Recently I spent a few weeks travelling in Sweden and Ireland, and I found it interesting to take note of what I encountered along the way as a blind traveller. I’ve been doing this for quite a long time now, in many different parts of the world, and it has been interesting to note the changes over time and the differences between countries.
Air travel, for instance, has changed both a lot and very little. There is increasing reliance on electronic ticketing – not necessarily easy for a person without sight to manage in crowded, noisy environments under time pressure (assuming, of course, the possession of an appropriate device).
Then there’s the airport security – a nightmare for most people, but with its own special challenges if one is blind: being separated from all one’s possessions, often for lengthy periods and without any means of keeping track of them; being separated from one’s mobility aid and often manhandled by staff without any experience of either guiding or interacting with blind people; and, especially where there is no shared language, being instructed, led, pushed, pulled without much, or any, knowledge of what is happening, and why.
On long-haul flights especially, there is much emphasis on in-flight entertainment systems as a source of diversion and, increasingly, information about the aircraft, flight details, amenities, and so on. A growing number of airlines even include Audio Described movies among their offerings! But here we encounter a problem: the controls for the devices which deliver all this are mostly touch screens – so no independent access to anything for those who cannot see.
On some of my recent flights, I couldn’t even adjust my seat without using the touch screen.
And, while Audio Described movies might be quite an advance, if no one tells you they are there, any advance is entirely hypothetical. I found on most of my flights that the cabin crew did not know how to access the Audio Description – presumably because they weren’t familiar with it. So operational training remains important, no matter how much automation and software is incorporated into the picture.
The big long-haul planes are becoming increasingly complex environments for passengers, so a lot of information is required to know what’s available, where, when, and how to use it. This information is delivered to passengers in a variety of ways, but little of it is routinely given to blind passengers. On a recent flight I was unaware, until just before landing, that right behind where I was sitting there was an area where passengers could help themselves to fresh fruit throughout the flight – and I had been hanging out for some fruit for hours!
If information is provided in any alternate format, it is almost always in braille (used by only a small proportion of us), and is restricted to the most basic information about the aircraft safety features. We need more than that, obviously, if we are to be safe, comfortable, and even fed and entertained!
In both Sweden and Ireland, I was interested to find that Audio Description on television was available – and the (sighted) people I spoke to were really interested to find out about this, as they had no idea such a thing existed. In Sweden the Audio Description was not of any use to me as it is, of course, in Swedish (not a language in which I have any facility!). But in Ireland it was a delight to be able to consult the programme guide about which programmes were Audio Described (quite a few) and then to select what I wanted to watch. It reminded me of the much-enjoyed ABC trials, now only a distant memory in Australia!
Interestingly, while Sweden is in many ways a progressive social democracy which has high levels of services for citizens (and others, too, in many instances), I wasn’t especially impressed by the accessibility of many public institutions. Physical access had been given some attention (for instance, widespread use of ramps and tactile ground surface indicators), in a context where many buildings are very old and pose difficult access problems.
The place where I encountered really limited access for vision impaired people was in some of the major cultural institutions. I found little evidence of braille, and almost nothing which made museum collections, for instance, accessible. With the help of Swedish friends, I went to the websites of these places before visiting them, but there was little to indicate disability awareness. Even the audio guides which were available at the major museums were touch screen devices which were completely inaccessible without sight.
After one frustrating visit, I contacted the museum’s access person to ask about access arrangements – but the best she could offer was that from time to time they had exhibitions which blind people were allowed to touch. Not impressive! By contrast, in Portugal (a poorer country, not especially known for progressive or democratic social policy) I was on numerous occasions offered braille guide books and encouraged to go into areas where I could have “close encounters” with rare and precious exhibits.
These are just a few of my observations from my recent travels. Rikki Chaplin’s article in the March issue of the News reminded me of the vulnerability we often experience, or anticipate, when travelling – but it reminded me of the kindness of strangers, too. When we choose to put ourselves “out there” we encounter both, I suppose, and sometimes forewarned is forearmed. In any case, I’d really be interested in learning more about other people’s travel experiences, wherever they are.
Thank you, Lynne, for your very thoughtful remarks. Some readers may not be aware that you are a former Editor of this publication, so this is in fact a Letter from one Editor to another. It’s a real privilege to have you in the conversation.
I was struck by a repeated theme throughout your comments. You mentioned several occasions where accessibility had been attempted, but not at all well-implemented. It’s frustrating to feel so close, and yet so far, from genuine inclusion. You’re right, of course, to point out the importance of people in achieving genuine accessibility. A little more training for flight attendants would have gone a long way, as, I suspect, would better consultation with the blind and vision impaired community during the planning stages for some of these features.
I also think it’s fascinating to compare attitudes and policies in different countries, and would love some input from other travellers around accessibility in the places they visited. But like you, and like many of our readers, I’m intrigued by all travel experiences, by the unique challenges we have to navigate, and the unique rewards that send us questing out of our comfort zones. If you have a story to tell, write us your own Letter to the Editor, or get in touch with us via phone, Facebook or Twitter.