Are Establishments, Venues and Places of Interests Accessible for Visually Impaired People?

As part of my role at ELVis as an Activities Coordinator, I liaise with museums, theatres, leisure facilities, exhibition centres, galleries and other places of interests that I organise outings or activities for our vision impaired members.

Many of these venues have a fantastic accessibility procedure.  For example, they may offer audio headsets, a guided tour, a touch tour, an object handling session, a facility where guide dogs can be looked after and so forth.  On the other hand, I have been shocked to discover that well known establishments have little to no accessibility procedures at all.  In these situations, I have worked alongside their access/learning group advisor on how experiences for blind and partially sighted people can be enhanced to enable an enjoyable visit, as a planned outing through ELVis or when they visit by themselves.

In my experience from working with these organisations, I have discovered a lack of awareness- they do not know what access provisions need to be in place to make their services accessible.  Therefore, I’ve initiated discussions around access for disabled customers to be made available.  A recent example of this was a theatre in East London that didn’t have any idea what they could do to increase accessibility for visually impaired people.  I went to have a chat with the theatre manager, and after a few months later, when I took a group of members along to watch a show, we were allocated seats at the front of the stage next to the toilets.  Moreover, the actors came down after the show to meet our members and even let them have a feel of their costumes and props.  The provision of access and support on the day marked an important step forward for the theatre in regards to catering for disabled people, and I am continuing to work with them so they can learn more about how best they can support their blind and partially sighted guests.

If you have visited a venue that wasn’t accessible or have avoided visiting a venue due to lack of accessibility, then why not get in touch with them!  Changes only happen when organisations know there’s a need for change.  The more people the better because more voices can make a difference!

I believe it is important that all venues are made accessible to enable independence, confidence and equal opportunities for people living with sight loss.

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Photo of Bhavini and some of the ELVis service users posing with an actor at a recent ELVis trip to the theatre.

Written by Bhavini Makwana, ELVis Activities Coordinator

 

 

 

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How the White Cane Changed Bhavini’s Life!

“I knew I had to stop feeling embarrassed, ashamed and insecure about having a visual impairment and start putting my safety first!”

I was first introduced to a symbol cane, which is small and thin in size.  Its primary function is to let others know that you have a visual impairment and you’re supposed to hold it vertically in front of your body.  It provided me with safety going out in public as people took care to avoid bumping into me.  I would use my symbol cane whilst being guided by my husband.

As my vision deteriorated, going out on my own meant the symbol cane wasn’t enough.  I contemplated whether I could take such a big step by switching to a white cane, which is bigger and longer with a rollerball at the end, and actually use it rather than just hold it which meant everyone could see that I am blind.  I wouldn’t be able to deny or hide my visual impairment or pretend that I wasn’t anymore.

I must say that using a white cane made me feel quite vulnerable and somewhat a fraud.  I mean, I felt I didn’t ‘look blind’, and I was fairly young when I started using it and didn’t know anyone else my age using a cane.  However, when I began to use my white cane more I became comfortable using stairs and escalators.  Furthermore, I discovered that I was able to avoid bumping into bollards, lamp posts, public dustbins, parked cars and any other obstacles, and because of this my confidence grew, which lead to me feeling empowered as I became more independent.  In addition, people became aware and offered help and support.  Also, I’ve learned that bus drivers are required to stop when they see a person with a white cane at the bus stop, which is one of other benefits of using a white cane.

If you’d like a white cane then contact your local Sensory Team as they should be able to provide you with one which has been measured to suit you.  Training is also given on how to correctly hold and use the cane whilst taking care of your posture.

The main advantage of using a white cane is personal safety.  A white cane detects textured surfaces allowing you to distinguish between a pavement and a crossing point.  Most crossing points have a tactile bumpy surface to indicate when a crossing is approaching.  At train stations, your white cane will detect the bumpy lines when you approach stairs and platform edges.

