In this episode, Mark, who is partially sighted, leads us on a route from his house in North Belfast into the city centre. On the way, he shows us some of the challenges he faces and the skills he's learned to lead his life. We consider the impact of design - good and bad - on people who have a disability.
This is the first of two episodes of The Infinite City where we meet people whose experience, and consideration, of space is influenced by disability, and consider what truly inclusive urban design might be like.
The Infinite City is produced by Rebekah McCabe and Conor McCafferty for PLACE, with assistance from Maria Postanogova and Stuart Gray. It is supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Arts and Business Northern Ireland. Special thanks to the RNIB for their assistance with this episode.
See the full transcript for this episode below.
TRANSCRIPT: The Infinite City - Season 1 Episode 3
Mark: The City Beyond Sight
Released 24 May 2018
Rebecca McCabe [RMC]: This is the Infinite City - stories from Belfast of people and place. I’m Rebekah McCabe.
Conor McCafferty [CMC]: And I’m Conor McCafferty.
RMC: The sense of sight is taken for granted in the city. When it comes to urban design especially, vision is given primacy over all other senses. But what changes about our relationship to the places we inhabit when sight is taken away, or, when it becomes our primary means of communication?
CMC: In the next two episodes of the Infinite City, we’re going to meet two people whose experience, and consideration, of space is influenced by disability, and look at what truly inclusive urban design might be like.
Mark Bridgeland [MB]: I guess picturing the expression on my mum’s face, it was shock-horror. How can he go to Belfast? How can he like live independently over there...
RMC: Think about a city you’re familiar with. How do you describe it if you were told you couldn’t refer to its visual qualities. What does it sound like? What does it feel like. What about the surfaces and materials, the textures of the pavements, shelter and safety, openness, invitations to linger… Might you think differently about how the city supports your life - your quality of life, social life - if you weren’t thinking about how it looks?
CMC: We’re thinking about these questions as we arrive at the North Belfast home of Mark…
MB: I’ve lived here nearly two years. Actually 2 years in August. I used to live upstairs but I had a nasty accident on the stairs so they had to move me down to the ground floor...
CMC: At the time of his accident, Mark was living in a 1980s designed 2-storey block of flats. The upper floor, where Mark had his flat, was only accessible by a set of stairs in the centre of a large lobby. One day, leaving his flat, Mark took a misstep and fell down the stairs, badly injuring himself.
RMC: After Mark came into contact with social services, he found it easier to admit, both to them and himself, that his deteriorating vision was making life a lot more difficult than it had been with partial sight.
MB: So, I had to go to hospital and I hurt my back and they said, “Well, why didn’t you see the step?” So I had to admit that my sight was going because to that point I didn’t admit it and I think to a point I didn’t accept it. The hospital social worker said, “How are you getting on at home?” So I said, “Not too well.” So she said, “Well, we need to call Social Services, get them to come out to do an assessment.”
CMC: The first step in making life easier was to move to a flat on the ground floor of his building.
MB: It’s a normal layout of a flat, but there’s been some adaptations done.
RMC: The adaptations are relatively simple, such as brighter lighting overhead and under all the cabinets in kitchen to allow Mark to cook and chop things more safely.
MB: And then I have what you call a knife guard which I will stick into the vegetable that I’m cutting or whatever I’m cutting and then that guides the knife and rather than cutting my fingers it guides the knife safely. I can find my way around quite easily.
CMC: Mark’s bathroom has been fitted out as a wetroom to reduce his risk of tripping over the sides of a bath or shower and injuring himself on the tiles.
MB: There’s a scare of slipping as well … You can’t actually see it, but there’s a looping system in the front room.
RMC: Mark is also partially deaf, so his flat has an audio looping system which allows him to tune his hearing aid into the audio playing back from his TV or radio to be able to hear it better.
MB: I can play music or listen to the telly or watch the telly, if I get close enough I can actually see it. The looping system will kick in …
CMC: Bringing these technologies into his home makes everyday life a little easier, but for Mark, degenerative sight loss has come with inevitable challenges…not least the fear and worry that can come with confronting a future without sight.
MB: I’ve always been blind in my left eye, and then my right eye is going as well. But it’s only in the last 2 or 3 years I’ve had to get used to no sight, well very little sight, in my right eye..
