This article was written by Hugh Bulfin, Rachel McLaughlin, Tara Ferry and Siobhan Quirke who are 3rd year occupational therapy students from National University Ireland Galway. They are currently completing a project about public transport for people with a visual impairment. It is interesting to read the team’s perspective and conclusions following their study.
Studying to become an occupational therapist has made me and my classmates consider the ways that those with disabilities have been excluded in our society, constantly. The doorframe is too narrow for a wheelchair, or the dull colours in a nursing home make it difficult for those with Dementia to navigate. When asked to consider where people are being excluded due to factors outside of their control, it came as a surprisingly difficult question. We were placed in groups of four and asked to really consider this question and how we could help.
We came up with “are those with a visual impairment excluded from public transport?” Initially we thought this was a weak question because of the innovations in recent years in this area, like yellow tape to note where the bus is when entering and tactile paving at road crossings.
Researching this we found interesting articles on stress and how this can affect those with visual impairments. Stress around transport affected many with a visual impairment, and many found it easier to get taxis than to use the public buses. This more expensive alternative flagged that maybe this was a problem and more could be done to alleviate this stress. Another interesting finding was that stress decreased with each consecutive use of the bus services.
This research wasn’t done in Ireland, and we wanted to know more and understand this problem from a more direct perspective.
We connected with the NCBI. This organisation has been working with people with visual impairments for years and provides ongoing support to enhance the independence and provide instrumental help.
What we learned completely reframed the way we saw people with visual impairments. When meeting with Deirdre Towey, we were given a swift education on all things mobility. Mobility training prepares people to travel specific routes. When required to learn a new route, separate training is needed in the future and that is just to get you to the bus stop. We learned about the use of a cane and its complexities as well as the expense in training guide dogs.
We then turned our focus to transportation. We were required to make a video highlighting the social exclusion issue. We met with some service users from NCBI for some deeper insights for the purpose of the video.
Five people showed up with enthusiasm as they wanted to do anything that might help improvements. There were a few structural things that limited their use of public transport, like the small text on the screens displaying destinations on the buses and the more obvious lack of audible announcements. What was far more interesting was the way that the public presented its own unique barriers to those with visual impairments.
Lack of basic understanding or “cop-on” as Marian, one participant explained, was the main problem. The way that we think we are helping those with a visual impairment can be quite scary for them. Sighted passengers may grab the arm of people with a visual impairment without verbally asking if they need help. Without being able to see your footing, this is exceedingly stressful. All it takes is to imagine being in that situation and how that might feel for the person with sight loss.
Participants described how people give them a nod of the head, without verbal feedback. Verbal feedback is extremely important to people with visual impairments for obvious reasons, and yet people will still nod their head instead of speaking.
When the bus is busy and there are bags left down this also presents problems. Sometimes people with vision impairment might ask the bus driver to warn them when their stop is close — they are heavily reliant on the goodwill of the driver and other people who do not encounter these problems — and bus drivers or passengers may forget to inform them.
Another participant, Cara, says that she sometimes stands at the bus stop, looking lost so that someone might come to help her. She might have to shout, “Excuse me”, until someone stops and helps. There is a common misconception that it might be offensive to ask if someone needs help. All participants said they would not be offended by the offer of assistance.
Participants also described the more structural problems on buses. There are screens that display the next five stops, but these are inaccessible because of the small print. There have been efforts to get audible announcements for each bus stop in Galway, but this has not happened yet. Some people didn’t even know the name of their bus stop and many sighted people might admit they don’t either.
In more rural areas there are few markings on the steps into the bus. This gives the added worry that you might trip when boarding. Another notable problem is presented when there is a pole at the entry to the bus. For a guide-dog user, they might miss this poll, or even bump into it. This adds extra confusion got the VIP traveller. Bus timetables online and in physical form are in extremely small print. Though technology has evolved to read much of what is on the internet, people still have trouble accessing the information from timetables. The software simply doesn’t accommodate the access to bus times.
Avoidance of public transport is common, meaning many people must use taxi services, which is an additional financial burden. There are reduced rates offered by the Centre for Independent Living, but they are still expensive.
It is easy to ask someone if they would like help; ask them for the best way that you can assist and perhaps warn them when their stops are coming. If nothing else is taken from this, the main hope is that we just ask if help is needed more often and to be mindful that everyone is different and so is the help that they might need.