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 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 Gold Medal Permutation

This week I had the rather huge honour (thanks to ATCO) of speaking along side a prestigious Paralympian.  She has more gold medals to her name than I have chocolate coins (because I have eaten them).  Sophie Christiansen demonstrated time after time how to be in control, confident as she made (in her own words) a “horse dance around”.  In a sandpit, no less.

Sophie Christiansen and Dominic Lund-ConlonAs I sat beside her and listened to how she faces challenge after challenge trying to access her local area and beyond, like anyone else living in the outer west London area, the stories were all too familiar – over travelling to accessible stations, lack of access to public transport, taxis driving straight past.  I wonder just how she manages to maintain control and confidence, as I’m not sure I could.

My own experiences were similar to hers in just travelling to the event in Birmingham.  On the Monday night, when arriving in Kidderminster at 19:45, I found the lift locked out of use and the staff had all gone home.  I had to throw myself on the mercy of a Chiltern train guard to help me up a steep ramp with my suitcase and wheelchair.  (Sophie experiences the same problem on South West Trains, too.)  The reason?  If it breaks down with no staff on the station, I’d be left stranded. Its “un-safe”.

I asked a London Midland Customer Services Manager about this on Tuesday at the “Meet The Manager” event who replied “oo it would take months to sort that”.  He said the solution is to alight me at a station with staff and taxi me to Kidderminster.  “Will the additional time I incur be compensated?” I asked. “No.”  Was the reply. 

Equality for access, but the extra 20-30 minutes in getting to my dinner, the toilet and a shower are not so equal after all.

MAN Bus Headlight ClusterOnce at the show on Tuesday, I tried out the latest in Gas Buses, this one destined for Arriva.  I bumped up on to the platform of the bus, where I went to turn right and move down the gangway, only to find that the drivers cabin protruded in to door platform and gangway; the open door protrudes into the gangway further.  I highlighted the issue, particularly as I am a very narrow chair, to the MAN engineers.  One key designer-engineer said “We pushed a wheelchair through fine no problem” before walking away.  I had to wonder how hard they pushed it through to the otherwise lovely and access compliant bus.

So, when talking about accessibility in public transport on Thursday afternoon, how many of the 12 or so bus manufacturers were there to hear about how their vehicles affect the customers that really rely on them? 2? 5? 9? 

None.  Not one. 

I noted about 4 operators.  Probably 10 or so local authorities.  6 or 8 disabled persons from representative groups.  A few trade organisations and a some media.

As I explained how going on transport for me is a gamble of how accessible it will be, I ponder if bus manufacturers are happy to have their own gamble with the vehicles they sell.

Partnership has been key to a lot of what I have done so far in my public transport career.  So, on behalf of disabled people everywhere, I extend an olive branch to public transport operators and vehicle manufacturers everywhere – come and talk to disabled people (and I don’t mean just a select few that you know of).  Seek out the access groups and individuals.  Learn of who we are and where we are.  Learn what we might need to access your transport services or your solutions you sell.  Let us, disabled people, be able to turn to others and say “look how good it has got”.  Let CPT turn and show others “this is how it should be done.”

Welcome AboardWe all had a lot of momentum over the summer.  It would be a travesty to lose that.

Because each time I manage a trouble free, accessible journey on public transport, I’ll put a chocolate medal around my neck.

The Cylindrical Psychosis

I had to psych myself up.  Take a deep breath. Work out if it was the most economical route or the quickest route or whatever but would it get me there, problem free.

Its not going by foot path nor bus – its tube – an arch-nemesis of the wheelchair user.  I’m going to use 3 different lines, change at two stations – to get to my train home.

Its not an impossible task – but its one that takes a little bit of judgement, a little bit of thought and a chunk of confidence.  And attitude – one of those that says “f*** you to people in your way.

I wasn’t alone either – I had my manager with me, so I had to do this properly or apologise in advance to him for the monster I know I can turn into.

Waterloo to Liverpool Street, peak Friday night rush hour.  Waterloo – Green Park – Kings Cross – Liverpool Street.  Flat access. I knew I could do it – I just had to go for it.

I kicked off on the Jubilee Line westbound for Stanmore.  Two stops up to Green Park on a mildly busy train.  It was warm but bearable.  Step free, totally.  Off at Green Park and up in the lift, my aim next was the Victoria Line.  Wheeling (keeping right) up the uphill stretch in the interchange tunnel to turn left to exit and the lifts – downhill.  This is at first gentle – for 5 metres – then steep for 5, then long and reasonable for another 150 metres.  I did the only thing any lunatic would do – I said excuse me to clear a way and ran humming the brakes down hill, hitting an easy 8MPH as my chair was allowed to succumb to the lure of Law of Gravity.  The Xenon rolls so much more quieter, smoother, neater than the old Quickie Q2 HP, less of a thump as I hit the gap between the tiles on the floor.

