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Right now I’m angry, upset and pissed off.

This morning my train pulled into Redfern station as normal. There was the usual struggle to get off the train, dodging the selfish people who just stand there and won’t move.

I get out of the train, and follow the noise to somewhere near the bottom of the stairs, which I manage to miss. When my cane hits the side of the lower stairs, I realise my mistake and double back.

I trudge up the stairs with hundreds of other people, walking at the slowest pace possible. I reach the top of the stairs, and turn to my right at the tactile ground surface indicators (TGSIs) at the top of the stairs.

I follow the barrier on the right side of the concourse by sweeping my cane back and forth in front of myself as I walk. I use the straight edge of the concourse wall to keep walking straight, which is something I’m not able to do without tactile reference. In my left hand I hold my Mini Guide, which I swing in the opposite direction to the cane. As I put my left foot forward, the cane taps the barrier on my right and the mini-guide is pointing around 45 degrees to my left.

I reach the top of the stairs of Platforms 2 and 3, indicated by more TGSIs, and slow, listening for people coming up the stairs checking for people and obstacles with the mini guide. The path appears clear and I take an angle across the top of the stairs looking for the concourse barrier again. I think I find it first with the mini-guide, which vibrates in my hand, and I confirm with the sound of metal on metal as my cane makes contact. I adjust my angle and walk on.

For reasons that completely fail to make any sense to me, people often stand along the edge of this section of the concourse. I have no idea why. Usually it’s a game of dodging some people while others move, but it’s generally hard to tell which is which. At this point, traffic has picked up; trains come and go, people run without looking. The mini-guide starts vibrating continually, which renders it useless, and the sheer number of people making noise on the tiles makes the state of play more confusing.

The stairs to platforms 4 and 5 are set back from the concourse, and while listening for people coming up the stairs, the background noise makes it impossible to work out if the path is clear, if people are standing in the way, or if there’s actually traffic there. I slow down and pass the entrance to the platform as the cane finds only empty space. I take two steps forward before I’m hit first on my left side by someone trying to enter the stairs. I bounce off the person, spin slightly and try to move forward as I’m hit from the right.

People just keep walking, and I try to get out of the way. I’ve lost contact with the side of the concourse while someone kicks the tip of the cane, making it bounce off the ground. I can’t see anything beyond a lot of movement in the dark. I swerve right and the cane contacts the ground and the barrier as I move forward into another body. At this point, it’s just one of those “get out of there” moments, so I push forward, and follow the turn in the concourse.

At this point the concourse changes to a concrete gutter, and I’m hitting it with some force, making a lot of noise, hoping people might actually pay some attention. The cane feels odd, and I suspect its bent. The path clears a bit, the mini-guide stops it incessant vibration, and lots of people are walking the same direction I am, though I feel a few people brush past going the other way.

We come to the entrance to platforms 6 and 7 which are, if anything set further back than the stairs to platforms 4 and 5. At this point I’m just trying to get out alive. There’s lots of noise and motion, the path seems clear. I take three full steps across the landing entrance before not, one, not two, but a bunch of three or four people hit me from the right. I stumble and half trip while the people move around and keep going. I take another step and something feels wrong.

Badly wrong.

The cane isn’t running over the ground properly. I stop as I realise that the thing is now in two pieces held together by the elastic inside. I throw the useless thing on the ground. Retrospectively I think the tip actually broke off at this point, but given the whole end had come away, that was just the last straw.

I shouted. I don’t remember exactly what I shouted. I realise at this point I’m totally stuck, I can’t see anything meaningful, I have nothing to track the ground with (the mini-guide really only works around waist height). I am close to tears and in shock.

What has happened at this point is that my mobility and independence were taken away by a few uncaring people. Were I in a wheelchair, it would be as though they’d tipped me out and taken to it with baseball bats. Would people have done something if that had happened? What about if these people had walked up and poked my eyes out?

(We’ll ignore the minor problem that if I were in a wheelchair I wouldn’t be using Redfern Station as it isn’t wheelchair accessible)

What I got was some random fellow commuter who stopped and asked if I was OK. Not station staff. Not transit officers. A fellow commuter. Would that have happened if I’d been a wheelchair user? If I’d been obviously assaulted?

