The history of design thesis

Testing a wheelchair spaceEverything we do becomes history, however significant might be to ourselves or to each other – a legacy, if you will. I’ve had several opportunities in my work to do this in the past through partnerships that we have. One particular partnership is with a rail operator. I received an email in December from a colleague I’ll call Sheila.

The email asked the following:

  • Do I have a passport?
  • Do I fly?

If the answer was yes, then I was to phone my colleague immediately. I did so and after establishing that 29 seconds from clicking send is immediately, I was invited to travel to Switzerland with the company to help with the design input of the new trains for a franchise. I wasn’t to be alone – a colleague with sensory needs had also been invited. The brief was clear – to look at the proposals for people with mobility and sensory needs to identify if they are appropriate. We were invited look for any improvements that can be made to further offer a better experience to customers. Our lived and professional experiences were key to our visit, to assist with the design proposals and offer our constructive thoughts.

A FLIRT train in Konstanz, GermanyThe new trains, which are of a new type to the UK, are made by Stadler and will be in service for the next 20-30 years. The trains (called FLIRT) are commonplace in Europe and now are coming to the UK. The new trains will have 3 different applications – airport, intercity and regional. The airport and intercity stock share one design and the regional trains another.

Arriving at the factory in Bussnang in the morning, we were introduced to the rolling stock types, which will be for the intercity, airport and regional trains. There are two types of wheelchair area, with the intercity and airport trains able to carry three wheelchair users in their chairs and the bi-mode regional trains carrying two wheelchair users. A mock up had been prepared (as the body shells are shortly to enter build phase), which was able to simulate the carriages and their internal layout differences.

There are some crucial differences due to the body alone. The train is “low floor”, which means that in the majority of cases the step may be as low as 100mm. This might also mean a step down. Stadler were able to simulate the different platform heights to identify the challenges of using a ramp from different heights and different degrees of incline. We discussed the elements of ingress and egress – the fact that the body has a sliding step is a new element that brings benefits. The carriage, with a lower floor, has a more pronounced curve in the lower part of the side of the body wall (to accommodate for passing through stations at speed). This means that the buttons at a metre from the floor can be reached by leaning forward.

The train, with its low floor design, is likely to not even require a ramp in some locations. It brings the possibility that completely independent travel could be closer than we realise – no ramp required. The design in place also looks to enable easier communication between on board staff and the customer.

Sat on the toilet lid making notesAt both the mock up and the meeting table, we utilised train plans to identify how wheelchair users may travel and discussed about the need for small tables, capable of holding a coffee. We went through how information may be displayed to the customers and issues conveyed through automated announcements, visual information and manual announcements. Colour contrast, toilet doors and call-for-aid buttons were discussed at length, identifying how small changes can make big differences. We discussed about how wheelchair users may transfer to a toilet (yes, there are two options now – side transfer or facing). What happens if a person falls off the toilet? What about washing your hands? Flushing the toilet? Forgetting to lock the door? Nothing was left out.

With the regional trains, we identified how small and large changes offer a completely different experience to a person travelling. We looked at how the position of priority seats and wheelchair spaces then led to other (non-disability) elements to be considered, giving an improved experience for customers without mobility issues. Suggesting one change meant that wooden panels were produced, measured, marked and used to show that the theory behind suggestions were possible. We discussed tip up seats, traveling with family, traveling alone, the need for people to have choice for their journey (which, to the credit of all involved, had already been considered). The accessible toilet now sits away from the wheelchair user on the opposite side of the vestibule door from the wheelchair spaces, for example. On intercity services, the buffet is within eye sight. 240v and USB power plugs will be available.

All the while, my colleague with a sensory need was giving her own feedback and input, feeding back about how she may undertake a journey, how her guide dog would be involved in her travel needs and how she would identify a priority seat. We looked at the internal colours in use and how these could affect a person with visual requirements. Audio and Visual displays were shown and positions noted to make it easy for a customer to find what they need to know. Automated announcements and visual announcements will help people who have hearing impairments.