After finding myself in various difficult and dangerous situations in the past, I decided it was time to put my safety first and for my precious daughters too.  I was ashamed and embarrassed of what others would think of me, but I cannot tell you how much I love my white cane now.  It has given me the confidence and independence I need to enable me to go out without feeling scared or anxious, allowing me to feel free and in control.  I’ve even taken my cane on holiday!

Using the combination of both my cane and assistance from transport providers like National Rail and TFL, I can now get around independently with ease.

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Bhavini takes her cane wherever she goes! Photo of Bhavini wearing an astronaut suit and holding her white cane on the surface of the moon.

Written by Bhavini Makwana

Masuma’s Employment Journey in the Sight Loss Sector

“How did you end up working for the sight loss sector?”

This is one of the questions I most often get asked by people, and the one I regularly hear being discussed is whether most blind and partially sighted people end up working for the sight loss sector.

There are around 84,000 registered blind people of working age (18-65 year olds) in the UK, and only 21,000 (1 in 4 compared to 3 in 4 sighted people) of the working age population are in employment.

I feel extremely fortunate to be in the working age figure. My employment journey started with a part-time role as a Braille transcriber at a mainstream college. This job was a great starting point for me in the world of work and being part-time provided me with the opportunity to volunteer and upskill myself at the same time. I initially looked for volunteering roles away from the sight loss sector, not because I had anything against it, but simply due to not having given it any thought.

However, I learnt very quickly that it was rather difficult to find a voluntary role with organisations outside the sector. Also having received feedback from employers that I didn’t have enough experience, I resorted to looking for volunteering opportunities within the sight loss sector and landed myself a number of various roles. To be told by employers that you don’t have enough experience and struggling to even gain a voluntary role outside of the sector was soul destroying, it is a horrible catch-22 situation, which certainly didn’t do my confidence any good. However, the good news is that it seems things have moved on somewhat as I know several people who have volunteered with organisations away from the sight loss sector. Yes, I’m sure it can still be a struggle, but hopefully things are slowly changing.

Not only did the volunteering opportunities allow me to grow and increase my skills, knowledge and experience, it provided a good platform to network. My voluntary role at Waltham Forest Vision (formerly known as Low Vision Forum) resulted in a successful application and interview on a trainee contract. This set my journey into the sight loss sector and I’ve never looked back!

However, to assume every blind or partially sighted person ends up working for the VI sector is completely incorrect. I know just as many vision impaired people who work in the sector as well as don’t.

I would strongly encourage all VI people looking for work to take up volunteering opportunities, to network and build good rapport with people. Some may say I’m one of the lucky ones, and whilst there may be a very small element of truth, it certainly wasn’t all smooth sailing. The struggle of finding employment was real and can definitely be that much harder for vision impaired people. However, despite experiencing knock-backs throughout my employment journey, my proactive self-help approach, positive can-do attitude and, at times, throwing myself into the unknown certainly paid off. I am truly grateful and thankful to the people who have both personally and professionally supported me along the way.

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Photo of Masuma smiling.

Listen to Masuma talk to the Thomas Pocklington Trust about her life and employment journey in the sight loss sector.

Written by Masuma Ali

 

Katherine’s Kayaking and White Water Rafting Experience

ELVis member Katharine Way, 54, from Waltham Forest talks about her experience participating in white water rafting in Lee Valley, and undertaking a four-week kayaking course with the Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre.

“I have retinitis pigmentosa. My father and grandmother had it, and it’s been in my family for generations. I’m partially sighted and I still have a reasonable amount of sight. But there are plenty of things that I can’t do, like driving.

I grew up around water in Swansea, South Wales. As a kid I enjoyed many summers by the beach and swimming in the sea near the Gower Peninsula. I occasionally go back to visit, and when I’m feeling brave enough I take a quick dip in the water. My parents also owned a kayak. My father was blind so my mother would navigate. As a family we’d go paddling in the Brecon Canals and Llangorse Lake, which I always loved doing. What can I say? I love water! Growing up by the sea you do, and I always try to find water again.

