July 2008

Transport, travel, and all things getting about.

Picture of Cathy sitting on the bike looking over her right shoulderAs you know this story is all about travel. It is, however, about more than just travel. The story is about choices, disability, culture, women and independence. It is about moving freely in the world as a blind person. Now, obviously there are things I am unable to do without assistance. It is a fact.

It is also a fact that I cannot drive a motorcycle or, if I tried to, it would be a very, very short journey ending in a resounding crash of broken metal!

Bernard has, however, commented about driving standards which indicates, perhaps, I could do as well as some of the people who do have driving licenses! He often mutters in his helmet “Sorry I nearly killed you mate, I didn’t see you” as somebody pulls out on us.

Anyway, with all the stories about transport and the woes of travelling on the British transport system I thought this month’s update should include some praise for British Rail on behalf of my own experiences as a blind person. I think it may well be echoed by other users of what is called The Assistance System. This gives me freedom to travel and is a very precious commodity to a blind person.

If you have ever sat on a train and seen a blind person (with or without guide dog) as the train trundles along have you ever wondered how – as a blind person – it is possible to travel alone from one end of the country to the other? You may not know but it is possible due a wonderful system called ‘assistance’. With this I can arrive at an unknown station where I am greeted by rail staff who will escort me to my train and seat. These staff will then radio ahead to the station where I am due to disembark. Another very nice person will then find me (the dog does, sort of, give me away) and escort me to through connections or taxi ranks or anywhere in the station where I am to be met by my colleagues or friends.

I have never experienced anything but efficiency and courtesy with this service. In all the years of travelling around the country by train I cannot remember a single occasion where the system has failed. In my travels I have come across some really nice  staff who always go out of their way to be of assistance and to aid me in this way. So three cheers for this part of the much maligned rail system.

I would like to also mention at this point Stuart at Earlstown Station. I have met Stuart on numerous occasions when I travelled to work from there before changing routes and leaving from Newton. Stuart has been following the preparations for the journey through this site along with verbal updates from Bernard’s father (who travels frequently from the station). I have travelled to and from Liverpool and Manchester for some years and, probably, Stuart and all the staff at railway Stations all over the country have probably never received a pat on the back for a job well done in terms of the Assistance they give to people with disabilities.

Everybody needs to know when they are doing a good job and so a big thank you to everybody on the railway system who make it work. It really is very special.

Many people I have met at Railway stations are sponsoring the journey and have requested sponsorship forms for donations while we are away. People have also requested that Biscuit be taken to Newton station for 8am every morning as the perfect pre-work ‘de-stressor’ she has proved to be will be sadly missed during our  journey when she is staying in Chester.

Radio interviews

I have done several interviews recently for Insight Radio and one concerned my eye operations and the importance of regular eye tests for everybody (whether you can see or not!). 

If you are reading this and have not had an eye test for some time then take a quick slap from somebody who nearly had very serious consequences from not having an eye test for so long. In my case – if you have read previous updates – you will recall that it all seemed such a waste of time as I couldn’t see therefore assumed an eye test was useless. Little did I know that the pressures were building to dangerous levels within the eye. Thankfully everything is now stable and my pressures are holding at 14 each eye (normal to be 20 or under). The second interview concerned the upcoming trip around the world in aid of raising awareness. In this we discussed our plans with much humour and some serious preparatory questions regarding the journey.

From these interviews we then received a call from the BBC Radio 4 programme In – Touch who asked us to go to BBC Radio Manchester to be interviewed about the journey. The interview was recorded in the studio and due to be broadcast on 5th August when we will already be out of the country. We will probably not get to hear this unless we can find an internet cafe and listen through the play again function. If anybody managed to record an MP3 file of the interview then please feel free to email it to us!

Sponsors

Picture of the Dolphin LogoAs we are writing this update the equipment has arrived from Dolphin Computer Access and we would like to send a big thanks to them for supplying the laptop to be used on the journey. There were numerous calls going backwards and forwards between us and many of the staff at Dolphin as everybody kindly worked on providing what was deemed to be the best solution in terms of robustness and accessibility.  The equipment is, after all, going to take some punishment being transported around the world!

The laptop itself has been loaded with the very latest version of Hal the Dolphin Screen reading software and they have also sent an additional facility for me in terns of Hal on a Pen – which will enable me to access computers all over the world (I will write about this aspect of accessibility during the trip and, no doubt, Bernard will be filming and snapping away as I use it!) This in itself will be such a useful and important aspect as I can use any computer in the world and be able to access information independently rather than having to rely on carrying the laptop everywhere we go. The pen is no larger than a standard USB memory stick so it can fit inside my purse and go everywhere with me. Fantastic!

Picture of the Autocom logo

Autocom Specialist communications have continued to be brilliant as noted in previous updates. Bernard spent the day travelling down to the factory at Warwick and was there as the communication system was installed by Paul (bike installation) and Richard (installations within helmets).

Picture of the autocom technician installing the system on Bertha

Autocom installation at the factory.

The whole thing was handled so well and so smoothly that it was a real pleasure to be there according to Bernard. Unfortunately I was not able to attend the factory for the day as it was not possible for me to get the day off from my role in Action for Blind People. I was really disappointed but due to staff shortages it just was not possible.

We tested the system on his return and the whole thing works so well that it is operating way beyond our expectations. The channels are crystal clear between the two of us and the directions from the Satellite Navigation lets me know at all times where we are. We are also able to record our conversations as we ride through the world and we will be posting these on the web for other people to listen to.

Even when there was a slight hitch with the links between the system and our mobile phones (we can receive calls and make them on the bike) Autocom sent out

Picture of the technician installing the system on the bike

Autocom Installation

parts overnight to fix the problem. It may well be that it was just Bernard was rubbish at following instructions rather than any fault in terms of equipment (he sounds very sheepish when I raise this with him?)

