Live Audio Description – a Victim of Legacy Hardware?

I should start by saying that I love audio description, I am reluctant to watch TV without it. It truly enhances my viewing experience and I can only hope that audio description continues to grow on TV.


However, the same can’t be said for live audio description. This is nothing to do with the tremendous work the describers put in. I have only admiration for the work they do. No, it is all down to the hardware used which was probably revolutionary 15 or 20 years ago but which has never really been updated.


The last time I visited a theatre and used the audio description facilities, I won’t mention its name as it could have been one of many, the experience was less than satisfactory. Despite the fact that we had pre-booked and said we would be wanting the headsets, they weren’t available on our arrival and we nearly missed the start of the play while people ran around looking for them. When we got them, the style was horrendous. They were like a pair of stethascope earphones, in that they hung in  the ears and came to a point under the chin. At the point there was a bulky volume control and receiver. These earphones had silicone tips which felt a little greasy. After only a few minutes of wearing them my ears started to become painful. Every time I moved my head I got pains in my ears so had to sit very still. The reception was a little fuzzy, presumably because I was not in direct line of sight with the transmitter. I believe this is done by infra red signal.


The describer was fantastic but after a while, the discomfort I was experiencing was becoming a distraction. At the interval I took off the headset and one of the tips fell off, never to be found. I therefore returned my headset as it was no longer wearable and watched the second half of the play without it.


As I said previously, this is in no way a criticism of the theatre staff whose enthusiasm was amazing. They were very disappointed when I returned the headset for which I felt bad, but I could physically no longer wear it.


I have only ever been to three other audio described performances, one at the cinema and two at other theatres.


The cinema one was dreadful. I had a large pair of headphones so could no longer hear the film properly. There was so much static interference that after 10 minutes it was no longer possible to hear the description either.


The other two theatre performances also involved huge headphones, blocking out the sound from the stage and making me feel very isolated. One also had a spell of about 20 minutes where there was no speaking at all by the describer.


I personally believe that the infrastructure for audio description should really be updated. I would like to see it transmitted over wi-fi to a receiver held by the user, or even to the user’s mobile phone. I would like the freedom to use my own earphones as they are very personal to each individual.


I’m sure this could be done and believe that audio description can only grow if the hardware is fit for the 21st century.


Maybe there is someone technical out there who could make my dream a reality?

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Queuing is something extremely difficult to do if you can’t see. There seems to be a whole culture around queuing and its etiquette and so often I, as a blind person and guide dog owner, get this wrong. I cause offence, I cause people to tut or moan at me but I very rarely get any meaningful help with it.


I was once told, in no uncertain terms, that just because I’m blind, it doesn’t mean that I can go to the front of the queue. This was at a bus stop where I had done just that. I don’t do it out of a sense of entitlement but simply because it is really the only option for me.


I catch a bus at a stop which is part of a long line of stops and for this reason, I need my guide dog to identify the stop I need which he does very well. However, he targets the bus stop post itself, rather than the queue. It’s impossible to train guide dogs to find the end of a queue which could be anywhere, it could be moving, and it could also be near to the next stop in the line if it is very long.


Another reason for going to the bus stop itself is so that the bus driver is aware that I want to catch the bus he or she is driving. If I’m further back in the queue, or worse still, not in the queue at all as I haven’t found it properly, the driver will probably be totally unaware of me.


Lastly, I do it so that when the bus pulls in empty, I can get on quickly, find a seat and quickly tuck my dog in out of everyone’s way.


I’ve tried asking people where the back of the queue is and invariably when I ask the question, I am met with silence. I used to worry greatly when I jumped the queues, but now, maybe because I’m older and care less what others think, I just do it. Sometimes kind people tell me to go on first, for which I am very appreciative.


Last night we had a different scenario. I was with my husband and his guide dog at the royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. At the end of the show, although we had asked for assistance to find the way out, none was forthcoming, so we decided to try to find our own way out. There was a bigger than usual backlog of people waiting to get out, probably because they were handing out badges to the audience. We waited for a while but suddenly, my husband’s dog saw a way through and went for it so we started walking. What we didn’t realise is that we were actually passing people who started to make comments “Why are those dogs doing that?” Doing what? Seeing a way through and going for it? No, it was probably breaking queue etiquette. However, at no time did anyone say, “excuse me, you’re jumping the queue”, or “Would you like some help with the queue?” No, they just moaned about what our dogs were doing which is doing what they are trained to do. We got out with no difficulty, not once walking into anyone or brushing past them, but just offending them so that they bristled with silent indignation.


You know what? I don’t care in the cold light of day. Last night I did, I felt very small and worried that I had pissed people off, but today I think to hell with it. No one was going to help us leave the concert hall, so our dogs did what they are trained to do and we got out safely.


I didn’t get my badge though, Karma I guess!

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The Small Gestures that Make a Difference

Every evening I travel home from work by bus and tram, starting my journey at Phoenix Park which is the tram terminus. Often when I arrive there are two trams waiting at the stop. Without any help this can sometimes mean me taking a wild guess and getting on the tram, only to find that the other goes out first.