So this one guy actually stops and asked if I was OK. I mumbled something about the ruined cane, waving it vaguely. At this point I’m mentally pulling myself together enough to think I’ve got a spare at work. I fumble around my phone a bit, trying to find my contacts. Eventually I get it together enough to call the office. It’s just before 9am, so it goes to the answering machine. I hang up and try to find colleagues mobile number. I manage to make the call and arrange to meet near the ticket barriers on Gibbons Street.

At this point I’m starting to make sense of things again, and realise I’ve got to make it down the concourse and the across the open space to the ticket barriers. While I can follow the wall on the edge of the concourse, I have no idea how I’m going to make it across the space with no tactile references. At this point the other guy is still standing there and asks again if I need help. I stumble my way through a sentence, indicating where I needed to go. Placing his arm against my hand, he offered his elbow for me to grab.

I was surprised. Most of the time, when strangers try to lead they grab my arm, or worse still my hand and try and push me along. This is totally the wrong method. This random guy had got it totally right. I asked if he’d done this before, to which he responded that he hadn’t. After taking me through the gate, he left me by the ticket machine, placing my hand on the fence.

So to this random guy, thanks. Seriously thanks. Sorry for being a mess and not thanking you properly at the time.

To the staff, transit officers and other commuters at Redfern Station, I am seriously angry. Presently I’m trying to find a way to work that avoids this station entirely, though I suspect there isn’t one that doesn’t involve at least three train changes.

This is not the first time I’ve had a cane ruined at Redfern station, though this is the most severe example. At no point has any member of staff, any transit officer, or any commuter ever offered any kind of assistance. This, to me, demonstrates exactly what’s wrong with Australia.

This is an entry in the 75th Disability Blog Carnival, and is the first time I’ve done this.

Milestones mark the distances along roads, and date back to the Roman Empire. They tell you how far you’ve come and often how far you’ve got to go. The more metaphorical life milestones don’t often tell us much about the distances between themselves, they’re like the Roman milestones that simply gave the name of the reigning emperor and often hold more significance to us than anyone else.

I was thinking of some milestones before I started writing this, and events that stuck out in my mind were things like walking through Martin Place in Sydney after being told my Optic Nerve was basically dying off, and there’s nothing that can be done. I was with my mother, and I wandered a few meters away as we were making our way to the train station.

This is where it really hit me for the first time, walking past the MLC centre. Naturally enough I saw the whole idea of losing my sight as a sighted person, with the dependence I had on my vision and a lack of understanding of what it really meant. At the age of 20, when life seems like it will go on forever, there was that overwhelming feeling of hopelessness. The tears welled up, and I wanted to scream. But I couldn’t do that there. In the middle of the city. In front of my mother, who had already been through so much with all of her children. I forced it back down.

More recently, having an assessment and totally failing to recognise anything on the eye chart, even from a meter away. Being unable to count fingers on a hand in front of my face. While 14 years had passed between Martin Place and that darkened room in Fairy Meadow, some of that feeling remains. While the fear I felt at 20 has been replaced with skills and confidence, the sense of loss remains.

Losing a significant amount of vision at the point I did, as my brain was reaching the end of its development, I feel that I’ll always be a sighted person who can’t see. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better to have loved and lost. I’ve got concepts in my brain that people who have never seen never have, but the whole blind skills thing still feels like it’s laid over the top, rather than integrated. Maybe this will change as I get older. Maybe I’m being impatient.

But this is all being horribly negative. Some of positives include my first long cane. Some time not to long after Martin Place, I’d gotten in contact with Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, and was assessed as being eligible for a cane. Or should that be needing? I was walking around basically staring at the ground in front of my feet so that I wouldn’t fall over things, and while it worked on that level, it meant I walked into things instead (and I got a very sore neck, since we’re not built to walk around like that).

