Holiday = Disability

During the holidays I finally find some time to reflect upon life. Not the least regarding my own place in this world. During the rest of the year I tend to move around a lot - after all I’m a drummer in accessibility, and usually don’t have time to ponder. Now, during the summer, when most of you spend time at the beach, I have time to devote two minutes to try to describe how a disability may be influenced by the world outside. 

During this past year, I’ve had the privilege to travel for work not only in Sweden and Norway, but also Great Britain, France and Spain.

I have a visual impairment, I see about ten per cent (according to the doctor), and of course it affects my everyday life even though I’m used to it. I can’t drive. That’s okay, it’s a little challenging to shop building supplies but it’s probably just good for the economy. I don’t recognize people I meet even though I’ve met them several times before. It’s embarrassing, but most people tend to survive anyhow and still say hello in a pleasant way - and it’s those people I want to surround myself with. By using an app on my smart phone I enlarge information boards about flight gates, train tracks, street names and a lot of other things, but it doesn’t take more than a few seconds of extra time. I manage pretty well in everyday life I imagine. I don’t think about myself as disabled. 

That changes radically when I visit a new city, especially if I don’t understand the language. Suddenly I’m all that I was convinced that I wasn’t. I’m insecure, I walk slowly and I look down at the ground to discover every little edge (in Sweden, I don’t have to, not even in new places because I know how it usually is built). And, the most difficult part: it happens that I have no other option than to ask a stranger for help. 

Different countries offer different challenges

Each country has its own specialities, its own problems for a visually impaired traveller.

In Norway there is often a lack of contrast markers in stairways, and the absence of handrails is just as common. It also seems to be quite popular with glass staircases; I’ve even experienced large stones placed in the middle of the stairs. Over time, I have learned how the kerbs are designed and where the lamp and signposts are situated, but as soon as I get to an open space or stairs I stop immediately and sceptically look around before I start moving forward very slowly and fully confident that I’ll fall down a precipice at any second. 

In Paris, I had trouble navigating. Street signs, or signs in general, in the narrow streets of the city, mostly made me confused. I never managed to find a street sign that was consistent with what was written on my map. I walked past my hotel four times before I realized it was my hotel (entrance from another street and no visible sign). The narrow sidewalks, sometimes blocked by posts and stairs, also made it a pretty dangerous walk. And the fact that I cannot speak French made me quite isolated in my search. But it’s easy to forgive in a city like Paris. When Paris offers a delicious dinner at a local restaurant with red and white-checkered tablecloths and a woman singing jazz in a corner of the room, I could die happy. 

Barcelona has mostly done a great job, but the red lights at the crossings are dead silent (unless you prepay for a specific device from the Spanish Visual Impairment organization ONCE, but who does that when you are only staying a few days?). Crossing the street is however manageable. The strategy is to walk when enough other people are walking. If you stay in the middle of the crowd, you will at least have a little padding around yourself when the car hits you.

What amazes me in Barcelona is the idea of digging decimetre deep pits in the middle of the sidewalk to plant trees. It’s of course great to have plants in the city, but why make a pitfall? And if you need to collect water at the tree trunk when it rains, why don’t you put a grille over the hole?

Worst of all is London. Don’t get me wrong, I love the UK, but to move around in London as visually impaired and not used to the city is a very stressful feeling. When I first came out of the subway station and was about to orient myself to find to the conference I was participating in, an obstacle course began that I wasn’t at all prepared for.

As you might know, the British drive on the “wrong” side of the road. I could probably have lived with this fact if they had skipped the one-way streets. Now I could never be sure about the driving direction of the cars that potentially could turn me into Today's Special: Kidney pie at the nearest pub. So, I looked both ways all the time, which just made me more confused. At the same time, London's traffic planners have decided to try to avoid giving the green light to pedestrians at crosswalks. Well, not that I saw any green light, it mostly said "Wait" in white text on a sign next to me. Again, I used the strategy to put myself in the middle of the crowd when crossing the street. The problem in London, however, was that more than half of all pedestrians were staring at their cell phones. I seriously doubt that they even realized that they were crossing the street. For me this also meant that I had to zigzag on the sidewalk since no one saw me coming.

In Sweden, people tend to perceive that I am an UCMO (UnControllable Moving Object) and steer clear of me before I understand the need for a change of course. But in London my flickering gaze did not work as a warning sign because people were too busy looking their mobiles deep into the eyes. However - I arrived there, and I got home in one piece and I definitely plan to return, but my first visit to London was anything but relaxing.

To be reminded of your disability

I enjoy the differences of each city and country. I do think that it would be a smart idea to drive on the right side of the road and to prevent people from plunging into the plantings, but I can handle it with a little practice. I have bigger difficulties understanding Norway's view on stairways, but that theme will surely make an own chronicle one day when my Norwegian colleagues and myself will nominate Norway's 10 worst staircases.

Nevertheless, my adventures lead me to reflect. Of course I have a disability all the time, but I only notice it when I’m in unfamiliar environments. I never feel restricted, it’s just a little more difficult some times, and it takes a little longer.

This certainly differs depending on what type of disability a person might have. I would probably have had more trouble in a wheelchair in Paris, while I might not have enjoyed London if I had a mental disability.

For me it’s probably just healthy to get a reminder once in a while that I actually have a disability - after all it controls some parts of my everyday life.

Andreas Cederbom