Blind faith

Are visually impaired people getting a good deal from London 2012?

“Everybody’s Games” was one of the inspirational phrases used by London 2012 leaders and politicians throughout the London 2012 programme. My experience to date suggests that the experience for most disabled people has been great. At the wonderful rowing venue at Eton Dorney the other day I was stopped by a wheelchair user who was keen to tell me this has been the best Paralympics ever for “us wheelies”. He was a veteran of Beijing and Athens and spoke with such enthusiasm it made me proud to have played a very small part in supporting “everybody’s Games”.

However, there seems to be a small wave of feedback from visually impaired and blind people that could suggest they are getting a raw deal. Last week I met Robert Johnson on the BBC’s In Touch programme. A visually impaired visitor to many Olympic venues, he told his tales of frustration at trying to get audio commentary, without malice and with genuine constructive criticism. Inspired by his words I went along to the Paralympic rowing venue at Eton Dorney and asked some volunteers about audio commentary. They did not know and radio calls to the Venue Control Centre resulted in a message saying “we will find out”, a 15 minute wait and no answer. This was the first day of Paralympic competition at this venue and it is unreasonable to expect volunteers to know everything. However this is not an excuse for the Venue Control Centre who should know and be able to provide an answer in less than 15 minutes.

I finally spoke to the venue’s Event Services Manger who told me that audio description was available and all I needed to do was go to any of the three excellent mobility hubs at the venue. So I did. Three of the volunteers at the mobility hub had no idea what I was talking about but one leapt up a bit too enthusiastically (had she been tipped off?) to tell me I had to go to the programme sales tent. A friendly programme sales volunteer pointed to a pile of small boxes and explained that my visually impaired friend could just come and pick up a headset. The rowing only went on for three hours in the morning and the competition was nearly finished by the time I got an answer. Our intrepid visually impaired Commissioner Andy Shipley and guide dog Winnie (also an honorary Commissioner) tested this out at another event he has bought tickets for at a different venue. He managed to get hold of a headset only to find it so cheaply made it fell to bits while he was using it.

Reports in the media tend to illustrate similar concerns. There have been reports that Visa have not installed audio facilities at cashpoint machines (although they do have braille and tactile features) because there was “insufficient time”. London won the bid in 2005, how long do they need? There have also been recent reports about high profile blind politician David Blunkett being refused access to his seat because it was not suitable for his guide dog. We have not investigated this story formally so we cannot confirm its validity.

Maybe these are isolated incidents but there is a hint that blind and visually impaired people are not getting as good a deal as other disabled people. Come on LOCOG, you have a few more days to prove us wrong and demonstrate that you really can deliver “everybody’s Games”.

Shaun McCarthy

September 2012

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