A friend and I got taken from Armidale to Coffs Harbour and I spent a week learning to use a cane. This was a skill I picked up surprisingly well, and it’s certainly one of those milestones you call life-changing. This is the only time I’ve spent more than half an hour in Coffs Harbour, and is the first new place I’d been after crossing that 6/60 acuity mark. I still think of the city as a series of disjointed paths, parks, beaches, streets and shopping centres, and the whole thing reminds me that I was starting to believe that this whole blind thing wasn’t actually the end of the world.

Similarly, learning Braille was a similar milestone, though not so much for the learning as the things around learning. I still don’t use Braille anywhere near enough to be proficient, but I can get by. While I learned Grade 1 Braille (the basics) at home with some audio and Braille books and my local worker from the then Royal Blind Society, I had to go to Sydney for two weeks and go to the RBS offices at Enfield, which involved learning a reasonably complex route from a friend’s house in Brookvale. But the bigger thing was this was the first time I spent any amount of time with more than one other blind person. This was also the first time I realised that as a resident of a regional city I was missing out on a lot of blind related things, certainly meeting other people was a big thing, but also the Braille classes and the like were only available in Sydney, and left me at something of a disadvantage. While I’ll blame some of this on the state of NSW, which generally forgets that there’s a lot more to it than Sydney, it’s still an ongoing problem for Vision Australia and others.

These are just a few milestones that spring to my mind around my disability. Of course, there’s lots more that everyone experiences: starting jobs, going out with my now wife and getting married. Pregnancy is proving to be its own series of milestones, and I’m certainly looking forward to the next one when the baby finally comes.

On 28th February the Productivity Commission released their draft report into Disability Support and Care. It’s not been a surprise that they’re recommending the creation of a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Others will go on about this, and I may even present my opinion sometime soon, but what I wanted to explore now is one of the elements of the report, and how this is making me think about my blindness.

In short the proposal includes four categories of people who would be eligible for coverage by the scheme. The people who would be served by the proposed scheme would:

  • have significant limitations in communication, mobility or self-care (3a)
  • have an intellectual disability (3b)
  • be in an early intervention group (3c)
  • have large identifiable benefits from support that would otherwise not be realised (3d)

At first I couldn’t see where I was supposed to fit into the scheme as a blind person. The more I look; I am forced to conclude that they’re including the blind group in 3a because our communication is limited.

Which lead me to wonder why someone would think that my, or any other blind person’s, ability to communicate is limited.

From my University days I can tell you that Communication is the activity of conveying information. Communication requires a sender, a message and a recipient.

So, let’s look at some forms of communication. Verbal communication is clearly usable by anyone who does not have a hearing problem in the ranges of human speech.

Writing is the representation of language in a textual form, while text is a string of coherent symbols that transmits some form of informative message. While the common form of writing is simply done by marking these coherent symbols on a surface with a substance such as paint, ink, pencil or chalk; letters have been represented tactually in a number of ways.

Text can be embossed on surfaces, and be identified by touch, however the size needed to make these letters usable is comparatively large, and is inefficient for more than a few words. For this reason a number of tactile alphabets have been developed, including Night Writing for the French military, Moon type, New York Point and the most famous: Braille. (See Wikipedia)

Braille is a proven system, and while its falling into some disuse in some areas, it is still important for people to learn. There is a debate around teaching children Braille, while much is available in audio form, or in text form that can be read via computer, learning the alphabet in this way is something many people are passionate about.

The issue with Braille is its use in everyday society. While new buildings are required to include Braille signage, these are so few and far between, you’re unlikely to be running your hands over walls on the off chance you’ll find something readable.

On the topic of body language, Wikipedia cites John Borg in his book Body Language: 7 Easy Lessons to Master the Silent Language, asserting that human communication consists of 93% body language and paralinguistic cues. This leaves only 7% of communication as verbal. So what does this mean for someone who can’t see?

If we hold Borg’s assertion to be true, then it means the blind are missing out on 93% of communication.

Wikipedia contains an entry about eye contact, and while it lacks citation, most of what it contains would appear to be correct. It states:

“Eye contact and facial expressions provide important social and emotional information. People, perhaps without consciously doing so, probe each other’s eyes and faces for positive or negative mood signs. In some contexts, the meeting of eyes arouses strong emotions.” (Wikipedia)

So what happens when you can’t make eye contact? In western society, where eye contact is generally encouraged, not making eye contact can lead to the impression that you’re not paying attention, or that your attention is elsewhere.

