Tuesday morning, 8am, the platform at West Hampstead tube station. I’m bleary-eyed, regretting my Netflix binge the night before, but I’m very used to this routine. I know exactly which spot to stand in to be the first onto the train.
To my right was a middle-aged gentleman, rucksack on his back, apparently also on his morning commute. He happened to be holding a white cane, and wearing dark glasses. As the train was reaching the platform, I did what at the time I thought was something helpful.
Tapping him on the arm, I asked, as loudly as I could over the grinding of wheels on the track, if he needed any assistance. He quickly brushed me off and, with skill I just hadn’t considered, reached out with his cane for the side of the carriage, found the edge of the train door and made his way inside.
Looking back, it was a blunder. My intervention was wholly unnecessary and probably quite annoying. He knew what he was doing.
Why did I feel the need to get involved? Because I just hadn’t thought about it. I had seen, a week prior, another visually impaired commuter being assisted off the tube by a member of TfL staff – this gentleman had no official assistance so why would he need me?
This encounter led me to Radio 4’s podcast, In Touch.
In Touch labels itself as news, views and information for people who are blind or partially sighted. In fact, I think fully sighted people may have more to gain from tuning in.
The first episode I listened to detailed the many difficulties of navigating public transport for those who aren’t fully sighted. One individual told her story of being abandoned in an unfamiliar train station, as the assistance she had pre-booked never came.
I also learned of the tragic death of Cleveland Gervais, 53, who fell from the platform edge at Eden Park station in Bromley, south-east London. Eden Park is one of the 40% of stations in the UK that do not have tactile paving at the platform edge. Network Rail has plans to install tactile paving in all UK stations, but with the goal for completion as late as 2029, how many more tragedies can we expect by the end of the decade?
Something else that struck me when listening to In Touch was the difficulty of taking a lateral flow test. From summer 2021 onwards, I became a pro with the trusty LFT. Any time I felt under the weather, had plans to see a group of friends, or wanted to visit my grandma, I would take one. It became second nature, even after the government announced the plan to “live with Covid”.
What if I had been blind or partially sighted?
Research suggests that 50% of registered blind and partially sighted older people are living alone – none of whom had the freedom to take an LFT when they wanted. In the spring, just as the government put a price tag on buying the tests, they approved a system to allow blind and partially sighted people to use them. The UK HSA joined forces with the ‘Be My Eyes’ app, which connects you to a fully sighted person to undertake day-to-day tasks. We can all appreciate the timing was terrible, but at least a change was eventually made.
Touch screens were another hidden headache that In Touch drew my attention to, and this time it was something I could do something about, in my own small way.
There has been an influx of touch screen card readers in shops and cafés, driven to an extent by marketing pushes from the manufacturer. For the partially sighted, these card machines are a major problem if they are unable to use contactless, or if their bill exceeds £100.
One interviewee on In Touch expressed concern about the embarrassment she would face if she held up a long queue or had to explain herself to unknown shop assistants. These machines would also prove more difficult for those with conditions affecting fine motor skills, such as Parkinsons. It really feels like change for change’s sake, with all the unintended consequences that inevitably brings.
When chip and pin was designed, manufacturers had to make sure the machines were accessible. While the new machines may comply with regulatory certification, there is no mandate to ensure the businesses know of the access implications. As an individual shopping from small, independent businesses, I try my best to bring this to the attention of the owner. There are add-ons available, such as plastic overlays, that would increase accessibility and inclusivity.
Now that I have put my mind to it, I’ve really started to notice how much I take simple tasks and the ease of my day-to-day life for granted. Lack of accessibility is an issue for so many, but is not talked about enough.
Even if all I can do is complain about a card machine, at least I am doing something.
In an increasingly digitised world, we need to remember that progress for some does not mean progress for all.