I’m covering all this in a short space with no intention of discredit or not mentioning anything. Rail professionals were listening, writing, measuring to achieve the suggestions . I was impressed at the seriousness that they were showing in looking to gather all of the data and identify that they had interpreted our thoughts and ideas correctly. Action lists were drawn up immediately and signed off at the end of the day. At no point did it ever feel like “lip service” either – we are professionals with experience and the teams wanted to learn.

The outcome is that today we wrote history. A train interior was designed with people who are going to use it for the next 20 years. We were given the opportunity to have a positive impact on a project and I truly hope that we delivered. None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the partnership that I have through my work with the train service provider and my thanks must go to them for the opportunity. My gratitude cannot be measured.

I look forward to the delivery in the next few years. I’ll be proud to look at the train and know that I’ve had that smallest of hands in a huge and significant project.

The Feng Shui of the Class 321 equilibrium

On Friday 16 December, I was invited to join Greater Anglia aboard a newly refurbished class 321 trainset.  This unit in particular has been internally refreshed to meet the needs of the 21st century customer.  Built in the 1980s using the Mk3 bodyshell, there has been very limited redesign of the internal layout… until now.

My own experience has shown me that a clean vehicle can hide a multitude of sins, so I was keen to have a good crawl all over to identify the pitfalls I could – not to shame, instead to seek rectification and improve the new product further.  I believe in quick wins, too – usually the simplest improvement can be the cheapest and best.

For me, as a wheelchair user, the door I should was obvious from the traditional blue symbols – what awaited me was anything but traditional.  Once on board, I had a choice of turning left into the central saloon, or right to the carriage end and a space beside the lavatory.  Let me emphasis that word again a moment: choice.

Daddydoink in the wheelchair spaceThe space is at the minimum the standard dimensions and is slightly larger in the central saloon.  In both cases there are several tip-up seats available, both also with a fold-away table.  Yes, you read that correctly – a table.  This is invaluable, especially if you get hand shake or need to be able to put your sandwich down a moment.  The table would take a seat out of availability and can only be used if the seat is empty.  Opposite the wheelchair space beside the toilet is a luggage space, big enough for two large cases or eight small, laid flat.  There are seats opposite (proper seats) for friends and family, meaning friends no longer have to give up a tip-up seat for another wheelchair user.  There is a choice between sitting next to the toilet or not.

Toilet door entrance with no lipThe toilet is a standard loo, with both a toilet bowl and a sink.  There is a baby change table and a multitude of signs warning and instructing as to the use of various buttons.  The entrance has no lip (and therefore is a level ingress/egress).  The buttons are clear and the labeling is due to be improved to be clear that unlocking the door opens it, too.  Moving from a train with no loo to this is a huge step forward (or not, as there is no step).

The doors come with audio warnings and buttons at a decent height.  The width of the vestibules has expanded by over 6 inches, giving additional space to both wheelchair users and fellow passengers.  The grab poles that previously restricted access have been moved closer to the vehicle walls and further apart, giving over a meter of space for wheelchairs to get through.

The seats are now higher off the floor and have a good angle between the seat and back for a comfortable journey.  This means it will be easier for an ambulant disabled person to stand from them.  There are grab handles at nearly every seat.

All of this means a journey is very possible.  A journey can be a very emotional thing for a disabled person, too.  By making this easier, with better wheelchair spaces, more priority seats, higher seats – the emotions are positive ones.

This train is not a case of too little, too late.  It’s a case of benchmarking what can be achieved, with the life of this train now extended beyond 2020.  The re-traction project will only extend that life further.

The question is, who’s going to follow suit and copy this brilliant bit of work?  And for Greater Anglia, what is the next good idea?

Photos below – for use please contact me via twitter or a comment.

Refurbished Class 321 – Greater Anglia

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The Impaired Human Flight Principle

I’m incredibly fortunate to sometimes be invited out to events that interest me with my hobbies once in a while that also interlink with work.  Today was one of those days, when I got an email two or so weeks ago inviting people to join them for a Stansted Airport PRM (Passengers with Restricted Mobility) Day, undertaken with Omniserve.  The idea of the day is for you to ask questions, have a poke about and discover what the airport is able to offer a customer who needs a little bit more help than where their gate might be.