Millions of people around the world large amounts of time communicating via the telephone, the internet and via the written word without major problems, so while 93% of communication might be non-verbal, it would seem its not strictly necessary for us to communicate as human beings.

So, as a blind person, is my communication limited. On considering the above points, is this actually a big problem, or just one facet of being blind?

With Braille, the written word was opened up to the blind, however the production of Braille books is comparatively more expensive, and the volumes are considerably larger. With the development of screenreaders, the computer has opened up written works much further, but still within a limited range.

Proprietary formats, the presentation of text as images and poor formatting are still major barriers to a blind person accessing printed materials, even when they’re available in electronic formats. However it’s been claimed that only a small percentage of printed material is available to someone who is blind or has another print disability.

Even with the explosion in ebooks, there have still been major access issues. Amazon Kindle has only recently been updated so that a screen reader user can access kindle books. None of the handheld ebook readers yet include a screen reader for people with a print disability. Issues such as copyright and the desire of some to protect property continue to limit innovation and universal access.

So, that’s me as a receiver. As sender, how is my communication limited? While I can write, I have no reference to do so in an ordered fashion on a straight line. Certainly I can type, and I’ve no problem speaking. As a sender, I’d suggest that my limitations are very small.

So, yes, Productivity Commission, my Communication is limited, but I’ll submit to you that this is not the main problem for the Visually Impaired.

I’m happy to admit that It could be that I only hold this opinion because I became blind at 20, and so the way I think about the world is coloured by the fact I used to be able to see. It might well be that other blind people might wholeheartedly disagree with this point of view.

The thing I find most difficult about being blind is actually my location, my location relative to everything else, and my own ability to navigate and avoid obstacles. This can be on a large scale in the world outside, or it could be in small spaces such as the kitchen at work. Just to re-emphasise the point of my previous post, I don’t feel incompetent or unsafe, but the environment and the people in it are what worries me. It limits my desire to go new places and try new things, this is my challenge, and one I’m working on.

So, at the end of the day, does any of this matter? I think that the way the population thinks about us as people with disabilities is important. Someone mentioned recently that their top five fears included paralysis and going blind, while Nic Steenhout recently blogged about these kinds of perceptions compared to how the disabled viewed themselves (the context is around physician assisted suicide). We all know we’re quite capable in most respects, beyond the confines of our individual impairments, but we’re still educating everybody else.

Can we regard the Productivity Commission as reasonable representatives of those in politics, on the Business Council of Australia or of society more generally? While I can appreciate the need for them to define the scope of who they intend to serve with their proposed scheme, the way in which they chose to identify the groups, seems to me, to be re-enforcing the negatives and perpetuating stereotypes.

As a user of a long cane, there are many things that the general population do that really annoy me.

If you see me, or any other blind person out and about (whether using a cane or a dog) there are right ways and wrong ways of offering help.  Guide Dogs NSW/ACT has made a nice little guide as part of their Don’t Turn a Blind Eye campaign.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve done many hours of work with Orientation and Mobility Instructors from Guide Dogs to familiarise myself with places I regularly go, and to learn the skills I need to go anywhere safely.  In addition, after over fourteen years of cane use  I hope that I have a good idea of what I’m doing.

So here, in general terms, I present my five pet hates:

5. The ones who think I’m faking it
This is less common the less I see. But even so, this group represent a particular section of ignorance. These people seem to think that you can either see perfectly, or not at all and so accuse you of “faking it” when something really big and obvious happens and you react. There is a small group, often shop owners who insist on placing displays and signage along the shoreline, who seem to think you’re “faking it” in order to cause them some great inconvenience by falling over their items and injuring yourself and complaining about it. (A shoreline is a clear path of travel which is easily followed using a cane, usually the side of a building. The Australian Human Rights Commission has some great resources around access to premisis and footpaths).