When I saw the opportunity to participate in water-based activities with ELVis I couldn’t say no. I went white water rafting at Lee Valley in May. That was a real revelation because I was so nervous I nearly wimped out on the day. But then I thought, when else would I get the chance to do this and have all the help I need. So I talked myself back in to it, and I’m very glad I did because it was a really fun experience. The only thing I found completely nerve-racking was the swim test because I had to jump in to the rapids and stay afloat. I managed it, and after that everything else was a breeze.

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Photo of Katharine under taking the swim challenge during white water rafting.

On the other hand, kayaking is definitely splashier than white water rafting. My favourite part was getting to explore the waters surrounding Canary Wharf. During the first week of the course I found it tricky to paddle, but now I’ve gotten the hang of it and I feel more confident moving around on the water. I’ve even learnt it’s important to keep in rhythm with the other person who is paddling. Also, the kayaking instructors were great because they’re really patient and they explain everything clearly. If they need to do what they normally do in a different way they do it, which was great.

Taking part in both activities made me rethink the whole way I deal with my disability. I thought there were a lot of things I couldn’t do anymore because of my sight, like rowing a boat. So accomplishing something like kayaking you start to think that you shouldn’t assume that there are all these things you can’t do, but instead find a way of doing them safely. So it’s been quite a big thing for me to take part in, and it’s built my confidence. Plus, it’s been liberating and fun. Don’t forget that!

The skies the limits now as there are so many activities I’d like to do. Thank you East London Vision for organising and subsidising these activities for vision impaired people. It’s absolutely heartening.”

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Photo of Katharine (left) in a double kayak.

East London Vision would like to thank the Primary Club for funding, which has made it possible to run the kayaking sessions for our members.

Written by Katharine Way and Ray Calamaan

Your Eyes Be Active Information Event

Free food, games, and the opportunity to find out lots of information about local vision impaired services- this was what awaited us at the Barking and Dagenham Your Eyes Be Active event!

On Thursday 27th July, the ELVis team headed over to the Barking Learning Centre for the Your Eyes Be Active information day, run by the borough’s Disability Services, Enabling Independence Team and Sensory Team. This was a great opportunity for people to find out about the different local services that are available to help support people with sight loss, and to meet the people providing these services.

There was a wide range of stalls at the event. People were encouraged to think about staying healthy, with the opportunity to get their blood pressure checked as well as meeting groups that support VI sports sessions. There was also a stall demonstrating healthy cooking which had some very tasty salads on display. By happy coincidence, this stall happened to be placed right next to the ELVis stall, which made it very convenient when going up to get second helpings!

Others at the event included Guide Dogs, the local Talking Newspaper and several social groups. There was also one of the new Routemaster buses parked outside, giving people the opportunity to have a look around it so that they are familiar with these buses when they come across them in future. There were people demonstrating different technological gadgets (including ELVis’s Graham who had the Amazon Echo and the Google Home device), and others who gave careers advice to those looking to get into work.

As well as stalls, throughout the day people went to talks given by speakers on a variety of different topics. These ranged from how people have benefited from using employability services to an inspirational speaker who made people laugh telling them about some of his experiences throughout his life as a vision impaired person.

All in all, this was a fantastic day.  It was lovely for us at ELVis to meet and chat to lots of new people, and it was great to see so many different services, which all have a part to play in supporting the lives of our local vision impaired people. If you hear of any information event going on near you, I recommend that you go along and check it out- who knows what you might discover?  (And there might be free food, too!)

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Photo of the ELVis team (Nicola, Chris and Graham) at the Your Eyes Be Active information day.

Written by Nicola Stokes

VIPON’s London Zoo Outing

We were joined by Aqua Ephraim and Tahira Malik at the ELVis office recently and they shared their experience of VIPON’s (Visually Impaired Persons of Newham) trip to London Zoo on the 29th of June.