Bruce was able to give clear answers to those there

Bruce was able to give clear answers to those there

So, with my passport and a bit of information about where to park, I went off for the day.  Meeting everyone at the terminal assistance desk, we were ably led by Bruce and Sheila (see the naming policy) through to security, armed with visitors passes and our passports.

I’ve only been through security once at Stansted before and the last time was at about 7:00, half asleep.  So this was quite a good experience for me.  A male security guard gave me a good check over in a thorough and efficient manner whilst making sure the airport was not at risk.  It took all of 5 minutes or so and I was through and free to collect my camera, phone and laptop.

Ambi-lift

Ambi-lift

We moved through the newly laid out retail and restaurant areas – there is a lot of work going on at the moment, all evidence of the huge investment of over £80M by the Manchester Airport Group. Sheila and Bruce took us along to stand 50, where an ambi-lift (think – box on the back of a truck with scissor lift) was waiting… along with a Boeing 737-800, courtesy of Ryanair.

Bruce showed us how the ambi-lift process worked.  Provided by Omniserve (a contracted service provider), the system enables passengers who are PRM to access the plane from the terminal.  Usually a passenger is assisted out on to the apron, where the ambilift has a tail lift to raise the passenger to access the “box” on the back of the truck.  The box then lifts and a front “bridge” extended to the aircraft.  Whilst in the box, you transfer to an aisle chair and then are lifted into the cabin.

Discussing needs onboard

The whole process can be done in minutes and has a variety of tools available, including hoists, slings and transfer boards to help a customer get on the plane.

After the aircraft, we went through the arrivals process, looking at the route in through arrivals and exiting on to the forecourt.

Two hours has now passed – a lot to take in already.  A short break and then we had some presentations from Bruce and Clive from Omniserve as well as Mick from Manchester Airport Group.  It was rather interesting, learning that about 20% assistance requests are ad-hoc every month, for example.  Clive, who leads on the training programme for Omniserve, made it clear that the Social Model of Disability is at the core of the Equality Awareness Training.  He made no bones about not having all the answers, citing the need to keep relevant and use outside sources to improve and expand their training. It was also very evident that the training goes beyond a wheelchair or person having no vision.  It’s customer focused, knowing about both visible and hidden disabilities, including mental health and learning disabilities.  It was incredibly refreshing to hear someone ‘get it’ without having to be prompted to churn out the answers like a machine.

Mick then presented on behalf of Stansted.  He gave a true and frank explanation of some of the challenges faced when looking at improving the facilities on offer.  It was good to hear that the first consideration is not always the cost – inconvenience when replacing existing solutions, meaning customers may have a longer journey from point to point, for example, takes a central focus.  Wayfinding is a huge issue and has been centralised to remove the mix of signage as well as the development of a Wayfinding Strategy.  He also made it clear that although 80% of the existing issues were resolved, there was a hunger to get the other 20%.  Growing their market is crucial to their business strategy and to do that, it needs to be 100%.

Answering honestly and clearly, I really valued this Q&A session.  It wasn’t just lip-service – it was an open forum for potential and existing customers to learn, share and discover – building confidence to go and have positive experiences in the air.

If you get the chance to go and see one – I’d recommend it.

The Altitude Phenomenon

When we look over the edge of a balcony or regard the lobby from a glass lift, its almost alien, watching the ground move away or towards us… I personally love it – I can handle heights and would happily sit for hours admiring the detail below. 

vertigoHowever, stand me on my own two feet and this is completely alien.  I get dizzy and fearful and unstable… vertigo, in fact. Just because I am stood.

600ft – nada.

6ft – forget it.

The Inter-Departmental Policy Ball Tournament

It has been brought to my notice that the Department for Transport are contributing to the Government’s “Disability Strategy – Fulfilling Potential” with its own disability action plan, to be produced by the Summer of 2012.  The aim is “to address some of the concerns that have been raised on transport for disabled people in documents like RADAR’s guide “Doing Transport Differently” and the Trailblazer’s Transport Report “End of the Line”.