4. The One’s Who Don’t Think They’re Doing Anything Wrong
Like the dazed, these people seem totally oblivious to what’s going on. However, they’re actually not. They seem to feel that they can stand wherever they like and not move, and seem to expect you to know where they are and to move around them. They’re often offended by cane taps to the shoes or ankles.

3. The Dazed
The Dazed are responsible for breaking more canes than any other group of people, including my own foolishness. The dazed often gather in busy public spaces, and then wander around paying no attention to what is going on around them. They will often walk full into a blind person, as they seem to expect everyone else to do the seeing for them, and to dodge them. The secondary type of the dazed are the rushers. These guys also don’t watch where they’re going, but they do it at a rapid pace. There impacts with me and the twisting around my canes have caused several breakages.

2. The Talkers
This one doesn’t happen too often, though it really does top my list as a pet hate. There are occasionally people who will give a running commentary about where you are and what’s around, but not in any way that’s actually helpful. Things like “we’re coming to the top of the escalator” are generally obvious; “keep coming, you’re almost across the street” seems to indicate they think I’ve never crossed a street before; but the most common one is “you’re going to hit that object”, but gives no indication as to where object actually is. At the end of the day, the cane is providing lots of information, and often I’m actually looking for walls, polls and the like because they’re actually landmarks. Landmarks I can’t see, so I need to touch them to get my bearings.

1. The Grabbers
Grabbers are the most downright scary and potentially dangerous group. I’m talking about people who (a) think I don’t know what I’m doing, or think I’m doing it wrong; and (b) without saying a thing will simply grab me, usually by the arm, and attempt to drag me somewhere. So think of being in a crowded dark space, and having someone grab you from behind. What’s your immediate reaction? To be scared? To want to punch the person who’s grabbing you? This is exactly how I feel about grabbers. In addition, being suddenly pulled in one direction or the other can upset your balance. Now think of that on the edge of a train station platform. A slight variation on the theme are those who grab the cane. The cane functions as an extention of the hand, and its held in a fairly precise way to function effectivly, so grabbing the cane is probably worse than grabbing the arm. I once compared cane grabbing to poking someone in the eye.

The blind and visually impared aren’t just given a cane or a dog and sent on their way, since the recognition of the white cane as a mobility aide after Wold War II, many hours have been spent refining techniques, and teaching us how to get about safely. As this information from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT says, if you see someone with a visual impairment about, and you think they might need help, ask first.

[Or: My Cynicism and Gov 2.0]

I’m feeling a little vocal today, and given two blog posts, one from James Dellow of Headshif and the other from Acidlabs’ Stephen Collins, I feel inclined to throw my two cents in.

Yes, this probably is a wing from me, but I think its a bit justified. Two things make me feel like there are caveats on this open government thing.  The main caveats seem to be about doing things cheaply and it being enough to service the majority.

The first one is to do with the Accessible Voting trial that took place at the last federal election.  On the 16 March 2009 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters released an interim report which included a report that the federal government not continue to pursue accessible voting for those who are blind or visually impaired. (See the Blind Citizins Australia website)

..the threshold issue for the committee is whether the improvement in the quality of the franchise for electors who are blind or have low vision who, by using electronically assisted voting were able to cast a secret and independent vote, should be continued given the significant cost incurred in providing this service

In Australia we don’t actually have a right to vote. (We have no explicate rights and very few implied rights) Voting is actually an obligation of the citizen through the requirements of compulsory voting.  In other juristictions, where voting is a right, there would be considerable weight added by having a right to cast a secret and independent ballot, and rather than abandoning such systems finding a way to produce a cheeper solution would be an imperative.

At the end of the day it really feels like the committee has put it into the “to hard” basket.  It’s worth reading the report to see what other States and Territories have done.

Two side notes on this:  Firstly, I tried to use the accessable voting system, and was told that as the trial was not operating in my electorate I would be unable to do so.  Secondly, it’s worth noting I emailed my local member on this topic, and received a response from the committee chair in writing through the post.  Given I had stated I am Legally Blind, why did they send me a printed response?

