George Rogers, a representative from the West Midlands Combined Authority, writes to his colleagues about his experience catching public transport while wearing sim-specs with Thomas Pocklington Trust staff and members of the Birmingham Sight Loss Council.

On a wet Friday afternoon in September I joined my colleague Anna Sirmoglou and two visually impaired customers for a tour around our transport network from a visual impairment perspective.

Andy an Mark, members of the Birmingham Sight Loss Council, met me with smiles and I soon realised that I would be the guinea pig on the day: I thought I would be taking pictures and noting down key points from the discussion but alas, was I wrong!

The main point of the meeting was for us to get a better understanding of some of the key travel barriers for people with vision loss and then communicate back to staff during Inclusion Week. Andy and Mark felt that for us to get a better understanding of some of the key barriers and issues I needed to experience sight loss first hand even if only briefly.

I was up for the challenge which proved to be harder than I thought it would be a real eye opener. I was provided with a cane and simulation specs and we all ventured on our network experience adventure, first travelling by bus and then by tram.

First of all, let me just say, having a visual impairment is daunting and I have no idea how people with visual impairments go out and about. I had no idea what to do, where to go, where to find the bus, how to board the bus, where to stop once on the bus, which direction to go to once off the bus – I basically felt helpless. Yet Andy an Mark were confidently using public transport as if they had no sight loss.

Anna noticed that I was not relaxed, which is not like me at all. Especially when on the bus I felt tense and anxious. When you cannot see, your other senses are heightened and I could hear people’s voices more loudly and this felt uncomfortable.

Andy an Mark pointed out a number of things that they felt could help improve people’s travel experience. For example, they talked about the need for better driver awareness, introduction of more “Talking Buses” with on-board audio visual announcements and the need to utilise technology more to improve journey planning and real time information provision.

A few things did not go as planned on our trip.

First of all, the audio visual announcements stopped working on the X4 and X14. Andy and Mark said that this is quite common and they are now linking up with National Express to try and address some of these issues. When we tried to board the Metro stop by New Street only half of us made it! Anna boarded the tram with Andy and even though they did not take long at all to get on the tram the doors shut on them and were left on the platform.

We then had to wait for the next tram and meet up with the others. We were quite shocked and I am not quite sure what I would have done if I was completely on my own and I could not see well.

This was a brilliant experience and I am so glad I did it. I am now much more aware of some of the key travel barriers for people with sight loss and it also made me aware of just how lucky I am to have a good level of sight. I am also humbled as to what other people have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. We are in a position to help make improvements to these people’s travel experiences and this is what we should continuously be striving for.

As Mark said to me on the day: “For people with sight loss it is often really hard to get out and about. Many things that most sighted people take for granted are hard – being able to see steps, read signs and information. We are always worried that we will end up in the wrong place and there can be a lot of anxiety attached to this.

“There are a number of things that would help improve our experience – audio cues, talking buses and a level of empathy from staff. Being patient and communicating verbally with us instead of pointing would be a good start!”