However, recently on arriving at the stop, the doors on one tram will open so I take that one. I wondered if it was a coincidence but it would seem not. I think that what is happening is that the driver of the first tram to leave is opening the doors, thus indicating to me that they will be going first.

A small but thoughtful gesture for which I thank the NET tram drivers.

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In Praise of Staff at Birmingham New Street Station

It’s all too easy to write and complain when things are going wrong so it’s good to have something really positive to write about.


On Sunday evening the whole of the Birmingham area was hit by flash flooding and lightning. At the time, my husband and I, plus our two guide dogs, were travelling back to Nottingham via Birmingham New Street station. About ten minutes before we were due to arrive at the station our train stopped in the midst of a huge thunder storm. The rain was so sudden and torrential that the track in front of our train flooded to the point where the water was over the rail heads and it was unsafe for our train to continue. There was no alternative than to sit it out. During that time we had regular updates from the train manager who did an excellent job. He also called ahead to Birmingham New Street as we had pre-booked assistance. In short, we were just over two hours late arriving at the station and we had been warned to expect over crowding as very few trains were moving.


For this reason, we fully expected that we would encounter problems with assistance. However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. The gentleman who had originally been assigned to meet us from our train was there waiting for us and actually seemed pleased that he’d still been able to meet us. He then took us to the customer reception office where we were asked to wait. However, when my husband asked him if Starbuck’s was still open, he said it was and went there with my husband to get us drinks.


The system of having people wait for assistance at customer reception is one which works well. Although we had a very long wait, we wer not at all stressed as we knew that staff were there to help us and we knew that we would not be forgotten. When it was clear that we wouldn’t be leaving the station very quickly, we approached the man at the desk to ask if there was a possibility that someone could accompany us to the designated place at the station for spending our dogs. We didn’t have to wait too long before someone came to help us which meant that we could be confident that our dogs were as comfortable as they could be.


In the end we waited at New Street for about an hour and a half before we were told that we could have a taxi to take us to Nottingham. We finally got home about three hours after we had been due to.


The flooding was a situation that couldn’t have been pre-empted and I have no doubt that the staff at Birmingham new Street were working at full capacity and then some. However, despite the difficulties faced, the staff couldn’t do enough to ensure that we were well looked after. They really went that extra mile to provide excellent customer service for which we were extremely grateful.

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Is This the Right Room for an Argument?

Once again I come to this blog with tales of woe about Passenger Assistance at Nottingham train station. You may have read past entries about people nnot turning up but now they are clearly trying a new tactic. This is, meeting passengers then starting an argument with them!

Saturday I travelled to Bristol Parkway so booked assistance. I know many blind people would just advise me not to bother with it but finding trains is easy enough but finding your seat is so much easier with sighted assistance, or at least it should be.

I was met at the barrier at Nottingham station and everything was going very well until we reached the platform where the conversation with the gentleman concerned went something like this:

Me: We need to find first class please as I have a first class ticket.

Him: There isn’t any first class on this train.

Me: That would be surprising as I was sold a first class ticket.

Him (after wandering away): No, there isn’t any first class.

Me: It’s usually at the very front or very back of the train and is a small compartment.

Him: It’s not on this train.

Me: Could you possibly ask the train manager please?

Him: Can I see your ticket? Ah there is no seat reservations so it doesn’t matter where you sit and this isn’t a first class ticket.

Me: There were no seat reservations but this is a first class ticket, I have paid for it so that I have more room with my guide dog so I would like to sit in there please.

He eventually went away again and strangely enough, located first class and all was well. Phew, what a carry on, but this paled into insignificance after my experience today when returning to Nottingham.

Today’s conversation went something like this. Different man today:

Him: Hello Mrs Griffiths, where would you like to go? (This was starting well).

Me: Please could you take me to the steps of the middle bridge where I’ll know where I am and I’ll be fine from there.

Him: I can take you to Station Street if you like.

Me: Thank you but that won’t be necessary as I know where I am once on the bridge and in fact I am going to catch a tram.

Him: You can’t get to the tram from the middle bridge.

Me: You can, If you turn right at the top of the steps, left at the end and up some more steps you come out at the tram level where you have to double back on yourself a little way to get to the actual tram stop.

Him: No you can’t go that way?

Me: Have the steps been closed off for some reason?

Him: No, there aren’t any.

Me: There are, I’ve been up them.

Him: You must be getting confused with another station.

Me: No I’m really not, could you just take me to the bridge?

Him: No, you have to go up the lift to the concourse. I know because I work here.

Me: Please just take me to the bridge.

Once at the steps I suggested he followed me to see where I meant but he didn’t. Maybe it was because I’d told him not to be so patronising to people in the future.

Maybe he was waiting for me to come back down with my tail between my legs and say “You were right, oh wise one, how could I have been so stupid and blind?”

Of course I did no such thing. I walked the route I’d described, went up some very real steps that did not take me to fairy land where all blind people can see and there’s no need for station assists! At the top was a very real tram which took me to my very real job in my very real life.

I can honestly say that I have never been spoken to in such a way by a member of station staff. I was even starting to doubt myself. Maybe there was another bridge that I hadn’t seen before? Of course there wasn’t.