How was the journey to the zoo?

We all met in Stratford in the morning and we took the Overground train to Camden Road Station. From there we took a bus directly to the zoo. It was a pretty straight forward journey.

What was the group’s impression of the zoo?

The terrain at the zoo was very hilly which made it challenging for some of us in wheelchairs to get around. Also, we didn’t have a member of staff from the zoo guiding the group so we had to rely on ELVis volunteers to be our guides and describe the surroundings. On a positive note, we saw lots of animals including giraffes, flamingos, monkeys…the list goes on! Although, we were disappointed we didn’t get to see the tigers and lions- they were probably resting because of the hot weather. Our newest member Muqqadas who was attending her first outing with the group said she liked the zoo very much and was glad she came along, especially because the group made her feel very welcome.

What was your favourite part of the zoo?

We both loved seeing the tropical fishes and underwater plants at the aquarium. For some of us with some sight the colours of the sea life stood out which made the experience really enjoyable. Also, most of the members really liked the penguins because they could see their black and white skin. We watched them swim and act silly while they splashed us!

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Photo of Shahid, ELVis service user, crouching down in front of a large perspex water tank with swimming penguins.

How accessible was the zoo?

I’d say it’s fairly accessible- the zoo is mostly sight orientated so more work should be done to make it a better experience for VI people. Although saying this we were able to smell the different animals which was helpful for members of the group with very little or no sight. Also, the facilities at the zoo were great and the group loved eating in the restaurant because the air conditioner helped them to cool down.

And what are your overall thoughts about the outing?

It was the hottest and longest day of the year but we enjoyed ourselves very much. VIPON would like to say a massive thank you to the ELVis volunteers and members of staff for making the day accessible and enjoyable for all. Well done!

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Photo of some members of the VIPON social group looking happy and standing besides a very large sign that says ‘welcome to the zoo’.

Written by Aqua Ephraim, Tahira Malik and Ray Calamaan

The Concierge Service for the Visually Impaired at Westfield Stratford City Shopping Centre

As the Technology Officer at ELVis I tend to write about technology for the blog. This month, however, I’ve written about a recent shopping experience.

Most readers will be aware that Stratford, East London is home to one of the largest shopping centres in Europe which is a popular shopping destination for millions of Londoners and tourists. Getting to Westfield Stratford City is very easy. By public transport the nearest train station is Stratford which is also served by a number of local bus routes. Additionally, there is lots of parking if you’re being driven there.

Generally, people with no useful vision for reading or getting around, such as myself, would view a large shopping centre like Westfield with real fear. In my experience, shopping centres are constantly busy with shoppers so it’s difficult to get around. Moreover, the same background music is played all over the shopping centre so there’s little in the way of audio clues as to what is around you.  And I’ve come to realise that navigation equipment that relies on GPS satellites is of limited or no use in large shopping centres.

At Westfield Stratford City, one of the great features available to the public is the Concierge service. This allows a person with little or no sight to go to the Concierge desk and ask for assistance to take them to one of Westfield’s many shops, restaurants and facilities. More than often they will wait with you if you’re only buying one or two items. However, if you’re planning on spending hours shopping or dining at a restaurant, then the Concierge staff will make sure you’re given the phone number for the Concierge desk so you can phone for assistance when you’re ready to leave.

I’ve used this service well over 20 times and I must say it’s extremely helpful as it has saved me from wandering around Westfield and getting lost. Also, even when the shopping centre has been really busy, such as during Christmas, I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for assistance.

In my opinion, the Concierge service for vision impaired people turns a difficult and stressful situation into a relatively hassle-free shopping trip. I just wish more shopping centres across the country would adopt this similar service.

For more information about their Concierge service for people with visual impairments, please visit: https://uk.westfield.com/stratfordcity/services/all-services/visual-impairment/711

Written by Graham Page