EPISODE 2: TACTILE & BLISTER SURFACES
Welcome to the Perito Podcast ‘Our World. Without Boundaries’, today we’re talking to Jill Allen-King about tactile and blister paving and the world of accessibility for blind and partially sighted people.
Perito: Hi Jill thanks for joining us, so it would be good to start off with a brief introduction about yourself and maybe a brief discussion about the terminology that we mentioned earlier.
JAK: I was born with full sight but on my first birthday I have measles and had to have my left eye removed and I was partially sighted until the age of 24 when I went totally blind with Glaucoma, so I am totally blind, I’m not visually impaired or all these other terminologies that are used I am a totally blind person and so man people say sight loss and terminologies like that which doesn’t cover people that are born blind and have never had vision to lose, so we always say blind or partially sighted people.
Perito: (01m.08s) Thank you for that Jill so it will be interesting for our listeners to hear more about how you became involved in the development of tactile surfaces?
JAK: The Federation of the Blind in 1970 and also I’d started to work with the Department of Transport they’d formed a group of people with different kinds of disabilities, I was the only blind person on it and at that time they would dropping kerbs and at a lot of the pavements for people using wheelchairs and what we found was that blind people were crossing roads not realising that they’d crossed mostly side roads, this wasn’t too much on main roads at that time and one blind man up in Hull was nearly killed as he walked along his pavement not realising the kerb had been dropped and he was nearly killed and I use to visit a friend about half an hour’s walk from here where I live in Westcliffe and just before I got to her gate there was a run in to a garage, and I always describe it as like a slab of chocolate, like a tactile paving area, and it was completely flush to the road and as soon as my feet, because totally blind you rely on feeling and your guide dog is guiding you and stops at various things, kerbs and things, but I could tell by walking on this that I was going to be at my friend’s gate, and I’d say to Topsy, that was my first guide dog, find Peg’s gate and that was so easy for me to find. So one day at the Department of Transport, Sir Peter Baldwin who was the then permanent Under Secretary Estate for Transport and his Assistant, Ann Fry, they got together a group of people and I can remember it really well, it was about 1976, and a group of people using wheelchairs sat on one side of me, about 8 people with varying kinds of wheelchairs, and on the right hand side was a group of blind people representing the RNIB, St. Dunstan’s Guide Dogs, there was about 8 of them as well. So they both put their cases why they needed the kerbs dropped for their wheelchairs and the blind people were saying why they needed, as it was in those days a 4” kerb, so they knew when they were at the edge of the pavement.
So Sir Peter said we’ve got to come to a compromise haven’t we Jill, and I said yes, so I described this textured surface and it was flush to the kerb. So as a result of all that the Road Research Laboratory came down here, a man called Neal Duncan and Ann Fry came and I walked them all around this area to explain to them that there were pedestrian crossings but I had no idea where they were, like along my seafront there were different kinds of Zebra crossings, there was a Zebra crossing and there was a Pelican crossing but I had no idea where they were because as I walk along a footpath there was nothing to indicate to me that there was a crossing. You could occasionally hear the bleeper go but of course you don’t get bleepers on Zebra crossings. So they came and I explained why we needed a texture, why we needed the texture to go across the pavement so that I would know when I was coming up to a crossing and so they went back to the Road Research Laboratory at Crowthorne in Berkshire and they brought out 12 different kinds of textures and again I can remember it really well, a lot of us about 20 of us went down to Crowthorne, people with all kinds of different disabilities, there were some in wheelchairs, there were some walking with sticks, there were deaf/blind people, there were blind people with diabetes whose lose the sensitivity in their feet, and we each one was taken around these 12 different textures separately so we couldn’t talk to each other to, you know, we just round and we were asked to vote on the one that we thought was the best surface, and it was a miracle that all of us picked the blister paving that you’ve now got at the pedestrian crossings, all of us, the wheelchair users, the people using sticks they thought that that was the best one.
