Thursday, 7 November 2013

Visit to Houses of Parliament and RNIB HQ

Photo taken by myself on Westminster Bridge

Last month, from October 22nd to October 24th, I visited London with the RNIB to help start a young person's campaigning network with other visually impaired and blind 18-30 year olds from across England. We met with an already established campaigning group from Scotland, Haggeye, to gain knowledge from their experiences as a successful campaigning group.

 Tuesday, October 22nd 2013

At 2:45pm, I boarded the train from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston with an RNIB campaigning officer called Lindsay and another visually impaired young person called Marie. After a two hour journey, we arrived in London and took a taxi to the hotel (located right next to the London Eye!). We checked into the Premier Inn hotel that we would be staying in for the next day or so, found our rooms and unpacked, introduced ourselves to our roommates, and then went down to dinner. We introduced ourselves to each other as a group, as well as the members of the RNIB who would be staying with us over the course of the next few days, and then the Haggeye group joined us and introduced themselves too. I sat next to some members of the Haggeye group after they arrived, and it was lovely to talk to them throughout the evening. They taught me how to do a proper Scottish accent and I learnt a few Gaelic phrases too! We then enjoyed our three-course meal and the majority headed to bed afterwards. I stayed up for a little while longer, setting up the wi-fi on my iPad so that I could talk to my brother through social networking sites and let him know how the journey and the evening went. I was absolutely tired after all of the travelling from earlier in the day, so it was time for me to head to bed too. We had to be up early in the morning for our visit to Parliament!

Wednesday, October 23rd 2013

After a lovely night's sleep (Premier Inn beds really are as comfy as they say on the adverts!) we got ourselves ready for the day, had breakfast and then made our way towards the Houses of Parliament across Westminster Bridge. After going through the security procedures, we gathered in Westminster Hall - the main lobby. This is the only place where photographs were permitted, so unfortunately I have nothing to show from the tactile tour or the afternoon tea with Viscount Craigavon but I will do my best to describe in detail the rooms and items we discovered.

Standing inside Westminster Hall

Members of the group who had secured meetings with their local MPs would meet them that morning, while the rest of us would embark on the tactile tour of the Houses of Parliament - including the House of Commons, House of Lords, Ceremonial Rooms including the Queen's Robing Room and the Royal Gallery, House of Commons library, and so on. From what I remember, the Queen's Robing Room was definitely my favourite. It was full of lavish patterns on the walls and floors, and had beautiful items including a rococo-styled clock that was weighty and tall and decorated with knights and horses.

In the House of Commons chamber, we were invited to touch the large statues of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, and then proceeded into the Bar Lobby - the entrance to the House of Commons. In each of the Lobbies that we visited, we could feel the door frames and appreciate just how intricate they were. Made of varnished wood, they boasted various details including thick bars, cross-hatch patterns and curled floral-styled designs. We then entered the House of Commons!

The first thing we noticed when inside the House of Commons, was actually how small it was - it seems so much larger on television! We were shown the gifts that were given after WWII from other commonwealth countries; including the Speaker's Chair canopy from Australia, the Table of the House gifted from Canada, and the dispatch boxes from New Zealand. We could trace our fingers over the carved names of the countries adorned on each gift, engraved into the wood with a bold gothic font. Upon leaving the House of Commons, we came upon the Bar of the House, and felt the wood carving of a crown and other intricate details.

Back outside the House of Commons, we again entered the Bar Lobby but turned and descended into the Noes Lobby - the place you would go as a member of Parliament if you were to vote 'no'. It contained a huge bookshelf full of the Hansard Books - the official reports in both Houses. Towards the end of the Noes Lobby, we touched the division desks and found that they could slide across the floor to allow accessibility for those in wheelchairs, a more recent feature.