RMC: Getting out and about was frightening, but staying home was detrimental for Mark’s mental health. A city that’s not designed for a whole spectrum of abilities quickly becomes forbidding for disabled people... It’s in this way that bad design can have devastating personal effects. It’s not just about bumping your shin or tripping over things - the outside world can quickly feel hostile, something to be feared and avoided…
MB: The first time it happened, I was very frightened, even though they did say there was a possibility of it happening, it was very hard and I isolated myself back in the flat and started to go inwards and get very depressed…
CMC: Mark has overcome these fears by developing new skills, particularly the use of a cane to get around, and through the services of Guide Dogs, who teamed him up with Cookie, a golden labrador.
MB: Alright come on then Cookie, Cooks on your bed. Cookie come on, on your bed.
CMC: Like all UK guide dogs, Cookie was born at the National Breeding Centre in Leamington Spa.
RMC: Awwww Cookie!
MB: That’s his way of saying you’re welcome to come into the flat.
MCM: Thank you!
CMC: Thank you Cookie!
CMC: At 6 weeks old, Cookie moved to live with a volunteer, known as a puppy walker based in Scotland, and who taught him to respond to basic commands, before he went on to Advanced Training, the final stage before being paired with the guide dog user.
RMC: For Mark, Cookie has been transformative.
MB: Sometimes there’s hazards, like a bin and I can’t see the bin so Cookie will go left or right to the bin. And he’ll see that about 100m before we get to it, so he’s working out in his doggy brain how do I get round this safely.
RMC: As Cookie negotiates obstacles, Mark can feel his direction of movement through the harness, so he’s not caught by surprise as the dog changes course.
MB: If there’s a car on the pavement and we can’t get through safely together, he’ll stop. So then I have to, he’ll then sit and I’ll to say to him, “Cookie, find a way,” and then he’ll find the way. So that means he’d have to go off pavement, and go round the car safely and come back on the other side very safely, quick as he can sort of thing. And he does all that himself, he’s guiding me, I’m just commanding him, he guides me and I command him. Contrary to belief they don’t know when a car’s like 10ft, 5ft or 6ft. They use their sight, they use their eyes and if it’s too close it won’t go, Cookie won’t go and that’s his way of telling me it’s not safe.
CMC: We accompany Mark as he makes the journey from his house into the city centre. This is a route Mark has followed many times. Today, Mark wants to show us how his long cane works, so he leaves Cookie at home…
MB: Bye Cookie, see you later! Be a good boy!
CMC: Out on the street, Mark starts to sweep his long cane using the roller on the tip. You’ll hear that as we move around.
MB: I will start sweeping before I move because if I don’t if I don’t sweep look what happens, (BONG), straight into the object you see, so that could be a lamppost and I could smack my head. So, always sweep before you move.
RMC: Like most people living in the city, Mark follows the same route every time he goes into town. But his route has to be little bit more considered. It begins with the 300 metre walk from Mark’s house to his bus stop. We cross a small cul de sac and follow a pedestrian alley uphill, before crossing over a busy main road to get to the bus stop.
MB: Chances of finding a difficult route and you can’t do it are very slim because the fact is that if you’re confident enough you will overcome any hazard. New hazards that have popped up the night before, like where they’ve dug the road up or something like that, that can throw you and then you have to work it out, how to get round it.
CMC: Mark’s long cane helps him to find the standing obstacles in his path - those are the obstacles Mark already knows to expect and needs to avoid like lampposts and trees, and needs to avoid.
MB: So basically, anything that don’t move.
CMC: The cane also allows him to locate himself by identifying the objects he does need to find, like doorways, street crossings and kerbs...
MB: Its main job is to stop me hitting hazards and hurting myself. Also it helps me get out and about, because like I said I’ve not always had Cookie.
MB: Unfortunately, the same with the dog, the cane can’t find things that are at head height. So, there may be on the odd occasion, especially around election time where the election boards may catch the top of my head. That’s just something you have to put up with. With the little bit of sight that I have got, I am negotiating the lampposts. See this is where Cookie comes into his own. I don’t have to avoid the lampposts, he does it for me.
RMC: This route from house to bus stop has been carefully planned. Mark and his support worker, Steve, tested it several times before Mark had the skill and confidence to do it alone. Before he needed the cane, Mark had gotten to know the area with some vision...
MB: ...which was a really good help when Steve came to do my cane training because we used to walk around the area and Steve each time would find new hazards and teach me how to get round them safely. I had many tears and many jumping up and down, saying “I can’t do this.” But with patience and perseverance we got there.