Now for me it was more pronounced then I wanted it to be right. The bobbles were a bit higher than I wanted them to be, I didn’t want them to be as high as that really but as I found out from my friends and colleagues that had diabetes, I’m not a diabetic, but those people that were, they lose a sensitivity in their fingers and in their feet and they could not feel the one that wasn’t as pronounced as the one we chose, so that’s why it had to be as pronounced as it was. Now what happened then after we all agreed this should be the one, the compromise, remember it is a compromise between the needs of wheelchair users and blind people and so it was put around the country and about, I think it was about 24 different sites around the country, including outside the House of Commons because believe it or not it had to be tested by the Sergeant at Arms whose in charge of that crossing for the horses when the Queen goes for opening of Parliament and they use the horses, it had to be okay for the horses as well, which I thought was quite funny really but it got the okay. And I wanted the first one to be outside the House of Common so when we were campaigning around the country for tactile paving to be introduced we could say to our Members of Parliament, that’s what we’re talking about and that’s why the first one was laid outside the House of Commons, well it was launched on July 18th 1983, but it had already been laid around the country for the trials and yes there were people complaining about it and there still are people that complain about it, people that wear these high heel shoes and things like that, and some people with really bad arthritis in their feet but it was a compromise and we had to consider the needs of not only people in wheelchairs but people pushing wheelchairs, people pushing prams and buggies and that needed the ramped edge, and for those of us that are blind so we knew when we were up to a crossing so that’s how it all began.
Perito: (8m.40s) That’s very interesting thank you very much.
Perito: (8m.45s) So moving onto Question 2 then I would be interested to know more just for a minute or so about before the introduction of tactile services what was everyday life like for someone blind or partially sighted?
JAK: Well it was difficult because you didn’t know when you were up to a crossing although those crossings were there you didn’t know that they were there, only by trial and error really and when you’re trained with a guide dog, and I was trained in 1971 so I had about 10 years without the tactile and it was just very difficult to know where you were up to and especially finding steps and I use to travel up to London frequently to go to meetings and at stations there was steps, because there weren’t always lifts at the stations in those days, well still no lift at my station, they were going to have one, and so we introduced the Corduroy kind and at that time, I’m talking about back in the late 70’s/80’s I chaired the Joint Committee on Mobility for the Blind and Partially Sighted, we met at the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Great Broughton Street and we coordinated all the national organisations of and for blind people and partially sighted people and deaf/blind people, so that we knew what the problems were and it was our idea to have the Corduroy kind placed at tops and bottoms of steps so that we would know when we were coming up to a light of steps whether you were going up or down and that was very useful and very helpful but prior to that time you just had to depend on your guide dog to find the steps or a person using a long cane, and it wasn’t until 1964 that the long cane as brought over from America to teach blind people mobility, so right up to that time you would have seen blind people walking around the streets just using an ordinary white walking stick. So as I say it wasn’t until 1964 that the long cane training came over from America and although I was offered the long cane training at that time I’d only just been blind a couple of years and I was asked if I would go to Birmingham on a 3 month course to be taught that, well I’d got a baby and I didn’t want to obviously leave her, I couldn’t leave her for 3 months to go for training, so may very first campaign was to have a mobility officer based at Southend Council who trained me and in those days there was about 600 blind and partially sighted people living in the Southend district and there as only I think two guide dog owners at that time living in the town, and so life was very difficult getting around and so with this training, and this long cane training, which I had, and it was a good but it didn’t give enough confidence to go out and it wasn’t on my own until I had my first guide dog that made me independent once again. But even with a guide dog you still weren’t sure that you were up to the steps or you were up to a crossing, it was very difficult.
Perito: (12m42s) Thank you for that Jill. Can you tell us about how you deal with people who arrive at the front door?