We made our way to the House of Lords, which is drastically different to the House of Commons - first of all, everything is red rather than green! It is also incredibly ornate and intricate in detail and design. My favourite feature in this room is the Queen's Throne, though it's robed off from the general public and is not allowed to be touched. It's made from real gold and has two tall brass candelabras on either side, now powered by electricity rather than flame! We were invited to touch and have a feel of the candelabra stands. Further along into the House of Lords is the main woolsack, covered in a thick red material, where the Lord Speaker sits. We walked past the bishops' bench and the Government front bench, to find our way near the main table equipped with microphones for debates. Further along lies the crossbenches and then the bar of the House.

In the Peers Lobby, we learned that there are around 750 Lords, or Peers, in the House of Lords. Rather than an Ayes and Noes Lobby for voting, instead they have the Content and the Not Content Lobbies.

Towards the end of the tour, we visited the Prince's Chamber, the Royal Gallery and the Queen's Robing Room. In the Prince's Chamber, the statue of Queen Victoria was described to us in detail. It is a vast marble sculpture, dominating the entire room - joined by Justice on the left and Clemency on the right. There were also plaques of slated carvings on the wall which we were invited to feel, including one such depiction of a horse in a scene with King Arthur. Outside the Prince's Chamber, lies the Royal Gallery - a long rectangular room filled with beautiful paintings adorning the walls and covering them entirely. The tour guide allowed us to touch some of the paintings, specifically one that was made of plaster and painted onto with watercolours. That particular painting, by Maclise, took many years to complete. The room is filled with small groups of tables and chairs where Lords can meet and discuss particular topics and issues. We felt the grandness of the chairs, decorated with details such as metal studs and carvings. On the entrances coming in and out of the Royal Gallery, the doorways are bordered with gold tudor roses and Imperial crowns.

As I mentioned earlier, my favourite room was definitely the Queen's Robing Room! It was such a wide space without too much furniture inside and felt spacious, free and relaxing. In the far side of the room, the Chair of State sits - where the Queen will prepare for the State Opening of Parliament. It is a decorative chair, with steps leading up to it and a wonderful canopy displaying many gold designs. On the opposite side is an intricately detailed fireplace.

After the tactile tour had finished, we then watched Prime Minister's Question Time. I have to admit that I'd never properly watched it before, only having heard snippets on the radio when they were woven into the news stories of the day. It was wonderful to hear it actually happening inside Parliament and being surrounded by the atmosphere, it felt much more special than just watching it on television at home or hearing segments from the radio. It was interesting to see which points were raised by each party. From my observation, it seemed to me that the Labour party were the ones often mentioning families and the struggles they face (especially as winter approaches and energy bills are rising) whereas the Conservatives often mentioned businesses and the progress they were making for the economy.

When lunch had finished, my local MP, Barbara Keeley, was ready to see me. It was absolutely lovely to meet her! We discussed at length the issues that I face as a young visually impaired person in our local community of Irlam and Salford. Barbara was extremely generous to donate so much of her time to me, listening to my issues and my suggested solutions to help improve the obstacles I encounter on a daily basis. I mentioned issues such as bus stop signs in my local area that are hoisted too far up onto the pole and how very difficult they are to see if a bus shelter is not a visible, tactile clue. Also, tram tracks not being noticeable enough (especially in the Manchester city centre where myself and a few others have ended up standing right in the middle of them!). I also mentioned problems with cyclists, glass store-fronts, automatic doors, supermarket / shop labels, accessible (braille, large print, audio) text books in mainstream schools, and hate-crime / bullying against visually impaired / blind people.

My final topic of discussion, and my biggest issue, is with the general public's attitude towards me, and other visually impaired / blind people, especially when I go out shopping with my mum. Re-educating the public about our needs and what UV glasses and white canes / mobility aids are used for is something that I feel is quite essential for the majority to be reminded of. I've had many a nasty remark in my favourite shopping centre, and it can make me feel utterly depressed for the rest of the day. People should feel that they can approach and ask questions if they want to, rather than directing looks or remarks towards me that my mum has to deal with too. I volunteered my time and services if ever I'm needed to help with workshops in schools or around our local area.