They are organising a small workshop and have invited representatives from groups but concede that there will be no consultation nor will there be any involvement from stakeholders who do not regularly connect with such access groups – disabled people who are usually living their lives as parents, employees and socialites – and might not have the time nor the interest in the ins and outs going on around them – such examples might be a disabled student attending full time college and not in contact with social services or a disabled parent who can get themselves out and about and doesn’t interact with other disabled people or the organisations who represent their disability.

Because of this, the Department for Transport has said that disabled people are welcome to email them what they perceive to be:

  • The gaps that need to be addressed by the public transport industry
  • The priorities and practical solutions for an inclusive transport system

You can email these in bullet points to: elena.barcan@dft.gsi.gov.uk.  When emailing, please outline your disability and how it affects you as well as your method of mobility – wheelchair, cane user, guide dog, companion dog, walking stick, etc…

The idea is to give her the problems that you face in terms of the issue and how it prevents you from travelling – an example:

  • Lack of level access on rail station platforms to train
    • Prevents me from boarding independently
    • Makes me reliant on a member of staff
    • Prevents me from disembarking independently
    • Makes me reliant on someone else advising my destination of my impending arrival

Their deadline for this is around the 1st May. 

Living on an inert gas phenomenon

I’ve been living with my new Sunrise Xenon for about a week now, having taken delivery on Tuesday.  It is a complete change from my last chair, a Sunrise Q2, which had a 100 degree footrest angle and weighed in at about 10kg.  By contrast, I’m now weighing in at little under 9kg and with a 92 degree footrest.

xenon-logoI’ll start with some basics about the Xenon.  It’s green – a nice, dark green – with 24 inch rims on the back and soft-roll 4 inch on the front.  The seat is 40cm by 40 cm and on a tilt back, nesting me into the angle adjustable back.  I’ve also got an auto folding foot plate.

There is a definite difference in this chair to other chairs – its very well balanced for such a short chair.

frogleglogoI have got some major differences to the previous chair that make a huge difference though.

The first is the Frog Leg suspension, which, coupled to the 4 inch soft roll wheels, mean that I am not feeling every single lump and bump any more.  I like them a lot and they were worth the investment.

Secondly, I have got a lot of pockets – 3 to be exact but considering most chairs have no way to store anything around them, this is a major plus.  One of the pockets is locked under the cushion which offers a secure storage point for things like my wallet or a Double Decker.

xenon-pocketI am no longer seated on vinyl but instead on a Visco memory foam cushion, which is offering my derriere previously unknown levels of comfort.   Actually, in truth, its nice for my rear end to not be sweltering away and it is complimented by the vented upholstery on the back as well.  On the end of the upholstery are the other two pockets.

xenon-brakeThere are other useful bits too – the fold down handles prevent someone from helping me without first asking if I need or want help.  The wheels have a simple change camber, meaning I can switch from 4 degree to 0 degree with the useful tools, supplied.  The brakes sit neatly beneath the under frame to prevent interfering with a side transfer.

As a chair goes, this one is light enough for me to push myself uphill.  That, for someone with a muscle disease, takes real effort.  It is smooth and will roll with minimal effort.  I’ve already taken it on a few trains with some success – its been welcomed by taxi drivers so far too.  It looks smart, I feel comfortable and I trust it not to do something silly like tip back randomly.

The downside is that I’m afraid to get it mucky or the hand rims scratched.

The Champion Thesis

After a week of living with a wheelchair that could revolutionise how I get about, here I am, asking myself one question in particular: is this the chair for me?

It started off strong, the chair moving quickly, requiring very little effort to move, even with a child on my knee. The chair itself has a framework that holds the seat canvas, a bucket seat for added comfort and the drop to the footrest and casters allows the frame to curve with your knees.  However, the cross hinge means that the chair flexes on each side as you turn and the casters have odd heights or when you go over bumps.

The fold takes place with a hinge locked cross that requires a tug on a piece of nylon rope to release the back to fold forward and another tug to release the brace. The footrest, which is sprung usually, should be lifted slightly to ease the fold – we had the spring removed as without it, the footrest remains flat at all times, a boon when trying to stand and swivel a transfer. To open, the front should be opened, and the linked string at the front pulled hard. This took practise with those regularly folding the chair but once mastered was a doddle. Brakes, on this chair, were side flick active locks. I am surprised how quick I got used to them

So, aside from the footplate, is all well with the mechanics? Sadly not. The nylon string, after a week in my home, started to fray and come away from the attaching point under the seat.