I really don’t know what he was thinking but a complaint will be winging its way very shortly.

My point is that assistance should be just that. Not an opening to bully your customers into doing what you want them to just because you have some misguided notion of what’s best.

Someone with less confidence and more orientation issues than me could have been totally confused and undermined by that person today.

The guy on Saturday was really just an annoyance, probably because he just wanted to put me in the first available seat rather than allowing me to have a view on where I wanted and had a right to sit. The guy today, however, was dismissive, patronising, rude and lacking in knowledge. Clearly presuming that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about because I can’t see.

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Accessibility is So Much More than Steps

OK, lets start this entry with a little guessing game for a bit of fun!


Where am I?


I’m walking very slowly around a large room. Other people are milling around and there is some classical music playing. I am listening to a friend reading various pieces of information dotted around the room. Unfortunately I don’t remember a lot of it as I’m struggling to concentrate. As I walk around I have many featureless glass cases in front of me. Sometimes there are open spaces with a rope at my waist height.


I do remember two things from the experience: Some spears on a wall whose handles and lower shafts I can feel and an immense porridge pot which stands about waist height and which is made from bell metal.


Well, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was a pretty dull and unfulfilling experience for me but sadly it is not unusual. I was at Warwick Castle hoping to enjoy an informative day out. This was not to be as there was nothing to touch or experience directly and there was no audible information throughout the exhibition in the Great Hall.


I was more fortunate though than my friend who came with us who is a wheelchair user. There was no access for him to enter the Great Hall at all.


I might have enjoyed a visit onto the ramparts of the castle but on the Warwick Castle website it states that assistance dogs are not allowed in this area. A blind person without her guide dog is bound to fail on castle ramparts so that was out.


We then considered visiting the dungeons where, apparently, actors bring them to life. This sounded better! But having paid almost £70for four blind people, one of whom is a wheelchair user, and not been able to experience anything, we didn’t feel able to part with any more money.


I am a realist, I know that there will always be things that are inaccessible to me as a blind person, but Warwick Castle haven’t even tried. Some well put together audio information and a few things to touch would have made the day much more interesting and memorable.


When we arrived at the castle and went through the barrier, the sighted person in our group was given an accessibility guide on a piece of paper. However, it would be more accurate to call this an inaccessibility guide. All it seemed to tell us was where the toilets were and where it would not be possible to go with a wheelchair on account of the steps.


After the visit and on delving through the website some more, I learnt that there was a Braille guide available. However, at no time were we offered this, even though three of us had guide dogs with us so we weren’t exactly hiding our disabilities!


I am not an advocate for disabled people being allowed free entry to attractions. I earn money and believe that I should pay my way like everyone else. However, in this instance, I feel that Warwick Castle should not charge for disabled visitors as there is absolutely nothing there for us. I feel particularly strongly about this as, a few years ago, Warwick Castle were approached by RNI B as part of their Culture Link projects, to improve accessibility for blind and partially sighted people. They were not interested.

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eye Poking

A strange title for a blog post you might say, unless of course you are part of, or have knowledge of, the blind community.

Eye poking is an unfortunate habit that some blind children have which, if not corrected, can also continue into adulthood. Many people say that it provides stimulation to the eyes where there is none in blind children. It causes much distress to parents and family members and even sets the blind community apart, those who do not do it often site themselves as being better functioning or socially more acceptable than those who do.

I was born with Lebers Congenital Amaurosis and I used to be an eye poker. I’m not proud of it but I am also not as ashamed of it as I used to be.

I spent my childhood being constantly pulled up about it. I was at time shouted at because of it and was offered bribes if I stopped doing it or privileges were withdrawn because I did it.

I am an intelligent person and know that eye poking is unsightly, it is not good for the eyes and it is behaviour which draws attention to blind people for all the wrong reasons. However, even as an adult, I found myself doing it, often when I was concentrating particularly hard or if I was tired. I also regularly experienced extreme discomfort in my eyes which was only relieved when the eye was pressed on. This was something I just accepted to be the norm.

I have no evidence to prove this but it seems that eye poking is particularly prevalent amongst those of us with Lebers Congenital Amaurosis and I wonder, therefore, if the discomfort I experienced was due to the condition itself.

Due to further complications I have now had both my eyes removed. This was done over a period of just over a year and I noticed, when the first one was removed that I no longer attempted to poke that eye. Since the second was removed, I can categorically say that I never poke my eyes, even inadvertently when I’m concentrating.

The point I am making here is that, for years I was ashamed of the habit and ashamed of myself when I found that I was doing it. I was made to feel that it was a failing and that I was a lesser person because I did it.

Yes, it is something that you can learn not to do and all the reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but I firmly believe that the discomfort I experienced was a major factor as to why I could never wholly break the habit.

So, I would say to you if you have a child or family member who pokes their eyes, talk to them about why it is not a good habit to have. Guide them, don’t punish them. Warm or cold pads on tired eyes can be a suitable alternative if at home.

The chances are, they are not poking their eyes to be difficult or because they don’t care how they look. Please, be kind and don’t let them experience the shame I did.

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