wasn’t a world I accepted.  I don’t even think I considered myself to be blind, I was just me.

Looking back it was the psychological impact of blindness that affected me most.   Accepting my situation was far harder than not being able to see the colours of my clothes.  As I’d never learned braille before, I did not take to braille easily.  I just about learned to read braille but I quickly decided that it was not going to be my main medium for communication. Expert braillists can read two lines at once with both hands, but they’re usually people who’ve started at an early age or really want to persevere.  I turned to audio technology but my brain resisted.  I’ve got a photographic memory, so I think visually.  I found that my good memory invariably began failing me, and this increased my frustration.  Even now I have to translate audio messages into a visual pattern in my head.  For this reason I left it about 5 years before attempting to listen to an audiobook.  The feat was laborious, and I found it hard to concentrate.  If this was how I was meant to “read”, I hated it.  But with no computer and no other means of reading I didn’t have an alternative.   Once I’d accepted this, I reluctantly started to borrow recordings from the RNIB library.  Now I can’t get enough.  With MP3 downloads and iPads, the audiobook scene is improving.

Slowly I became better disposed towards gadgets and technology, and now I’m gadget-mad.  The beeps that used to plague me 20 years ago are now my mates.  With increasingly advanced technology the practical problems of being visually impaired are less of an issue.   There are gadgets which enable you to safely make a cup of tea, label tins or files, measure quantities etc.  My talking microwave is the star of my kitchen, and my mobile phone with TALKS is my right hand man.  There are gadgets and aids for just about any indoor task.  Computer screen-readers such as JAWS and Guide have certainly transformed my quality of life.  My three year-old laptop is my launch pad.  The only barrier to the world is the growing number of websites with poor accessibility, but that’s  another story.. The down side of specialist technology/gadgets of course is the cost.  Being visually impaired is not cheap, and this is accentuated by the fact that in the UK the vast majority of blind people are without work.

So much for gadgets and audio technology.  What about the social side of life?  Before I qualified with my guide dog Trudy I struggled daily with the general public.  Unfortunately, most people steer away from  someone tapping a long cane on the pavement.  I am not that good at asking for help, so more often than not I encountered difficulties when I was out.  I used to bump into lamp  posts and apologise to them or ask if they’d please let me by.  When you’re blind and stressed lamp posts and humans are not distinguishable.  Making a fool of yourself in public is one reason why most visually impaired people refrain from going out.  I can laugh at myself now, but it took time.

I found that there were people who avoided me through fear, and others who raised their voices when they spoke to me. Sometimes people would think they were helping by grabbing my long cane and pulling it across the road with me trotting behind in alarm.  It seems funny now.  I’ve had so many disasters with public transport that it’s amazing I’m still in the UK.  I ended up at Heathrow Airport once instead of Victoria station.  These crises often bring out the kind and helpful side of people.  Nevertheless I began to see my long cane as a huge barrier when it came to socialising and being accepted by people.  Isolation is a common side effect of blindness.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’m still talking to someone after they’ve left the room or wandered away.  Another favourite is to answer people when they’re not addressing you.  Not being able to read body language puts visually impaired people at a serious disadvantage in social situations.

I became quite reluctant to go out on my own, and often left my long cane at home.  This meant that people invariably thought I was drunk because I was stumbling along bumping into things.  There were times when I’d  get a taxi home after being out for just ten minutes.  I quickly became lonely and found myself retreating into a very dismal space.  Often I would lament the loss of my books and my academic career, and wonder why something which I loved so much had been snatched away from me.  These were the bleakest moments.

Training with a guide dog was something I had considered within months of losing my sight.  However, I needed to regain my confidence before I could manage a dog.  I knew that a guide dog was right for me, and GDBA have been a tremendous support ever since I first contacted them in 1993.  This support included hours and hours of mobility training and traffic skills training over a long period.

15 years later, in 2008, I experienced the happiest day of my life when I was matched with Trudy.  Trudy was worth waiting for.   At the time I was living  in residential care, and the outside world was a terrifying tangle of sounds and unfriendly people, and obstacles which rammed into your face and sent you sprawling on the ground.  But Trudy has shown me another side to the world.  Guide dogs attract people, so I suddenly found myself surrounded by well-wishers and dog-lovers.   The obstacles melted away into the background as Trudy’s job is to steer me round them.  I became eager to explore what I’d been missing for so long.  My blindness became an acquaintance rather than an enemy.

Three years later I am living in my own flat and giving talks to schoolchildren and adult groups.  I am about to begin lecturing at a local University.  Sometimes I look back over the rocky road and wonder how I got here.  It’s been worth the blood and tears just to feel this freedom.  But a guide dog isn’t the answer for everyone.  There are 4,500 guide dog owners in the UK.  But 180,000 blind and partially sighted people never leave home alone.  Not long ago, I was one of them.  .