To make up for his misdemeanour the chair rode well, the ability to roll coupled with decent bearings and a good seating position. The casters location offered a good steering access, too. Word of advice, get the adjustable back, as the standard one will do your back in.

The chair, with a bag on the back, can get very tip prone – worth noting if you commute but makes up for this with a good front weight.

This chair is good, but I need to be convinced. It offers a lot but it has a formidable challenge coming up – the Sunrise Xenon.

The Analogy Thesis

MBW and I were discussing about acquired disability tonight, comparing it to inherited disability with regards of which is harder to come to terms with, psychologically speaking.  Would you, if you acquired a disability, hate knowing what you were now missing out on or if you had a disability from birth, would you lament what you have never had in the first place?

I would like to offer the following:

Imagine your favourite chocolate bar in the world.  Now imagine there is only one bar of it.  What would you prefer: One taste of that bar and know you can never have it again, or never taste it and not know what you missed out on?

Please comment and tell me.  It would be interesting to know, especially from those with disabilities.

Personal Time and Space Continuum

Ok, so there I was at the Zoo on Saturday. Normally I wouldn’t say if I had been or not but this time something odd happened.

I am an active person. That doesn’t mean MBW won’t give me a helping shove from time to time.

MBW indeed helped me out, pushing me up one slope into the chimp house. There she left me, in the company of smaller people with us that day. That too is not unusual.

As I rolled slowly forwards towards my younger brother, on a slight downhill slope, someone grabbed a handle.

Someone I didn’t know. They grabbed at the handle.

My immediate action was one of “please don’t do that.” I recognise he thought he was doing me a favour by stopping me from rolling away down a hill. I doubt he was even considering the hero factor of saving the poor defenceless man in a wheelchair. He looked a little surprised so I made sure to thank him for his attempted save and not to try that again as I’m perfectly alright.

Now, that aside, I am the first to admit that touching my handles uninvited is like someone putting their hand on your shoulder uninvited. Ok, what are you doing – oh having a lean, how nice for you but get lost. But then to push you, pull you? Its a form of invasion.

Whilst I have already admitted that this was a moment of doing the right thing, saving someone from getting ran over I would say is the exception to the rule.

So why do people do it (uninvited or without permission)? Because a framework is metal or carbon does that mean I wouldn’t notice? Or that I just don’t mind? Or you do it with Auntie Sheila and she never notices because she’s not all there really.

Here’s some news for you: I feel every impact on my chair.. I feel every bump I go over, every shock absorbed by the three and frame, every movement my rucksack makes, every direction my chair tilts and turns.

And its not alright to touch my handles unless I have told you so or implied as much in our friendship.

However, returning to our non-hero of this story: I appreciate what he wanted to try to do and why. I don’t blame him and in event of a moment of where someone needs saving, I would probably do the same. Buy it bothered the crap out of me until I worked out why.

Weight Gain 4000

sp_0102_08_v6BEEFCAKE! BEEFCAKE!

Happily, I’m not Cartman, nor am I on WeightGain 4000.  But I am trying to “Bulk up”.  Well, simply gain a bit of weight if I’m honest.  But weight gain is a problem for me.

This morning, I took an odd moment and stood on the scales.  I don’t do that often. The numbers began to flick about more than the departure boards at London Liverpool Street.

Usually those numbers would begin with an 8 – a 7 is bad news…

9.

A freaking 9.  I’m happy already.

9,2

Woooah there – I suspect these are faulty.  This is showing well.

9,2.4

Ladies and gentlemen – I am officially Beefcake.  I weigh more than I have done in ages.

But why is it difficult for me to gain the weight?  Not sure.  I know most people with Muscular Dystrophy will gain weight, but I find it hard to keep it on.  Trust me though, I’m not complaining – its probably helping me out in the long run.  But it is nice to weigh something again.