JAK: Well that was one of the problems when I first went totally blind because my husband would go off to work, I was left at home on my own and I just did not want to open my front door because I didn’t know who was going to be there and so I, I started to work with the National Federation of the Blind and we had discussions at meetings about problems and one of the problems was this issue for a lot of people worried about the door. So I thought of this idea for having a password and we contacted the electricity company to start off with and this was up in the Midlands, because that’s where we were having our meetings at the time, and so they said yes they would do it, and from, this is 1974, and from then on the public utilities, the Gas and the Electric companies use a password scheme. So what happens is you arrange with the company your password and I’m not going to tell you what my mine is (laughter) because I don’t want everybody to know, but you choose a word that you know is quite a familiar word to you, and you won’t forget it anyway and then when the person knocks at the door, rings the bell you go to the door with your chain on and you say, “who are you” and they say “oh it’s the Gas Board” and then I say “what is my password” and I will not let anybody in my door unless I’m 100% certain who it is and so that has been going on throughout the country, the password scheme and for the past, I suppose 10 years, I’ve been working with the Department of Work and Pensions on the benefits, with talking about Disability Living Allowance and now the new Personal Independence Payment. Really about the benefits but I brought up at every meeting that we should have a password, because I know from contacts that I make with blind people around the country, that one lady who lived down in Somerset she got conned at the door by somebody saying that they were from DWP and they weren’t and she gave all her personal information to them and so we know people are very vulnerable in this day and age, whether your blind, partially sighted or just an older person and so I’m trying, well they’ve agreed to do it and they did have a trial in Wales about 3 years ago and they said yes it works but the problem with the Department of Work and Pensions is that they will keep changing their staff and so you get one lot of Civil Servants agreeing to do something and a Minister, and of course in the last 5 years we’ve had I think 4 different Ministers for the disabled, and I mean their all very good and they come and chair our meetings, we’ve got a special target, a little group called Alternative Format looking at the different formats for the benefits, large print, braille, audio because not everybody can cope with things online and so this is one of my current campaigns is to make sure that everything is available in all formats not only online, and we lose out so much of information that is being given to you not only by the Government, by Councils as well and that is a daily occurrence now that you receive an email which says “oh it’s all online” and consultation papers, surveys, lots of things that you just can’t cope with and you can’t respond to.
Perito: (17m.10s) Of these 7 official types of tactile paving, that’s blister, Corduroy, platform edge that’s off street, platform edge, on street, segregated shared cycle, guidance path surface information surface, which, in your opinion is the most and least effective and why?
JAK: The least effective is the one that was devised to go through pedestrian areas and that was first laid in, I think it’s Gouda, in the Netherlands and in fact in the end they had to take it up because they found that blind people using like long canes were trying to negotiate along this tactile through the pedestrian area and they were tripping people up with their long canes, so they eventually took it up, they didn’t find it very helpful at all so for my own, and there is a consultation going on at the moment looking at tactile paving, and my own opinion, and this is my own opinion it is that we should keep the blister for the pedestrian crossings, all pedestrian crossings where they are controlled crossings. They’ve laid it in many parts of the country where they’re uncontrolled and I only wanted it to be at controlled crossings so that you knew that it was as reasonably safe as it could be to cross that road at that point. Now along the London Road here they’ve laid it at different places other than controlled crossings and I wouldn’t cross there, I think it’s too dangerous, you need to, it’s so dangerous nowadays, we can’t hear the electric cars coming and so you’ve just got to be extra careful to cross the roads and so that one’s fine. The Corduroy one should only be at tops and bottoms of steps, now what they’ve done in Southend they’ve laid that one outside the Victoria Railway Station where they’ve got a shared space and I’ll come onto that in a minute, but that shouldn’t be there, that should only be, that Corduroy at tops and bottoms of steps.
Then we’ve got the blister which is slightly different, it’s called a lozenge pattern on the edges of railway platforms, again that was my idea. We were visiting stations because they were making stations unmanned, no staff at stations which is just ridiculous. Blind and disabled people just cannot physically use the station where you’ve got no staff, it’s too dangerous so while we’ve been campaigning to retain staff at railway stations we also, as a safeguard really, to have the tactile laid not right on the edge of the platform edge but just set back a bit so that you don’t go beyond that tactile and that is very helpful. I mean I don’t travel very much completely on my own no, I always make sure I get assistance, and when I was younger I did and I just used the tactile paving. I’m mean I’m not so confident now because I’m older and I’ve had a couple of falls getting on a train and getting off a train all because, and this is where when you help a bind person you should always ask them how they want to be helped, and for staff members they think that every blind person can see something, well a lot of us