London is blessed with one of largest and most comprehensive bus networks in the world, with over 700 routes throughout the capital. Blind and partially sighted people are able to travel right across this network with their freedom pass; however, this doesn’t always mean that their experiences of bus travel are always positive. As part of our work supporting blind and partially sighted Londoners, on Thursday 4 July we joined the Croydon Sensory Team at the South Croydon Bus Garage for a visual awareness day. The aim of the training day was to increase awareness amongst bus drivers of the specific needs of their visually impaired passengers. It was also a great opportunity for visually impaired Croydon residents to talk to bus drivers about their experiences – good and bad – on the south Croydon bus network.
The Croydon Sensory Team shaped the day around an initial classroom session – discussing sight loss, and common causes – followed by a hands-on session focussed on learning more about how blind and partially sighted people use the buses, and how their experience can be improved by drivers. In order to give the drivers an idea of the impact of eye conditions on sight, Croydon Sensory Team’s Greg Szarzynski spoke about and gave the drivers simulation spectacles, imitating a number of common sight conditions such as Age-Related Macular Degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. These spectacles are designed to simulate the kind of limited sight that people with visual impairments live with to help sighted people understand differing levels of partial sight.
Following this session, and aided with our spectacles, we set off towards our designated doubledecker bus. Each driver partnered with a visually impaired volunteer, and took turns boarding the bus while wearing the spectacles and armed with a mobility cane. The aim of the exercise was to give the drivers a better understanding of how disorienting and difficult it can be using the buses – especially when they are very busy. We simulated some of the common incidents cane users experience when travelling – canes being kicked away or tripped over, pushed and shoved by fellow passengers and heads hit on unsympathetically placed grab handles.
The session helped demonstrate to drivers why visually impaired people, people with disabilities and older people need a bit more time when using buses. Our volunteers were able to speak frankly to drivers, and show them some of the problems they have experienced. It’s not just the impact these problems have on journeys – they also exert an emotional toll on visually impaired travellers. It takes time to build confidence travelling – something London Vision supports blind and partially sighted people with through our Travel Confidence days – and having a bad experience can really affect this burgeoning confidence. As one of the volunteers, Danielle said: “90% of your journeys and experiences might be great, but, unfortunately, you only ever remember the bad ones”.
A persistent problem raised by the visually impaired volunteers during the session was the issue of buses ‘stacking up’ at stops, and then failing to stop at their specific ‘flag’, or bus hoarding. Blind and partially sighted people are at a significant disadvantage when buses stack up like this and allow passengers to alight and board away from their assigned stops; unable to see the bus and its numbers, visually impaired people don’t know that their bus has arrived, and frequently, left. According to TFL’s Big Red Book (bus driver guidelines), drivers are required to let visually impaired people at bus stops know the route number and destination of the bus. If the bus fails to stop at the bus stop, they are unable to do this and visually impaired people more often than not end up missing their bus.
We were unable to come to a satisfactory resolution to this persistent problem, with it being a matter of safety protocol and TFL policy. However, it was very helpful to talk through the issue with the drivers, all of whom left the session with a greater understanding of how this particular issue impacts upon blind and partially sighted and disabled passengers. The Big Red Book outlines the rules and regulations for driving buses in London, but visual awareness sessions like these are a great way of illustrating needs and needs that drivers should be aware of while driving us around the capital. We hope they pass on everything they learnt to their colleagues!