CMC: Mark reaches his bus stop...
MB: (TING TING) I’m now finding the post.
RMC: So now we’re at the bus stop.
MB: And now we’re at the bus stop. So I touch that to know that’s the bus stop.
CMC: ...and we hear about another function of the cane...
MB: So I’ll stand here now and wait for the bus and because of my cane they’ll know I’m blind or I’ve got a sight problem and they’ll stop automatically.
RMC: On the one hand the cane, like Cookie, is a physical extension of Mark’s body, a device that gives him information about the world around him and helps him to make decisions - when to change direction, what to avoid, where to wait... At the same time, the cane and Cookie act as signals to let people around him know that he has a vision impairment.
MB: There’s been the odd occasion where I’ve actually clipped somebody with a cane...9 times out of 10, I get ‘Oh I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ Or you’ll get, like I’ve clipped a man and the wife turned to him and says, ‘Watch where you’re going, he’s blind’ you know. And the thing is, he’s going, ‘Oh sorry mate! I didn’t see you!’ and when they say ‘I didn’t see you’, you think to yourself maybe they need the cane more than I do but hey we won’t go there.
CMC: Walking with Mark, we start to experience the city from his position… We don’t rush to the bus, we don’t take shortcuts. We avoid risky manoeuvres we might otherwise take when walking around. Everything is figured out in advance and timed to a T. Still, Mark has to be prepared for the unexpected and knows that he will occasionally make mistakes...
MB: You might be surprised when I say this but to get it wrong is good, cause it teaches me not to depend on the routes that I do. That’s the same with Cookie. We try not to go the same way every time because if we’re going left here, we’re going right there, we go straight on here and he gets bored. So he’ll start saying, ‘There’s some pigeons over there, I wonder if dad’ll let me chase them’. So I will periodically change the route. Cause you can’t see, you think a lot. And the route I’m taking him I’ve actually learned so I know basically what hazards there can be. And if the hazards are too difficult to get around with the dog, I won’t go that way.
CMC: Wayfinding like this seems immensely challenging. But it’s a matter of everyday habit for Mark - an adaptation he’s had to make to get by.
RMC: There’s an idea that sight is somehow primary, above all the other senses, and that what we can see should be prioritised above all other perceptual experiences. This primacy of sight has had big impacts on how we think about the world, and on how we think about blindness.
CMC: We might notice what we see more than what we’re picking up with our other senses, but the environment around us is not only visual information. We know and understand our environment by integrating information from all our senses - so for example, things you hear confirm what you see, what you see can confirm what you touch, and so on, even if you’re not conscious of it. This integration of information gathered by all our senses goes on constantly, unconsciously, and so quickly that we take it utterly for granted.
RMC: Because of his vision impairment, Mark is missing one part of that sensory mix, but his skills more than make up for it. For example, even when he’s not directly touching the ground with his cane, he is ‘reading’ the space around him as he moves through it. He explains how he does this as we take the number 11 bus into town…
MB: You was asking early on how I would know that we’re near my last stop. Just feel the road, just feel the road okay? It’s really bumpy and that’s a good way of telling as well that we’re quite near to the stop that we want to be. When I go back home, I know that he turns very sharply to the right. And then I know it has to go over one bump, then a little bit, then another bump and I know that’s my stop. So, and then we’ve just gone over another bump so we’re quite near to where we need to be and it’s gone into the left quite sharply and now we’re at the end, we have to get off here...
RMC: Alright, lead the way.
CMC: We arrive at the stop and get off at Donegal Place, right in the centre of Belfast. It’s early afternoon and teeming with people moving about. Mark has some errands to run, and lets us tag along… Mark is first looking for a piece of tactile paving that tells him where to cross the street.
MB: See now, that’s changed on the floor, that’s actually now starting to vibrate, so that could either be one of two things. That could be tactile pavement or it could be a drain. I’m working it out and it is a drain. See now, see my cane’s going over the top of that even though it’s vibrating it’s going over the top of it so I know that’s tactile pavement.
RMC: We’re facing City Hall. Mark needs to get across Donegall Place from the side where the bus dropped him off and down the other side. There’s a dropped kerb and tactile paving, which helps Mark to find the pedestrian crossing.