can’t see anything and so they’ll say “Oh step here, step there” they don’t tell you if it’s an up step or a down step and I was being helped off a train, the train had broken down, I was on the way to Eastbourne and we had to change trains and I was getting off this train at Hove, and I had my guide dog in my left hand, he got off first, I was holding the member of staff and he just said “step” but what he didn’t tell me that there was a wide gap so though I stepped off I went down the gap between the train and the platform and so you just have to be so careful when you’re given assistance that you’re given it the right way and always say let the blind person take your arm you should never push a blind person, you should never, you know, walk behind them and sort of say “this way, that way” you take their arm and then say left or right or if there’s a step say whether the step’s going up or down. So many people that reckon they’ve been trained say “steps coming up” but they’re not they’re steps going down and so you really have to be really careful whey your guiding a blind person to make sure that you’re giving the right sort of information. Coming back to the tactile yes they introduced a tactile for the dividing cycleways now we had a big debate in the House of Commons back in 1984 when the Cycle Tracks Act was re-designed and we were totally opposed to any kind of sharing the pavement with a cyclist, we support the need for cycle tracks and cycle paths but not sharing it with a pedestrian and unfortunately we lost, although there was a 5 hour debate this was at the time when guide dogs weren’t allowed into the House of Commons and another campaign that I’ve been fighting ever since I had my first guide dog and so I had to sit outside and I was not allowed to sit in the commons room with my guide dog and listen to that 5 hour debate, and when you’re a campaigner you need to listen to other people’s points of view and of course you couldn’t if, cos I wasn’t allowed in there with my dog, but we lost and I say, we, it had been the policy of the National Federation of the Blind, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, that we did not want cyclists to share the same footway or footpath or pedestrian area as a pedestrian and we know there’s been many accidents of people being knocked down by a cyclist. I’ve had people on my footpath, in my road, try and ride between me and my dog, and these are old people, these are not youngsters, these are older people that think that they’ve got the right to ride along the footway or the footpath, and we also were very annoyed when the removed the bell, the bell use to be a requirement on a bicycle and the Pedestrians Association it was in those days, had the bell removed, they didn’t want a bell on a bike and just like that it got removed as a requirement and now if you buy a bicycle you have to have a bell on it but there’s no requirement for you to use it, which again is ridiculous, that ought to be a requirement that a person uses a bell cos when you can’t, you can’t hear a cycle coming and people just whizz around you and bump into you. And so when they introduced this tactile at the start of a cycleway it really wasn’t very helpful because you could join that cycleway anyway along it, not necessarily at the beginning of it or at the end of it so we found that quite difficult to use and I wouldn’t recommend that at all, we just keep to the ones that we’ve got.
And then going on to the shared space issue back in 2005 I was still chairing the European Blind Union, we coordinate all the different countries in Europe, whether their members of the Union or not and there’s about 43 different countries who are involved and I chaired this commission for 16 years which covered all road safety, mobility, transport and guide dog issues from 1996 so I’ve travelled all over Europe and we were trying to improve the environment all over Europe, not only in this country and in 2005 we found out that they’d designed this shared area in The Netherlands. Now they’d been no consultation with any blind organisations at all, in fact I found out afterwards they hadn’t even considered the need to blind people but their strategy was to remove all pavements, all pedestrian crossings and make a wall to wall flat surface and the idea was, the concept of a shared space was, that a driver of vehicles made eye contact with the pedestrian so that they shared the same area. Well we as you can imagine said this is absolutely ridiculous, very dangerous and we were very concerned that they hadn’t consulted blind people and by 2007 the idea came over to the UK and in fact I went to the very first meeting that they had in Kensington because they wanted to do this in Exhibition Road in London which they eventually did do, removing all the kerbs, all the crossings, all the proper pavements and although they consulted us as so often happens they ignored us, completely ignored us. And while this was going on in the UK I was still chairing the commission in Europe and in 2008 I spoke to a Transport Conference in Paris of all the Ministers of Transport from the whole of Europe and I said you know about all the hazards that we have anyway on the pavements and the all difficulties blind people have getting around and I said about the shared space and they were amazed because they just hadn’t considered the needs of blind people and I went on my very first cruise in that year, I’d been in the September and this talk was in the October 2008 and my friend and I who was a fully sighted person, we went to Rome on, we got off the cruise ship and you know you go on a coach trip, we went into Rome and this is where they’d got a shared space and we were nearly killed, we really were nearly killed and we just, Lorraine I mean she’s fully sighted that was with me and she said “Jill I don’t know where we going” she said “they’ve got no footpaths here” I said “Oh no this must be one of these shared spaces” and it was. And I said all this at this conference and afterwards all the different Ministers from different countries were saying “Ahh we hadn’t thought about it”.