I'm extremely thankful to Barbara for our meeting and it was a pleasure to meet her. She was so patient to listen to everything I had to say and really made my trip to Parliament special knowing that, if even just a little bit, I may have made a difference for other sight-impaired people living in my local area.

Myself and my local MP, Barbara Keeley, at Parliament

We then attended the Parliamentary Outreach programme, helping to give us a better understanding of and an introduction to how Parliament works and its relevance. How bills progress through Parliament and how laws are passed were also explained in detail, and we were provided with information on how to contact our local MPs and Lords. Each section of the House of Lords and the House of Commons were explained in detail including who plays each particular role, and we were provided with a glossy photograph of each House that we could take home with us (pictured below).

During the Parliamentary Outreach session
Photo © RNIB_Campagins Twitter page

After gathering back into Westminster Hall, it was time to engage with political researchers and correspondents. It was really interesting to hear what their typical week entails, and how enthusiastic they are about their job, either researching or writing speeches for their MPs, among other important tasks. They also described how they developed an interest in politics and how they attained their job inside Parliament. It was fascinating to hear their stories and I'm very grateful to them for taking time out of their busy schedules to come and talk to us.

It wasn't long before we heard the famous voice of Gary O'Donoghue! It was an absolute pleasure to meet him and speak with him, discussing the Prime Minister's Question Time's events from earlier that day and finding our more about politics and campaigning.

BBC4 Chief Political Correspondent, Gary O'Donoghue talking
to our group. Photo © RNIB_Campagins Twitter page

At around 4:30pm, it was time for our afternoon tea with Viscount Craigavon in the House of Lords. I believe that it was an absolutely beautiful room, judging from a fellow campaigners' description, with lots of dark wood panelling accents, low candelabras and red tudor rose patterns on the carpets and walls. The afternoon tea was just as wonderful as the room itself, I felt like I was in Alice in Wonderland with all of the various cakes and sandwiches to choose from as well as Indian tea with sugar lumps! And, of course, there was the famous cucumber sandwiches with the crusts sliced off to sample too! Other sandwich fillings included roasted pepper and tomato, cheese and tomato and salmon. I didn't get to sample many of the cakes as those seemed to be most popular, but I did get to have a mini scone with clotted cream and jam and a mini fruit cake. They were both delicious!

Our day at Parliament was sadly drawing to a close. We had a few group photographs taken outside, before heading back to the hotel to get changed, freshen up and have a rest before our evening dinner. On my way back walking over Westminster Bridge, I took some photographs of the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and the Houses of Parliament looking over the River Thames as seen in the first photo of this post.

Photos © Katrina Thomson of Haggeye

I was absolutely shattered after the long day, so headed to bed soon after I'd my dinner and dessert. We still had one day left of our trip but thankfully had a later start the following morning - so we could have a little bit of a lie-in!

Thursday, October 24th 2013

After getting ready and finishing breakfast, we packed our things and checked out of the hotel. We then headed to Judd Street by taxi where the official headquarters of the RNIB reside. After gaining access with our visitor passes, we then headed to the room where we would be recapping the previous day's events and choosing our network name and first campaign.

We started with an introduction from Fazilet Hadi, the director of RNIB's Inclusive Society. The rest of the RNIB team introduced themselves, and a microphone was then passed around so that we could all introduce ourselves too. A whole host of new young campaigners had joined us for the third day, who either weren't selected for the Parliamentary visit or were too busy and wanted to attend just the workshop. We also discussed our reasons for wanting to join the network - mine was to be able to meet new people and make new friends who were similar to my age.

We then recapped on the previous day's tactile tour, Prime Minister's Question Time, meeting with MPs, Parliamentary Outreach programme, and meeting with researchers and political correspondents - for those who were not able to join us, to help give them an insight into what we were lucky enough to  have been able to be involved in. It was then time to discuss, as a group, the issues that we face as young visually impaired and blind people from across England. The most popular topics were public transport, education, work, leisure / shopping and hate crime. Further on in the day, we would be able to vote for what we felt was the area that needed improving the most.

