Making buses more accessible

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An East Midlands ‘Swap with Me’ event with Kinchbus

After 150 years of campaigning for blind and partially sighted people, RNIB is continually striving to improve people’s lives. Madaline Dunn talks to Michael Wordingham, Regional Campaigns Officer and Bernie Reddington, Confidence Building Coordinator to get some insight into how RNIB is campaigning for better public transport for blind and partially sighted people

More than two million people in the UK are living with sight loss, with one person losing their sight every six minutes, significantly impacting their day-to-day. RNIB has been working since 1868 to remove the barriers placed in front of those who are sight impaired. One of the significant challenges facing blind and visually impaired people everyday is transport.

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I asked Bernie and Michael, both sight impaired themselves, to explain why accessible transport is so essential to improving their lives and the lives of the people they campaign for, and how better buses can help to deliver RNIB’s three core priorities.

“Buses are so important, especially in rural areas. Bernie and I are based in Norwich and we cover the East of England, so Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Bedfordshire,” said Michael. “It’s a huge area with lots of rural counties, so it is essential for us to ensure that there is bus accessibility in these areas, because for visually impaired people they are a lifeline.”

Michael noted that RNIB has three core priorities at the heart of its operations:
1.) Give blind and partially sighted people the tools they need to thrive;
2.) Connect them to society and their community; and
3.) Change society for the better.

Transport is at the centre of each of these priorities.

Essential to independence

Michael explained that accessible transport plays a key role in every level of life for those with sight loss: “Part of our second priority, becoming part of society, is heavily reliant on finding employment. The first step is getting to the interview, and after that ensuring that your employer has the assurance that you can get to work on time everyday.”

With only 27% of blind and partially sighted people of working age in employment, Michael and Bernie stressed the importance of improving accessibility.

Bernie, who has been campaigning for better services for sight impaired people for many years, added that those who are visually impaired have incredibly limited options when it comes to travel: “We can’t over-emphasise the importance of the bus, and that’s because we can’t just jump on a bike or in a car; you have very few options if you want to go anywhere significant or even if you want to go somewhere as basic like work or the hospital.”

Bernie highlighted how crucial the bus is to ensuring her own independence and integration into society: “Sometimes if I need to go to the shops, I catch the bus in order to cross the road safely as I live by a roundabout with no crossings.”

Michael added that this is not uncommon: “I hear a lot of stories like Bernie’s. When we’re campaigning, people tell us about all the creative ways in which they navigate themselves around town.”

Building confidence
“When people lose their sight,” Bernie continued, “they also lose their self-esteem and their confidence and so it becomes very hard to articulate the difficulties to anyone or envisage any solutions. If I, as part of RNIB can act as liaison and educator to those who provide an essential service, I am happy!”

Bernie, who works as a Confidence Building Coordinator, planning and facilitating one-day and two-day specialist confidence building days noted however, that for a visually impaired person, the idea of catching the bus can be daunting.

Speaking from her own personal experience Bernie said: “I came from a point where I was too frightened to use the bus at all. A lot of people who come to the confidence building courses that I run are newly diagnosed and still very much adjusting to sight loss. Many have moved to Norfolk and have then found themselves quite isolated after losing their sight.”

She also stressed the importance of having clearly marked bus stops to make a stressful situation slightly less difficult.

“I am in the minority of visually impaired people, because I have no sight at all, but 93-96% of visually impaired people have some sight, even if its just light perception, so brightly marked bus stops or shelters can be really helpful.”

Ensuring accessibility

The Bus Charter pledges to improve bus travel for individuals who are sight impaired

In a study by RNIB, research found that four out of every 10 blind and partially sighted people were not able to make journeys that they needed or wanted to make, and half required support to leave the house. Bernie expressed that campaigning is about making space available to everyone: “All of us are continually working to improve shared environments, and it’s a constant battle. All the infrastructure is vital to enable the use of bus services, so if you fall at the first hurdle, you can’t access the facilities available to everyone else.”

She went on to explain how connecting communities with local authorities is key to making sure that the community is prepared enough to cope.
“One of the specialist groups we cover in the confidence building courses is about mobility. One time, we had a representative from an operator attend to talk about the services they have for disabled people. A lot of the issues brought forward by the participants however concerned routes being cut and buses not stopping. These issues mean it’s vitally important that we teach the people on our courses to learn how to navigate the streets safely.”

I asked Bernie and Michael how people were being affected by cuts to concessionary passes. Michael responded: “We always look at the budget reports to check that there aren’t cuts to concessionary passes. Most places have been lucky, although unfortunately there are some places in Suffolk where people are no longer entitled to free travel before 0930hrs, which is something we intend to campaign for.”