Finally on this topic, the Committee says its open to pursuing other cheaper options, but that feels like lip service.

(Note: I did think about writing some of my feelings about not being able to cast my own ballot, but I think I’ll leave that for another time if people are interested)

The second issue is with respect to the Gov 2.0 Task force.  If you care to look at the post Official Issues Paper Released, you will see a conversation in the comments, primarily between myself, Stephen Collins and Peter Alexander.  I’ll leave it to you to read the conversation rather than reproduce it here, instead I’ll highlight key points.

My comments was with respect to the issues paper, which was released in various formates, most of which are reasonably good, acessability wise.  However, I downloaded the PDF version, and found it untagged.  I expressed by disapointment.  Mr Alexander pointed out that the governemtn doesn’t think PDF is suitably acessable.  At the end of the day PDF is supported by and ISO standard which specifies quite a number of accessability features.  The problem with these features is that they do have to be taken into account when the document is created.

Rather than looking at this as an issue to explore, Mr Alexander proceeds to quote a peice of HREOC research which, to my memory, dates from quite a number of years ago.  Indeed searching the HREOC site right now I can’t actually locate the document in question.

If I lived in almost any other country I would actually have rights surrounding this kind of thing, but given Australia’s lack of a Bill of Rights, we deal in a system of liberties.  We have almost no guarantees of anything.  Some will argue that this system provides us with more flexibility to adapt to a changing society, and that may be true, but it only seems to work that way if you fall into the majority.

At the end of the day I still feel totally dissatisfied with the committee’s response to my comment.  If we’re looking at creating amore open government, and a more open society, then quite clearly we’re failing miserably at this point.

And quite honnestly, given these kinds of responses I hardly feel encouraged to try and participate any further.

This is something I wrote back in May (this version dates from 21st) that hasn’t received a public airing.  Interested in your thoughts.  I wrote it in Word and have just pasted it in below… forgive the crappy formatting.

Community Broadcasting and Public Sphere 2.0

ALP Senator Kate Lundy announced on 29th April 2009, via her website, that she was involved in the creation of an online public sphere. In her post she said that the aim of the exercise was too “facilitate regular topics of interest to both the general public and to the government. This way people from all around Australia can participate online.” (more…)

First of all, the disclaimers:

  1. I am legally blind
  2. I use a Cane and Miniguide as mobility aids
  3. I consume services from Guide Dogs NSW/ACT
  4. I have once required the assistance of Guide Dogs Queensland, and was most dissatisfied. (Their release)
  5. I subscribed to the paper The Chaser in the early part of the decade
  6. I don’t find The Chaser’s War on Everything particularly funny, and I don’t generally watch the program.
  7. Having seen the ABC News Online article yesterday, I have now seen the skit in question on YouTube.

So, what do I think?  I think Guide Dogs Queensland is totally overreacting.  The only basis for complaint would be if the dog were a real working Guide Dog.  Somehow I don’t think that would get through the production processes at the ABC, do you?

Honestly, I’ve done pretty much the same joke myself. Usually when intoxicated, I’ve been known to offer my cane to others when they show suitble signs of intoxication.  It’s a lame joke, and not one I tend to find funny when sober, but it’s certainly not offensive.

I’m wondering whether we’d have seen as much attention on this without the reputation that The Chaser has been earning for itself.  Certainly since the APEC stunt, they’ve been riding high on publivity and much of that is negative. That doesn’t mean people won’t watch.  But given what one can learn about the program in the popular press, don’t you think some people would learn that they might be offended by the show?

Here’s a hint: if you think you might be offended by somthing on TV or radio, don’t watch it!  Really, it’s quite simple.

It’s not the job of broadcasters to censor content beyond classification.  It’s up to viewers to choose what they watch. It’s up the parents to monitor their children’s media consumption.

As I’ve said above I don’t watch The Chaser’s War on Everything, I don’t particularly like the program, but if this kind of knee-jerk over-sensative reaction were to lead to cancellation, then I think we’d live in a very poor society.

And BTW, if you’re considering a charitable donation, I’d highly reccomend dontating to Guide Dogs NSW/ACT.

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