Sunday, 19 April 2015

Swap With Me Event
at First Bus Bolton

This afternoon I attended a 'Swap With Me' event with First Bus at their depot located in Bolton. The event was designed to give blind and partially sighted people the opportunity to speak directly with bus drivers and staff members to raise their issues and concerns when travelling via bus with a sensory, and in some cases even dual, impairment.

After introductions, the event began by discussing some of the most common challenges of bus travel, including; being unable to read the bus numbers, not seeing where the pass scanner is, the inability to identify which stop to get off at, inaccessible formats of bus timetables and schedules, dealing with too many pushchair users in the priority seating area, drivers giving too many visual signals and not identifying the correct stop to get off when asked, buses driving past, and so on. There was a two-way communication link with the staff, helping to develop solutions to the regularly occurring issues for visually impaired passengers.

After raising some of the most prominent concerns, it was time to visit the depot itself where two different models of buses were parked; a single-decker and double-decker, each with a different colour-scheme encompassing the corporate colours, therefore containing different contrasting handrails, and a different layout inside to navigate around.

Participants of the event even had the opportunity to sit inside the driver's seat and experience things from their point of view. One thing I discovered was how cut-off drivers actually are and how it feels like another world inside the cab compartment, far removed from the bus itself. With the engine running, the sound of passing traffic and background noise from the passengers of the bus, it makes it very difficult to hear - on both sides of the perspex glass, as a driver and a passenger. This really highlighted how important it is to me that drivers are as verbal as possible, rather than visual, to VI passengers.

Drivers and staff were given simulation spectacles (simspecs) to experience first-hand the different sight conditions, and how they affect vision, whilst boarding a bus, scanning a pass and making their way to a seat. They all agreed how very difficult they found the experience, even though they knew where everything was located, because of the distorted remaining vision they had adopted. Their depth perception was skewed and items were much further away than they thought when relying on what little sight the glasses gave - a much better representation than just using a blindfold. Now they have to imagine finding everything while the bus is moving!

After the activities, we returned to discussions this time focusing on how better to improve services and support First Bus blind and partially sighted customers. The main thing pinpointed by all VI attendees was that there is no such thing as giving too much help; someone will gladly say if they don't need assistance. It is better to be asked if you need help rather than to be ignored and left to struggle!

Other suggestions mentioned in the concluding debrief included better colour contrasting handrails for those with some remaining vision (either a new hi-vis colour replacing the pink and blue or adapting with hi-vis tape), using the ramp not just for those in wheelchairs but for those who find the large gap near the curb disorientating, having the drivers more aware that not all blind and partially sighted people will have a visual clue such as a cane or Guide Dog, supporting passengers by shouting the bus numbers as they board and when dropping off on a different route or drop-off point to let the VI person know about such a change. 

The event this afternoon went really well and hopefully spotlighted some of the major concerns that blind and partially sighted people in the area face on a regular basis. I hope to encounter the aforementioned improvements in the near future as the First bus drivers and staff members in attendance seemed very keen, enthusiastic and responsive to our suggestions. I have also offered to help 'mystery shop' and test out the various First buses across Manchester, taking note of the bus number and time I travelled, to provide accurate feedback of the driver and my experiences.

Thank you to First Bus in Bolton for listening to the group that visited today and I look forward to working with them again in the future!