Slam the brakes on, turn left, roll through to the lifts – my manager had thankfully kept up.  On to the Victoria Line – the first train crammed and jammed and the second train little better.  But I got the second train – able to get into the wheelchair space and park too, a miracle in itself, as most people are surprised to find a wheelchair user outside of the Jubilee Line, let alone on the tube.

Jump off (not literally – flat access again) at Kings Cross and switch to the Met.  Using the long tunnels, people keep walking 6 abreast and slowly, causing me to get fed up – something I have to live with until a gap opens and I can get moving again, my chair taking little effort to get to speed to enable me to move swiftly to the lift, taking it to the exit and out to go to the Circle, Northern and Met.  Masses of people, most of whom don’t know where they are going.  Through the ticket halls and into the CNM, pushing now to get to the platforms, holding a position and letting others make their mistakes of walking into my path – that pre-meditated aim for the lift which takes me the lines where a Met train for Aldgate is waiting.

I rolled on board.  These trains are new. Flat access. Air conditioning. Success.  I took it to Liverpool Street – success bound for me as I am one train away from being on my train home.  And it all looked so easily done, written down.

But the pre-meditation, planning, thought, mental cajoling to get there was totally invisible.  But it was there.  Took me all of half a second to know I would go for it.  It was a round about way to get from Waterloo to Liverpool Street – but I did it. 

One small roll for me – one giant wheelie for my kind.

I got to Liverpool Street, my journey spend admiring how I could see the length of the train start to finish and rolled off, out and up the short slope to head for the exit gates – my train 10 minutes away and leaving me enough time to get something to eat and book my assistance onwards.

Proof too, that I have a new choice open to me instead of a bus or taxi.  Just like many others.

The Disability Transport Consultancy Quandary

I don’t think its any secret that I work in Public Transport but also have a vested interest as a disabled person and a transport user.  So this post is closer to my work than usual but I must state – this is my opinion.

Since 1985 the Transport Act 1985 stipulated that there would a board dedicated to advising the Department for Transport (or whatever it is called at the time) about the issues being faced by disabled people and the ways to resolve these issues.  This board is known as the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee – DiPTAC.

DiPTAC have been hugely instrumental in making disabled peoples lives more independent.  Public Transport is a gateway industry – it enables people to access other services.  Health, leisure or chore – if you can’t drive or afford a car because all your money gets sucked up by other costs, public transport is essential.  Accessible public transport only came about because of the hard work of the panel and the standards they helped set out.

But following the various spending reviews, its been recommended DiPTAC be abolished.  I believe this to be wrong.  So I’ve been reading the consultation and I’ve got some strong thoughts and fears.

My first fear is that the experience of disabled people is going to be lost.  At the moment, DiPTAC is made up of disabled people and professionals.  However, what changes are made for one disability can negatively affect another.  For example, a lift could mean people who have claustrophobia may be unable to access a building or replacing a receptionist with an intercom could prevent a hearing impaired person from accessing the building unless it had a working loop.  On board buses, a wheelchair space and priority seating could mean that someone might have nowhere to sit with their guide dog.  Its vital that when making changes, every type of disability is considered and consulted with – and not lip service – proper consultation.

My second fear is that because such experience incurs expenses and costs to bring together and discuss, this will be used as an reason not to use face to face consultation or there could be no more than one meeting with a few people who may be based local to the department.  Recently, the Department for Transport were convening a meeting with just a few organisations about what disabled people wanted from public transport in the future.  They did not go to consultation as it was another department’s white paper.  However, this meant that a lot of voices were not heard and there is a strong risk that this could be the case again in the future on much more serious issues.

My third and final fear is that disabled people will not be made aware of legislative changes properly because there is a lack of pressure from within for the department to ensure they are targeting the right people in the right manner for information, views and consultation.  It might be that the department would commit to doing so, but should they fail to properly consult and carry out an Equality Impact Assessment, it is down to the public to take the department to court.  In the mean time, any changes carried out in law could have already had a negative affect on disabled people and at worst, could mean that disabled people are finding themselves unable to access public transport.

So, it is vital that you respond to this consultation.  I will not tell you how to respond – this is up to you.  But I implore you to consider carefully please the needs of not just yourself but those with other disabilities.  Share the word.  Ask your local council transportation department if they have responded.  I will also be responding in a personal capacity and I hope to share my views on here in due course.

The consultation ends in 14 weeks but you should consider your answers now.  If you want to discuss it with others, log on to twitter and use the hashtag #DPTAC.  But most of all – please tell others.

Consultation

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. 

