Coach D: How one missing carriage kicked off my long cane journey

This piece marked the start of me accepting the need for aids to make people aware of my limited vision. This talks about an incident on a Cross Country train from Southampton to Reading which, as a result, I decided to get myself a symbol cane (it’s called Daisy and is always in my backpack). It was also the start of me deciding to start training to use a long cane.

First posted: 25 September 2021

Shortly after being told I had reached the milestone of Visually Impaired, I received a registration form from the Sensory Needs team at West Berkshire Council. The form asked a plethora of questions about mobility, day-to-day life (making tea, bathing, etc.) and it asked if I would like a home visit. The other question was whether I would like to learn to use a long cane. 

I set about completing the form in a haze, still processing the whole going blind thing. I decided to go for the home visit, but emphatically declined the cane training. My thought process being I was only visually impaired; canes are for those with no vision, right? However soon after this, on returning home from my first face-to-face meeting since March 2020 which was in Southampton. Half way along the trip, I was politely informed that I was in somebody else’s seat. Not only that, but I wasn’t even in the right coach! I made my excuses and headed down the train to find my seat but when I got to the front, my coach was nowhere to be seen so I just found a seat and hoped not to be moved on again.

This was a new experience for me because I’ve always been a confident traveller: I was only 15 when I took my first unaccompanied transatlantic flight (to clarify this was in a coach seat of a BA Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, not on the flight deck – they wouldn’t let me because of my vision!) so why did such a simple experience as being told I was in the wrong seat affect me so much? 

Let me explain a little bit more.

Before I begin, it’s important to point out that, aside from permanently wearing sunglasses, at this point I had nothing to signify that I had any form of hidden disability. 

When I got to Southampton Central, I knew that the seat I had booked was in Coach D. As I can’t really read the display by the train doors, I decided to head to the front of the platform (assuming that the first carriage would be A) and then when the train came in, I could head back four to coach D. The train pulled in, I got on about 2 coaches down and headed on to the fourth one. I found my seat, sat down and set about finishing off the episode of Colin Murray’s Midnight Meets (I think it was with Susie Dent) all was good, the meeting had been productive and I was on target to get home in time for the youngest’s bedtime. 

Little did I know that, as we pulled into Winchester, my cunning plan was about to be revealed to be no better than Baldrick’s plan to escape the guillotine by waiting for his head to be chopped off before springing into action. As the train begins to move again, this chap signals that I’m in his seat. What became even more confusing was when he told me this was Coach J. In a way that only us Brit’s can (passive aggressive politeness), he pointed me back the way I came when I boarded all the way back in Southampton. I’ve been known to get confused with my alphabet but even I knew that there were only four carriages ahead and there was not a chance that one of them would be mine, but I trotted off nonetheless in search of the elusive Coach D.

Two carriages down, and I finally found the guard. Thinking “he’ll get this sorted” I asked where this lesser spotted Coach D could be found? Rather than the ever-helpful response that we all expect from train guards, I got a gruff “it’s on the other train” and he went back to checking tickets.

At this point, the fog lifted and I finally understood. Firstly, this was an 8 coach train that was essentially two sets of four and secondly, my assumption that coach A was the first train was ridiculous, of course it would be at the back! What wasn’t clear was where J came from. As I said earlier, my alphabet isn’t the quickest, but I was sure that J is the tenth letter. Not only that, but how could it be in the middle. Surely if it was going to be anywhere it would be at the front (or the back)! Little did I know that Cross-Country rail had their own secret alphabet specifically designed to mess with the visually impaired (VI) independent travellers. Thankfully my autistic son wasn’t travelling with me or we would still be feeling the repercussions today!

At this point I could easily rant here about ablism, hidden disabilities and treating people fairly, but this isn’t the point of this essay: Instead, I’m going to tell you about what happened next.

Once home, I reached out to the VI community for suggestions on how I can move on and a few of them suggested a symbol cane. For those who, like me until about 3 months ago, have not heard of one of these, let me explain. A symbol cane is a short, foldable white stick about 70 cm long and it’s designed to signify to others that the holder is visually impaired. It is not a long cane which is used to find obstacles. It is also very different to a cymbal cane which can be used by blind drummers to find the hi-hat.

The user simply holds the cane across the front of their body to communicate to people that they have a visual impairment without the need to constantly explain themselves. The purpose being that others can make the necessary accommodations so as not to impede the user (for example moving to one side if they’re walking towards you).

After the Cross-Country trains incident, I got straight onto the Royal National Institute for the Blind’s (RNIB) website and ordered one, a bargain at £15.50 including delivery. One week later and I was back on the train, this time to Fleet and the cane came in handy straight away when, at Basingstoke station, I needed to check with somebody the platform I was on. Instead of the usual early-morning commuter response, the person I asked was only too happy to help and even checked if I needed anything else (to which I politely declined and went on drinking my coffee in that usual early-morning commuter way!). It’s amazing how much benefit you can get from a simple short stick.

My next step was to go back to the Sensory Needs team to request long cane training: I am all too aware that my sight is continuing to degrade and so surely, it’s better to learn to use these tools now instead of waiting until it’s too late. 

So, on a Friday afternoon in mid-August I set about learning the fine art of walking with a long cane. My trainer, Angela (not her real name), was very patient with me and my very excitable 7-month-old Golden Retriever puppy who wanted to play. Over the next few weeks we ventured out in the local area learning how to cross the road safely, navigate obstacles such as cars parked on the kerb, or even spot for roots over the woods. I am now a novice cane user which is the VI equivalent of holding a provisional moped licence (I can go out on my own, but need to keep my “L” plates on) and now use the cane every time I leave the house. Although, as I do have a fair amount of residual vision, I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud using it, in the main the stigma of the cane has gone away. 

Before getting the stick, I had a choice of either watching my feet and the ground immediately in front or to look ahead to see what is coming up. The advantage of the former is not tripping over a raised paving stone and the latter is not getting tangled in overhanging brambles and branches. Now, the stick worries about the ground ahead allowing me to watch out for the brambles.

It isn’t just the practical benefits: I now feel more connected to my environment again. When I’m out walking the dog in the morning, I can enjoy watching the sun rising over the trees. When my wife and I take the kids out for dinner, I can take the youngest out for his sensory break and not worry (too much) about him running off.  

This whole experience has been a huge learning curve and I can confidently say that my previous aversions to using support aids have definitely dissipated. I now can’t wait for the next home visit where I can try out mug level sensors for making tea, speaking scales for baking bread and perhaps even a talking alarm clock. I may draw the line at replacing my iPhone with a generic easy access smart phone though.

In closing, if there’s a way to make your day-to-day life easier then my advice is to seize it with both hands. We’ve all got too much going on in our lives with school, work, kids, parents, friends or global pandemics. Whether it’s asking a friend to make the tea because you’re having a flare-up of a chronic condition, plastering your house with visual aids to help your autistic son navigate the world or using a long cane when out walking. In my experience, the benefits far outweigh the pain.

Thanks for reading

Chris

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