Alan Dudley (EaRN Equalities Ambassador) talks with Stephen Faithfull (EaRN Communications Coordinator).
Stephen: I am the communications coordinator for the Equality and Rights Network, also known as EaRN and I’m joined here today by Alan Dudley, who’s one of our volunteer Equalities Ambassadors, and he’s going to talk a little bit about what equality means to him.
Alan: Hello everyone. I am a totally blind person and have a guide dog who his sitting here, called Demi, a small German Shepherd – that’s how I get around Leith and Edinburgh. What equality means to me in a bland sense, is being treated equally, treated like everybody else, with no quota asked or given. What people realise is that when you have little or no sight, you are at a disadvantage, and I guess the three main areas to think about are home life, work life, and for me, getting around. Now, when I worked it was really important for me to be treated as equally as any of my colleagues; so if the boss wanted to give you a roasting, they’d give you a roasting, if you deserved it, rather than, ‘oh goodness me, I better not because he can’t see!’ – I preferred that; I felt accepted by my colleagues, because they treated me equally, and that meant letting me be last in the queue, making me make the coffee – things like that so that I was an equal part of work. I enjoyed it very much, but you have to have the right attitude towards them so that they will do that. Another aspect for me is home living; shopping, cooking, this sort of thing. Often when I go to the shops, particularly super markets, I have to ask for assistance because, having no sight at all, it is very difficult to navigate your way around the stores and pick the right items, because you could end up picking the wrong stuff off the shelves if you just did it yourself – so you have to ask for help. Very often, you get the shop assistants who are superb, who treat you equally; they tell you what’s on the shelf, they tell you the special offers, they’ll help you with choosing, say, if something costs a pound and something costs a pound and ten pence, which is the best to buy. So they will treat you equally and converse with you – being someone who can’t see, it’s important that people treat me as someone who can think and speak, with good ideas and bad ideas, rather than just someone who can’t think for themselves, because that’s not true. So, it’s important to be treated equally when you go shopping, and its important, for example when I’m shopping for clothes, for people to tell you what does and doesn’t suit you; you want to go away looking smart and clean just as everybody else – that’s treating you equally. On one occasion as I was waiting on the platform on my way to a conference, a porter said ‘I’ll just go get a pair of scissors, as you’ve a label left on your jacket and I couldn’t let you go away so smart with that’ – I felt that was a real act of kindness, and that he saw me as an equal participant in the community. I thought that it was a really nice thing to do. So for me, being treated equally means people who help you cross the road, help you in supermarkets, help you in the pub, maybe carry your drink for you… If you go to a book festival, concerts, theatres, and people treat you equally, they’ve done their best for you. They recognise that you need some assistance, but its given willingly, and its given on an equal basis.
Stephen: Do you find that, in Edinburgh, it is generally the case that people will give assistance willingly and on an equal basis, or do you find that you regularly have problems with people when they’re not helping out?
Alan: No, I find the general public to be mostly fantastic. First of all, they’re very kind sometimes. They’ll approach you if they think you need help, even if they’re not quite sure what help you need, and then they’ll give that help really well. Occasionally people don’t quite know what to do and are not at ease with you, but that’s fair enough; we’re all caught out when we meet someone who has a disability like us – we’re not quite sure what to do. But occasionally strange things happen and people ask very strange questions which I try not to answer (laughs). Sometimes training inhibits people, that’s unfortunate – they think they know when perhaps they don’t.
Stephen: We were talking a little bit before we started recording about the work that’s going on at the moment on Leith Walk with the cycle lanes, and you were talking about some issues you have with that. Would you like to elaborate a little bit on that?
Alan: Yes, they’re currently building a cycle track which is going to share part of the pavement on Leith walk, and they’re donating the boundaries between the cycle track and the pavement with what feels like corduroy paving under your feet, on the grounds that you shouldn’t stray beyond that boundary because then you would be in the cycle lane. But for someone like me, who doesn’t see at all, and who has a guide dog, that’s going to be very difficult to deal with., because a) I can’t walk straight, b) you might only catch part of your foot on the bit you’re supposed to feel so you might miss it, and c) the cyclist that you can’t see coming may be perfectly well behaved but be very close, or riding very fast. I’ve been in a tussle with the council over this and I don’t feel I have been treated very well because I have been trying to say that the council was meant to have a consultation in June and before, which I didn’t know about and wasn’t involved in, and I don’t think anybody raised the issues relating to people with visual impairment relating to the cycle track. But when I have tried to say so, they have basically said ‘we have had our consultation, and that’s it’. I don’t think that is treating people very equally. I think in a circumstance like that, when you’re raising a very personal point or issue, I do understand people don’t always understand your arguments or think they’re ridiculous, I do accept that, but I think there is a way they can deal with things; that you have a point and that they need to stop and give it a bit of thought.
Stephen: Is it particularly Leith walk, or are there areas elsewhere around the city, where you find, whether due to roadworks, or due to the way the area is laid out all the time, the area is particularly bad or particularly good?
Alan: I think Edinburgh, being an old city, can be pretty difficult because you can’t adapt some of the buildings because they’re listed so you can’t put ramps etc on them. I think people struggle because of steps and things like that. I think that whilst you realise buildings are listed and beautiful and can’t be touched, if you’re struggling to get up the steps, or you’re in a wheelchair and you can’t get in, it’s incredibly frustrating. You’d think, well surely, they’d stick a ramp on it; we all know it’s listed, but they’ll let me in – but it’s really an issue in Edinburgh sometimes.