Michael went on to explain how RNIB campaigners successfully fought for the maintenance of companion cards. “This was something we fought hard for, and again it’s about broadening people’s awareness. We invited the Council Leader to take part in an exercise where he was blindfolded, in order for him to get some understanding as to how essential the companion cards are for travel. One of the comments he made was that he didn’t realise that companion cards were that important.”

Bernie added: “These kinds of exercises are so important because it immerses people in the issue; you’re no less blind before 0930hrs, and you can’t just turn up to work when you feel like it.”

Influencing change
Michael noted however that there are ongoing improvements being made to bus travel for the visually impaired, which includes the development of audio-visual announcements: “Audio-visual announcements are something we’ve been campaigning strongly for, along with Guide Dogs UK. We were involved in a consultation on the Bus Services Act; however, progress seems to have stalled a bit.” Michael told me that RNIB, in conjunction with Guide Dogs UK, was encouraging people to lobby their MPs for more clarity on the Bus Services Act and to push for Audio-Visual announcements to be rolled out nationally.

Bernie added that whilst she had experienced audio-visual announcements in Hampshire, the same operator had decided against running them in Norwich: “People complained that the announcements were annoying after an initial trial, but services like this really improve the lives of people who are visually impaired, even if it just gives them a bit more confidence, it can completely change their day-to-day.”

Both Michael and Bernie explained that progress was dependent on spreading awareness and changing people’s perception about what it means to be sight impaired. One way in which RNIB has been striving to make these changes is through events like ‘Swap With Me.’ Michael said that empathy exercises like this help to push forward RNIB’s agenda.

“At the Swap with Me events,” he explained, “blind and partially sighted campaigners were given the opportunity to share their experiences with bus drivers. The drivers put on simulation specs and the volunteers went inside the cab. It allowed the drivers to get an idea of what it is like to get on the bus, buy a ticket and find a seat without full vision, and the volunteers experienced the multi-tasking of being a bus driver.” Michael noted that it was this kind of event which encouraged a lot of the top bus operators to sign up to the Bus Charter, which sets out how bus companies can improve their services for blind and partially sighted people.

Some of the pledges of the Bus Charter include:
• Waiting for passengers at stops;
• Ensuring that doors and exits are not blocked;
• Ensuring bus drivers tell blind or partially sighted people which service they are and what their destination is;
• Bus operators committing to review timetable and bus stop information in conjunction with local authorities and stakeholders to ensure information is as accessible as possible;
• Ensuring bus drivers are fully aware of the rules around concessionary passes and travel assistance cards; and
• Building interactive sight loss awareness training into driver training.

Bernie expressed however that whilst events like ‘Swap with Me’ spread awareness, due to being limited by time and resources, statutory driver training could be improved by the introduction of more in-depth exercises.

“One problem is that most of the diversity training that the drivers undertake happens in the space of one morning. This means covering everything under the Equalities Act in a very short amount of time. The problem is that even just one disability is incredibly complex and varied, and the help required for a sight impaired person is so specific that it can’t be covered in that time. So, the challenge we have is making sure that the drivers have the time for that training.”

Michael added that training days like these can be supplemented through visits to depots: “When we visit a depot, we talk to employed drivers as well as drivers in training in order to reach those who might ordinarily slip through the cracks, or not be able to attend certain events. The feedback we get from these sessions is universally positive and means that there is a better understanding all round.”

More work to be done

Bernie Reddington, based in Norwich, said it is difficult to navigate the city. DIEGO TORRES

Bernie also noted that some of the other events that RNIB has held have drawn attention to places which require more improvement: “One thing that came one of the mobility days was that people were struggling with the small print on bus timetables. Personally, I overcame this by using the voice on my iPhone and an app – but not everyone is technology savvy or has the money for a smartphone.

“It became apparent that while the operator in my area had adapted timetables to print off the website, the operator in a different region didn’t have this as a viable option, and the representative at the course was unaware of this. Again, this shows the importance of having the same services available nationally.”

Michael noted that as well as spreading awareness across operators, it is also essential that those who are visually impaired are aware of what they are entitled to.

“One of my participants from the Peterborough course,” said Bernie, “brought forward the issue of not being able to order a concessionary ticket through the app. We discussed this further and I encouraged him to get in contact with the bus company, because if it is not accessible, it becomes a form of discrimination.” Bernie continued: “The man emailed the company and within the week they had added the concessionary ticket to the app.”

“I’ve seen incidents like this happen a lot and people don’t spring to action because they don’t realise it’s discrimination. So again, awareness drives forward empowerment.”

Michael explained that as well as making changes on the ground, it’s essential to ensure that sight impaired people are also part of decision making.

“In the South West I am aware of community members becoming stakeholders for Stagecoach for example. It’s all about connecting the community with decision makers and ensuring that we are constantly part of the conversation.”