MB: So I know I need to turn right, come to the box and feel the box, press the button. Then under most new traffic lights are have we call a ‘Witches’ Helmet’ so when the green man comes it will spin so then I know it’s safe to cross the road. If it hasn’t got what we call the ‘Witches’ Helmet’, it goes beep, beep, beep, beep and it’s very loud. So you know, you can hear it. And there you go, it’s spinning now so it’s safe to go across.
RMC: Now we’re on the right side of the street, Mark knows roughly the distance it takes to get from the top of the street to Boots chemist, his destination. Mark has several ways of knowing he’s in the right place.
MB: So I know I’m coming up to the doors cause there’s the change onto the different paths so I’m coming off and this is the entrance to the building. Now I definitely know that I’m at the door because it’s, the cane’s catching so I definitely know I’m on the doorstep. So, I know to lift my foot just a little bit.
CMC: Technological innovations and the development of skills have made life much easier for Mark and allowed him to be more independent. But there’s another, perhaps overlooked, feature of the city that Mark uses every day for support.
RMC: Mark draws on trust in other people - he asks for help, often from strangers, and relies on people if he becomes disoriented or if a change in his neighbourhood catches him off guard...
MB: When a shop closes or whatever and you walk up to the door and think, ‘Hang on, that’s not opening, what’s happening here?’ If you’re like me, you’ll walk up to somebody and say, ‘Why, is that shop closed or has it moved or...?’ And the thing is, they might say to you, ‘Yeah, it’s over there, turn right, up the road, turn left, it’s on the other side, over there.’ Well hey ‘over there’ is not very good to someone’s that’s blind. So you have to explain to them, ‘Sorry I’m blind, could you say that again?’ So you have to learn the new route. But normally - I don’t know if this is the same with other people that’ve got sight impairment - is that normally, when I find something once, I usually remember where it is.
RMC: Good design and thoughtful interventions make big differences. Helpful and supportive people make inevitable obstacles manageable. But bad design, design that caters for a very narrow range of abilities, is an impediment to quality of life. Skills, however well mastered, can only do so much in a city that has not been designed with people like you in mind…
RMC: Mark is not just a passive inhabitant of his city, he is actively finding ways of changing his environment for the better.
CMC: Vision impairment is a spectrum that involves everything from sensitivity to light, blurriness, more constrained peripheral vision, distorted vision, to no visual perception at all. Designing for all users requires really careful consideration of the experience and needs of people right across that spectrum.
MB: There’s no better way of getting a true picture than asking somebody that actually does suffer from the condition, do not presume because you will get it absolutely wrong, if you presume. You know there might be engineers, there might be planners, there might be architects, there might be… Come and ask, we’re not gaga, we’re not stupid, I know what it’s like, I’ve had it most of my life. Come and ask. The times I’ve tripped and hurt myself is unbelievable, come and ask how high you want the pavement, because the thing is we can tell you.
CMC: Mark’s condition represents just one experience of vision impairment, but through the support of advocacy organisations, he has met other people with similar experiences and is beginning to feel part of a supportive community...
MB: You take Diane and Andrea, for example, that you met last week, they’re totally blind, they absolutely can not see at all. So, it amazes me how those people get around, they don’t let anything faze them, you know? I mean they just go and do it. It’s makes me feel that I’m not the only one that has the sight problem. I can go to those people when I’m feeling a bit depressed and down and they will say, they will understand what I’m going through.
RMC: Through this community Mark has gotten involved in various campaigns to improve how visually impaired people are catered for in their everyday life…
MB: The way to change things is to campaign, is to say to people, ‘Please can you, can you help?’ And the thing is they might say no 50 times but on the 51st time they might say, ‘For goodness sake, yes. We’ll do it’. I’ll give you an example, the Lagan bus station was going to close. They took the inspectors away, well if you’re blind - and they don’t do no announcements there - if you’re blind went, you can’t see it, you don’t know what bus - and the amount of times that we’ve missed the bus - unless you’ve got a nice bus driver that will come over to you and say, ‘What bus are you waiting for?’ So we went to Translink and we said this is not fair because you’re discriminating against - well not discriminating but you’re not helping people who are blind. And we kept on and kept on and kept on and kept on. And it took a year and we kept chipping away and chipping away and chipping away and in the end, they said yes, it makes sense to put an inspector back there so you can go up to the inspector and say, ‘Please, can you help me? I’m blind or I’m visually impaired, I need to go so and so. What bus to I get or what stand do I go to?’ It just goes to show if you campaign in the right way and keep asking in the right way, you will get what you want.