At this point, it was time for me to leave the room and take part in an interview with Insight Radio, the RNIB's official radio station. I was selected to be interviewed the day before along with fellow campaigner, David Horwood, and was honoured and delighted to have the opportunity to do my first piece of media work. I had a wonderful time being interviewed by Leanne Coyle - it was an experience I'll never forget! You can listen to my interview here and / or download the transcript here.

Being interviewed by Leanne Coyle of Insight Radio

We talked about why it's important to want to campaign as a young blind person and stand up for our rights, the changes we can make and want to make, and how to go about the process of seeing those changes being made. I'm very thankful to Insight Radio and Leanne Coyle for interviewing me, and to Lindsay Armstrong for arranging it.

Back in the campaigning workshop, the group were finishing off their discussion regarding the issues and onstacles they wanted to add to the list in order to vote to officially campaign for improving them. Votes were then taken, and our first campaign will surround retail and leisure. There are a wide variety of issues to tackle with this subject, such as labels in supermarkets or tags on clothes, changing the attitudes of shop assistants and how they react to having a blind or partially sighted customer needing help, and educating them on how they can help us with our shopping needs, Braille or large print menus, better accessibility in leisure centres, and so on.

Lesley-Anne Alexander, RNIB Chief Executive, then entered the room and introduced herself to the group. She answered questions that we had regarding different topics such as the RNIB online store, membership, user forums and different ways of communicating with other RNIB / campaigning members, and so on. She was really lovely and supportive of our network and it was great to finally meet her, after hearing so much about her from other members of the RNIB.

Haggeye gave a presentation explaining the origins of their campaigning group, its name, its members, the mascot, and the successful campaigns they have carried out so far - such as the Stop For Me, Speak To Me campaign as well as creating an information pack that has gone out to every school in Scotland. They also told us about their magazine, the Haggazine, and provided us each with a copy in our preferred formats.

After officially announcing our first campaign, we then had to decide on our network's name. Many suggestions were taken, myself submitting three names (ENVISION - English Network of Visually Impaired Spokespeople for the Improvement of Obstacles NationwideVISION. - Visually Impaired Spokespeople for the Improvement of Obstacles Network and New Perspective Network). After all of the proposed network names were written down, we hen had a vote - and one of my suggested names won! We are now called ENVISION and you can visit our micro-website here which includes a picture of myself and my local MP, Barbara Keeley, as well as a brief introduction to our network and our aims. Also included is a video of interviews from some of our members, as well as the Insight Radio interview with David and I. If you are aged 18-30, are blind or partially sighted and are interested in campaigning with us then you are very free to join the network! More details can be found on the website.

We ended the session with group photographs, pleased that we had our network name and our first campaign that we will be working towards in the coming months. It was time to say goodbye to the RNIB staff and the friends I had made over the past few days and make my way back home to Manchester.

I'd had an absolutely wonderful time, meeting new people, visiting new places I'd never been to before and experiencing things I may never have had the chance to. I'm extremely grateful to everyone at the RNIB for putting the trip together, especially Libby Rhodes for reading and selecting my application and giving me the opportunity to be a part of the network, Lindsay Armstrong for travelling with me on the train (as I'm not comfortable with public transport and don't travel on my own as yet) and for giving me the chance to be interviewed by Insight Radio, and Emily Papaleo for being my sighted guide for the majority of the trip and for being so supportive and understanding on my first night when I was feeling a little homesick! Also a huge thank you to Barbara Keeley, Gary O'Donoghue, Viscount Craigavon and everybody else at the RNIB and at Parliament for being so welcoming and wonderful.

This has been one of the best experiences I've ever had
and is something I will treasure for a very long time to come.