Stephen: How do you find the public transport? Do you use the buses much, or the trams at all?
Alan: I use the buses quite a lot. I do tend to walk if I can, but if I have to get a bus, the bus drivers here are brilliant. They pull up and shout out the stop and the number which is brilliant. Lothian transport have actually invented an app which you can use on your IPhone to tell you when the next bust top is out loud; for the first time in my life I don’t have to ask the bus driver or a passenger. Sometimes I ask the bus drivers and they forget – ‘Ey sorry mate, I’ve forgotten, you’re half a mile away’ (laughs). Now, you realise mistakes happen, and of course you’ve got to laugh, but sometimes you think ‘ah no, it’s raining too!’ But again, I can get up and down steps on buses, whereas wheelchair people need a ramp; sometimes the ramps don’t work or the wheelchair space is full. It must be very frustrating if you have an appointment or something and you can’t get on because the bus is full; you think, well why is there only one wheelchair space; why can there not be two – Things like that. You wonder whether that’s an equal treatment issue or an equality issue sometimes.
Stephen: Are there ever any issues around having an assistance dog; if you have demi with you, are you ever denied access to the building etc?
Alan: I think it happens much less than it did, but one hears stories about it happening, and it’s a very strange thing because when it happens to you it’s very hurtful. Although it may have happened before and you think you’re strong and you can cope with it, when it happens its very upsetting, incredibly so. It makes you feel that you can’t, you know, you can’t get in with you dog, and therefore you’re not worth it. I think it happens much less than it did but I guess it does happen from time to time, and that’s definitely an equality issue. You don’t see that you need your dog to get you to a place and things like that. So people should just accept it, providing of course the dog is well behaved and isn’t jumping on tables and things like that! I think that it’s not as much of an issue as it was but it still is on occasion.
Stephen: So you talked a little bit earlier about members of the public generally being very good at helping you on an equal basis. But do you find that you experience any prejudice towards you because of your disability?
Alan: I think people are sometimes curious, when they’re crossing the road with you they’ll ask you a question: ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to ask…’ A prime example is ‘if you haven’t got any sight, do you live in darkness?’ because people assume that. But I don’t, because darkness is a visual concept; I don’t have anything: I don’t have light, I don’t have dark. That really fascinates people. People also ask ‘how do you do such and such…’ I’ve also been asked some very private questions! (Laughs) People are just curious and if they see you as being talkative, they want to ask you these things. I don’t really mind unless it’s really private; I don’t really mind telling them but I hope they’re going to go away thinking they’ve learnt something.
Stephen: So on the whole, you don’t find it annoying?
Alan: By in large I don’t, no I don’t.
Stephen: So, as you say, Edinburgh is quite an old city; there are limits to what the authorities are able to do in terms of adapting buildings and streets because a lot of these places are listed; is there anything to do with that, or more generally in the way the city is run or the services in the city, that you think could be improved to improve your equality in the city?
Alan: I guess that lots of things are printed on notices that of course I can’t see, so, I mean therefore, you can’t really respond. And of course I don’t see adverts and things like you guys do, so I’m not, thank goodness, exposed to some, which from what I’ve heard is not necessarily a bad thing! (Laughs) But there are times when, with notices and things… I remember going to a bus stop once, when they were doing construction of the trams and they’d moved it for half a day, and it happened to be that a member of the public said ‘oh, it’s not here anymore’, they’ve moved it!.. You rely on people to tell you and obviously it’s very difficult, you can’t get real notifications, but I guess with IPhone and smart phones these days, you can get notifications on your phone that will speak to you and things like that – it shows a change in attitude. It’s probably no worse than any city but there are times when you think ‘oh, I wish I’d known that, or when plays are advertised or films are advertised that you just don’t see and are not aware of, I guess. I suppose then if you are aware you could play an equal part in society by going or not going; by making that choice. But if you’re not always aware because it’s on a billboard somewhere and nobody has told you ‘oh, did you know X is coming’, then you wouldn’t know. I guess that’s the sort of thing that you know, you think ‘I wish I’d known that’.
Stephen: Okay. Just to finish up, is there anything else you think is important to cover in terms of equality?
Alan: I think equality to me is a simple concept – it’s about being treated equally. As I was saying to you before we started, you’ve got to treat yourself equally. I was just saying to Stephen there that I went to a local folk club a couple of weeks ago and it was a really popular artist and there were no tickets left, and I thought ‘ooh, I could go in and I could blag it’ (laughs) but then I thought, if I want to be treated equally I should treat myself like everybody else, so I went home without trying to get a ticket – but I’ve got to say I was tempted! ‘What’s sauce for the Goose is sauce for the gander – I mean there are no tickets left, I won’t blag it, I’ll just accept that I was disappointed and went home. I think it was reasonable but I was tempted (laughs)!
Stephen: I think we all would be but it’s also very admirable that you followed that idea of equality that everybody should be applying.
Alan: People are kind, they say in shops ‘you can go before me’ and you say ‘no, no, I’m fine, I’ll wait. You don’t want that special treatment, although it’s always tempting.’