CMC: Disability activism has a long history in the UK. Beginning in 1945, with large numbers of injured servicemen returning from the battlefields of World War 2, the state began to recognise the need for a more accessible physical environment.
RMC: From the 1960s, mobilised by the civil rights movement, disabled people asserted their rights to live as they wished, and to have a direct say in decisions that affected them. They rejected assumptions of dependency at a time when institutionalisation of disabled people was still widespread. In 1972, a disabled writer and activist, Paul Hunt, established the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, or UPIAS.
RMC: One of the significant messages of that campaign was contained in a manifesto, published by the UPIAS in 1976. It stated:
CMC: “In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society.”
RMC: This statement flipped the prevalent understanding of disability upside-down - rather than seeing disability as a medical condition, it reframed it as a social problem. In other words, the problems faced by disabled people are not so much to do with the impairments of their condition, but the result of a society, and a built environment, that fails to accommodate the needs of a broad spectrum of human abilities.
CMC: Despite the movement making significant gains over the years, the need to campaign continues. For Mark, it’s crucial to bring people with lived experience of a disability into the decision making process. He’s positive about seeing this in action within Belfast City Council.
MB: It’s taking into consideration people who are blind and visually impaired… people that are in wheelchairs, people that got autism, people that are partially deaf or deaf, so they’re taking in a multitude of disabilities and trying to make council buildings more accessible to those particular people. Fantastic idea. If council buildings and the council don’t put their head about the pulpit, what hope do we have? What a brilliant organization, what a powerful organization to get things changed.
RMC: Other campaign issues deal with how space is shared in the city between users, and making traders and others more aware of how their use of the street impacts on disabled people.
MB: One of the other things we’re doing as well is street clutter. Caffe Nero here have got chairs and these would be a hazard, they really would. If I come up this way they’d really be a hazard. What we’re trying to do is get it screened off so I would walk into the screen before I walk into the tables and chairs.
RMC: Some design interventions, once they’re in place, seem so sensible and intuitive, it’s hard to imagine living without them, nevermind that they were a struggle to implement in the first place. One such intervention is audio announcements on public buses...
MB: I’ve got blind and partially sighted people were moaning because the bus driver was like leaving people in the bus. Because the thing is, it that it must be very stressful driving a bus and they do forget, like to tell you where to get off the bus. I’ve had that several times. And the thing is, you can’t really cut the needle with them and get angry with them cause it’s not there fault. So what Guide Dogs and Translink done, they got together. What would happen is, we’re going along, they’re telling me what bus stop we’re coming to. And then one wants to get off the bus, like everyone else, press the bell and get off the bus.
CMC: Good design becomes part of the background. A city designed well shouldn’t have to be consciously figured out all the time by its users. Mark also reminds us that accessible design isn’t necessarily new and shiny. One of his favourite places to go in Belfast is nearly 200 years old….
MB: Botanic Gardens because it’s lovely, it’s really wide, it’s really friendly, it’s disabled friendly and I love just sitting there listening to the birds. It’s a good place to go to escape, it’s just well laid-out, it’s well set and the paths are very wide, it’s just a lovely place to be. so I enjoy going there. Though the journey to get there can be a little bit difficult but when you get there it’s worth the journey.
RMC: In our next episode we explore this theme further, when we talk to architect Richard Dougherty about design and deaf space.
CMC: The Infinite City is a production of PLACE, Northern Ireland’s Built Environment Centre. Make sure you subscribe in your podcast app or on iTunes so you can get future episodes as soon as they are released.
RMC: If you like what you hear, you can rate us and leave a review on iTunes, which really helps us to reach more people. You can also support the podcast by donating - the link is at placeni.org/theinfinitecity, where you will also find show notes and some additional content.
CMC: Tell us what you think via Twitter @infinitecitypod and on instagram as The Infinite City.
RMC: The Infinite City is produced by Rebekah McCabe and Conor McCafferty for PLACE, with assistance from Maria Postanogova and Stuart Gray. It is supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Arts and Business Northern Ireland. Special thanks to the RNIB for their assistance with this episode.
The Infinite City is our podcast. Through it, we tell stories of people and place, design and belonging, survival and celebration in Belfast & beyond.
Supported by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios & Arts & Business NI.
Music for Season One composed by Conor McCafferty.
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