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Conference report – Vision for Equality: Mind the Gap

By Tristan Parker

The spectre of public spending cuts hovered darkly over last month’s Vision for Equality Conference in London, organised by the charity Guide Dogs ( http://www.guidedogs.org.uk ).

With much discussion on access to transport, delegates heard that many positive changes have already taken place, such as personal assistants being made available for visually impaired people on London Underground Tube trains.

But Fazilet Hadi, Group Director for Inclusive Society at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), warned that ongoing government reforms and budget cuts “hold lots of threats” in this area. Specifically, the 28% budget cuts to UK local authorities would undoubtedly mean cuts to the accessibility of transport services, as well as to the accessibility of numerous other services such as social care and libraries, Hadi said.

Independent transport consultant Anne Frye OBE said there were three key elements needed for truly accessible transport: independence; control; and choice. Pushing for all these elements to be put in place is the UK Vision Strategy ( http://bit.ly/fCdSS4 ), a wide-ranging document developed by the VISION 2020 UK umbrella group for vision-impairment organisations and the RNIB. In the field of transport, the strategy calls for transport providers to make their services fully accessible and for the external environment to be made as easy as possible to move around in, which includes clear pavements, safe crossings and bold signage.

There is already a legal requirement to provide accessible transport in the Equalities Act 2010, which sets out clear technical standards both for transport vehicles and pedestrian environments, said Frye.

However, “It is one thing to pass an act of Parliament, but another to make sure it happens in trains and buses across the country”, she said. As an example, audible announcement technology on trains, which can assist both disabled and non-disabled passengers, is already “required very clearly by law in the Disability Discrimination Act, but more often than not is switched off. If you speak to staff, they often don’t know why the audible announcement facility is there, or have switched it off because they think passengers find it irritating”, said Frye.

Even though it may remain frustratingly unused, this audible announcement technology is at least a legal requirement on trains, said Frye. The same is not yet true for buses, although there are positive developments in this area, at least in the capital, in the form of Transport for London’s ‘iBus’ project – a radio and visual display and announcement system fitted on every London bus which can assist visually or hearing impaired passengers with journey information.

This system has “transformed the ability to travel around London for many people, including those with visual impairments,” said Frye. However, Transport for London’s primary motive for investing in the system was to replace out-of-date equipment, rather than to promote disability rights. “They couldn’t have made a business case on that alone, and I think that will increasingly be the case where budgets are cut”, she said.

Looking outside the UK, one of the simplest and most effective examples of accessible transport technology can be found in Barcelona’s Metro system, said Frye, where the transport authorities invited blind people to design ticket machines for the stations. “The result has been startling,” she said. “There used to be staff employed just to stand next to machines and explain to travellers where to put your credit card and where the ticket came out. They don’t need to do that anymore because suddenly the machines are intuitive; so there’s a clear economic benefit that comes from applying universal design.”

Another innovative example of how technology can create a more accessible transport system was described by Sandra Gollan, manager of the Dundee Blind and Partially Sighted Society. In Dundee, said Gollan, audio bus departure messages are available at city centre bus stops, accessed by council-issued travel ‘smart cards’. These cards contain specially fitted microchips, enabling visually impaired passengers to swipe the card and receive the live audible messages.

This kind of real-time information could also be used on board the vehicles, Gollan said. A chipped card could allow passengers in the seats put aside for disabled travellers to access audible information during journeys, without it being disruptive for other passengers, she said.

“The technology is out there, but we aren’t pushing it enough” Gollan said. “It’s the same with consultations; a lot of visually impaired people listen to [blind-specific] radio, so why not allow them to hear the debate over the radio and phone-in, so they don’t have to physically get to a destination and can just pick up their telephone to explain what their problems are? There’s a lot of technology out there that we could be using.”

NOTE: Presentations from Vision for Equality can be found at: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/news/national-events/vision-for-equality-conference/ Short link: http://bit.ly/htoFmL

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