The Momentum Upon Steel Alloy Propulsion Formula

Its not often I’ll blog about a service unless I think its been something to note.  So, the following is a positive post about a recent journey – I paid for it, I made it and this is what happened.  Continue reading

The Informed Travel Hypothesis

It’s all very well me getting a new wheelchair to improve my independence (but not the one shown here!).  I reckon although I’ll get further on my own, there is still something that is important, which is having confidence in getting somewhere in the first place.

Locally, I live in the peace of mind that Essex County Council is installing raised curbs at bus stops to improve access but when I want to travel further afield, what then?

Some people may recall that in the summer I took part in something called ‘Free Traveller’ where I carried out some journeys with Chris Parker of Loughborough University.  The idea is to combine both amateur (user) views on transport and the provider supplied information to offer the best of both.

free-travellerSo, with all the information that Chris gathered on the journeys from all the different users who took part, he put together a survey to find out what works, what doesn’t work and what is useful. 

However, now he needs to know what you think of the information.  By visiting www.freetraveller.co.uk you can take part in the survey and offer him your thoughts.  In return, there is £150 up for grabs in a prize drawer… think of all the bus journeys you could do with £150!

I’ve already filled mine in… twice. Please share the link with other wheelchair users and encourage them to take part – who knows, this project could make the difference between wondering if a journey is going to be a nightmare and knowing that the nightmare can be avoided.

Going away with the family

I wanted a holiday. I also wanted to see my Dad. So, what better idea than to combine the two? I figured its a good idea and phoned my usual hotel brand to book.

The twinge are getting bigger, so we need a family room. I looked up that they exist, got on the phone and got hold of reservations. I explained our needs: wheelchair user, children, together, family. What did they think?

They didn’t. Think or know, I wasn’t quite sure. But I was phoning out of office hours, so I had to wait for a phone call on the Monday morning.

Monday rolled around, they phones back. They don’t do accessible family rooms. Why not? Not sure. I’d have to pay for two rooms.

Hold up – come again?

I’d have to pay. For two rooms.

Now, I’m a little assertive. I asked if that was fair. I asked if as a disabled person, was I not expected to have children? A family? She thought for a moment, to her credit. We could have adjoining rooms, connected through a door in the middle, for the same price as a family room.

Bingo – some common sense. Well done. Took some getting there, but we got there without too much shouting.

So, I’m going away shortly. I’m staying with Intercontinental Hotels. Well done to them for finding a solution to a situation that was avoided. But it raises another question – what do other hotels do?

Routine

I’m going to describe this run… In only the way I can.

I start on the train. Brake click twice. Tuck bag straps. Sleeves tight, taut. Nothing should be available to be snagged, nature or street furniture or chair. Deep breath. Those doors are going to open in a moment and people who surround me will stream out, not that I notice numbers. Ramp down, greet colleague, left right Lift (reverse in). Descend whilst ensuring music is adequate – Deadmou5 ‘Strobe’ is good. Out and forward 5 metres, left and up ramp, drop speed to 4, forward 3 m, left onto concourse, where the flooring changes to a polished tile that in the wet can cost you vital acceleration and braking distance, as you not so much approach as power towards the barrier, praying for an opening that means as you hit the top of the ramp the jump down the other side takes you up to 7, out and onto the small plaza where people congregate, unaware of the thoroughfare that they impede onto, nor worried about where they flick their cigarette ash. Forward right, skirt right of the tree, aim to head on over the drainage paving and down to the zebra crossing, slow to 2, right, over at 3, left, down past Dominos Pizza to where they queue for a cash point, the pavement narrows but it doesn’t stop them walking two abreast and head on towards me… Which brings me down to the right bend, cruise at 5, run the brake, hard left at the pelican, wait for the Green man, straight across and right, not diagonal else I can’t get onto the pavement… Down now, the big straight. Paving slabs should guide people straight but they meander, unaware as they flick their cigarette ash at hip level of my presence or velocity as I move round them…
I was always trained to move around slow moving traffic, pavement too, but people still panic and wobble about.
Clear morning makes this section a joy, past the first lamp post hitting 6, by the second the pavement dips slightly, accelerate hitting 9, follow the rise out, accelerate hard and roll, guiding the motion now, gentle application of the brakes, bend left at 5, through the bollards, over the carpark exit at 3, jump up the kerb and cruise, maintaining the speed to the doors, entering and taking the lift, speed now limited to 3 for the internal journey to my desk.
Its taken 30 minutes to write about this, the technicalities difficult to express, as I am not paying attention to my speeds, instead acutely aware of those behind, those in front and to the sides, aware of those who give way and must remember to thank, because I will repeat this 3 minute 47 second experience again tomorrow.
And I’ll just hope that the conditions will be right for another perfect run, that walk to work.

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