Well there was a gentlemen who’d worked on this scheme in The Netherlands from the UK called Ben Hamilton-Bailey and what we decided to do was to have a meeting in London, it was initiated by the Guide Dogs for the Blind and I went for the National Federation of the Blind and we had had RNIB were there, and I arrived at the meeting early cos when you travel from a long distance you make special arrangements so that you get somewhere in good time. So I was there early, nobody else in the room and this man came in and he said, “Oh good morning” and I said “Good morning who are you?” and it was Ben Hamilton-Bailey he said “Oh I’ve heard of you” and I said “Yes I’ve heard of you” and so for a quarter of an hour I told him how I’d introduced the tactile paving originally back in the 70’s and I said this is really similar to what you’re doing now, taking away, you know, the kerbs, the crossings and making a flat surface how do you expect us to know where we are. Guide dogs are trained, children are trained, you stop at the kerbs and you look left and right and you know where to cross and all the rest of it, I said, “how do you expect people to do it in this area?” and he said “Oh we hadn’t thought of” they really hadn’t thought of blind people and I challenged him and I know Guide Dogs challenged him to come out with a blindfold on with us but he never did and so he still campaigned, he still acted as a consultant throughout the country encouraging Local Authorities to do this shared spaces which unfortunately they’ve been doing. Fortunately because I’d spoken in Europe they’re not doing them so much in Europe, they did take a note of what we said, mind you their pavements are in an awful state, they’re worse than our pavements are here, so that was sort of the start of the shared space. The problem with the shared space that’s been built in Southend we have two areas one outside the Victoria Railway Station so people travelling down that don’t know the area would just walk out the station and walk straight across this shared area, where buses go and taxis go, other traffic isn’t supposed to go there but there’s lots of buses and there have been many accidents there and then the other scheme is on the seafront at Southend at City Beach where they took away the conventional kerbs which meant that the water didn’t runaway properly and they’ve had lots of problems with the traders with the waters not running away and getting flooded and they installed after we made a lot of complaints, they did install what they call courtesy crossings.
Now these are not legal crossings, they called courtesy crossings which means that you can cross whenever you like, the drivers can go and stop whenever they like, there’s no legal requirement and unfortunately they’ve put the tactile paving there which should only be at controlled crossings, so I would not cross there because there’s nothing to let me know when the right time to cross whereas when you’ve got a bleeper crossing you press your button and you only cross when the bleeper goes to tell you, as these courtesy crossings are just so dangerous, and I know because I go along there in cars and the drivers don’t like it, all they’ve got is a 20 mile speed limit, there’s nothing else to say who is in charge of that area and nobody is, again it’s a shared space concept that you’re supposed to make, the driver’s supposed to make eye contact with the pedestrian which is not very good when you can’t see, when you’re blind or you’re partially sighted. And it also affects people with mental and learning difficulties I am Patron of a local Mental Health Charity called Trust Links and I know from their members who have got mental health issues they like to know that they’re on a safe footpath and they like to know that there’s a proper safe crossing to cross at. So it’s not only a problem for blind and partially sighted people the shared space, it’s a problem for many, many pedestrians. Probably all pedestrians because you can’t be safe in a shared space area and nor can the traffic really but at least the traffic can go even though they have to go at a 20 mile speed limit, or suppose to go at 20 mile speed limit, whereas a pedestrian has got no safe area to walk and we are trained with our guide dogs not to go into those shared areas because there’s nowhere for the guide dog to feel safe either on the pavement or where to cross the road.
Perito: (35m.15s) Jill it’s been interesting to hear you talk today, thank you very much for your time and we look forward to the next episode.
JAK: Thank you very much James and I just hope that people will learn and understand what tactile really does mean and for the people that may want to complain about it, the sighted people I mean, just think how lucky that they that they can actually see where they’re walking, where they’re crossing the roads and for people that may have walking difficulties again I hope they will understand that we did have to have a compromise that would help as many different kinds of disabilities with mobility issues as we can, we can’t please everybody and also it would be really helpful if more people offered to help a blind or partially sighted person, not just grab their arms and pull them across the road but just say “would you like help” or if we’re standing at a bus stop say “would you like help to know what number the bus is coming” there’s lots of ways that sighted people can help a blind person and also I think it’s the one thing that I always start off with by people cutting back their overhanging branches cos its really difficult to walking along your own footway or footpath with overhanging branches their a pain (laughter) and my poor guide dog has to guide me around all these overhanging branches plus all the other obstacles on the pavements so that would be really helpful if people could do that little thing. It doesn’t cost anything to cut back those branches and especially when their wet and their prickly it’s not very nice to walk into them. So thank you for listening.
If you enjoyed this podcast make sure to read the transcript of Jill Allen-King’s discussion on Disabled Living Allowance (DLA) and the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) here