Autocom have also told Bernard that – in the unlikely event of anything going faulty – contact them straight away by email or phone and sit still for a couple of days while they send out replacement parts to fix the system. Fantastic team and great bunch of people.

Once this system was installed then it seems that July has passed in such a whirlwind of activity and emotions and there has been so much to do in such a short time.

Guide Dogs and what it means to be a guide dog owner. 

Picture of Cathy with Petra and Biscuit

Petra (left) and Biscuit (right)

Myself and Bernard had wanted to arrange to go and visit my previous Guide Dog Petra who, if you recall from December update, lives in Blackpool.

I wanted to see Petra before I left the country as she is over 12 years old now and it may well be that this may well have been  the last time I would ever see her. Alas it was not to be.

Bernard tried on numerous occasions to arrange a half-hour visit anywhere within the eight days prior to our departure. This meeting would have been at a convenient time and place for the person who is looking after Petra on behalf of Guide Dogs. Unfortunately there was a reluctance to allow me to visit although a time and date was arranged only to be subsequently cancelled at short notice. The only explanation we really received was it was ‘too inconvenient’ to have a visitor. We turned to Guide Dogs for assistance as in the past a suggestion was made by Guide Dogs staff themselves to meet Petra at the Guide Dogs Centre in Bolton. This was in order to minimise the ‘inconvenience’ of our twice yearly visit to Blackpool.

Written by Bernard

Guide dogs themselves were unable to assist in Cathy meeting Petra prior to departure despite multiple calls and my best efforts. To say that Cathy was devastated by the refusal to allow her to see Petra is probably a severe understatement. To be denied access after everything they had been through together across the years was nothing short of disgraceful.

I did – on behalf of Cathy as she was too upset – contact many figures within Guide Dogs about this – to me – cruel and unnecessary denial of Cathy a short visit to say goodbye. I met with vague and uneasy answers and gained less than satisfactory explanations. If events like this have happened to Cathy then I have no doubt that it will be happening to other people. If the ‘adoptive’ person does not tick the box re. access on the Guide Dogs application then at least this would be an honest approach. To us ticking the box and then denying access is irreprehensible. Due to this I have asked Guide Dogs – through their complaints procedure – for answers to certain questions such as:

1. Who owns the dog in the event of retirement? As far as we both know it is still Guide Dogs.

2. When the dog retires and the ‘Access’ box is ticked what does this mean (precisely)?

3. Can the re-homing section of guide dogs hold a person to their documented and verbal agreements re. some form of access in the future?

We will let you know when – or if – we receive answers through the complaints procedure to these questions as they occur.

Other news 

Picture of Cathy and Annie at an evening Gala for the Retinitus Pigmentosa Society

Cathy and Annie.

We would both like to say a very, very big thank you to my sister Annie who came to stay with us during our final days prior to departure. To say that she was fantastic would not do her justice. As Bernard and I were launching ourselves around 25 things to do every minute – for days on end – she calmly held everything together. She supported us and looked after everything around us while we tried to get things done in time for the departure. Her presence made everything better and we know she worries about her ‘little sister’ but keeps quietly checking the preparations in her own way! If you missed the very lovely Radio interview with Annie for Radio Four then select here.

The final few days disappeared in a mad rush of goodbyes to friends and colleagues at work in Action for Blind People along with the local cafe where I have lunch on most days (the owner Lisa donated £5 and wished us the very best of luck).

Monday we went to the hospital for the final clearance on my eye condition before going to the Solicitors to sign our Last Will and Testimony.

Tuesday we separated and Bernard went into work while I recorded interviews for In-Touch (regarding eye tests) before my sister arrived from London to spend our final days together before we set off.

Wednesday daytime consisted of plumbers fixing problems, vets checking Biscuit, Bernard going to the doctors for test results due to my sister extracting a promise from him knowing he keeps promises. Bernard was proud to announce – most of the evening that followed – in a loud voice at every opportunity – that his cholesterol has a 4.2 count.

He then proceeded to order every high cholesterol item on the menu while looking innocently across the table at my sister.

Picture of the friends and family sat at the evening meal.

Friends and family gather for the farewells

The evening meal came and went in a blur of friends and family meeting for a meal at a local hotel and a lovely evening was had by all. We affectionately called it the ‘Last Supper’ but hopefully not too literally!

 

Picture of Cathy sat in the studio wearing headphones and talking into a microphone

Cathy at the BBC

Thursday morning was spent in the BBC Manchester Studios recording the Radio Interview about the journey and then, at the last minute Bernard ended up in the dentist on Thursday afternoon as he broke a tooth the day before departure!

 Fortunately he managed to get it fixed the same day (thank you NHS!)

Then came the time for Biscuit to pack her toys and have her holiday in Chester.

I must admit to dreading this moment but when Sandra and Ian turned up Biscuit went completely loopy with joy.

According to Bernard’s description she was actually doing back-flips across the lounge although I must admit to being sceptical of this description.

However, it was very plain that she was so delighted to be reunited with them.

At this greeting virtually all of my fears melted away and Biscuit happily trotted out and was in the car before the door was even half-open. She settled down and my sister said she wished she had someone her dog was so attached to in this way as she would leave her dog in the care of Sandra and Ian without a thought of worry (there can be no higher compliment that Annie’s approval in this matter).

Picture of Biscuit's toys hanging on the washing line after being washed.

Biscuit's toys

So it was the final act seemed to be complete before we set off. We leave to begin something we set out to do two years ago. All of the disappointments, difficulties, and emotional ups and downs have led us to this day.

A Blind Woman, Two Wheels and 25,000 Miles begins tomorrow and we leave at 12 pm on Friday 1st August 2008.

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