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London Tube leaves blind users in the dark5 Apr 2017

And it’s the fault of technology

A Tfl help point with the caption "not working"Thanks to training I’ve had with the Guide Dogs Association I was able to help a blind user on the tube one night last year night. I’ve done some work as a a guide dog boarder, looking after a dog in training when it’s not at school The training day at Euston was wonderful and uplifting.

The Association had a lot of praise for Transport for London. But my experience last night shows a combination of station staff cuts and failure to understand technology has left the service wanting for visually impaired people.

I got off a train at Finchley Central station and saw a man with a white stick, I felt  excited for the opportunity to put my guide dog training into real live use. When I greeted him in the way I’d been taught he said: “are you station staff”, which I took to mean I’d got things right. I explained that I was a Guide Dogs Volunteer and took him to his platform.

That’s where it all started to go wrong. We’d been taught that a member of staff at the departing platform could radio ahead to have someone meet a blind person at the other end and greet them. So I took my new friend to the information button and pressed Emergency. This was a mistake. I should have pressed the Information button! A loud alarm went off. “Well” said my friend, “At least they will get here faster.”

Cute guide dog puppyThey didn’t.

We waited, and kept waiting. Eventually I went off to look for someone – letting my charge know what I was doing.

The only person working at the station was struggling to cope with customers who couldn’t use the machines, and other things requiring her attention. She’d not heard the alarm and when she finally agreed to come help the blind customer, he had gone.

This has wider implications. Not just that Transport For London was letting down blind customers, and there would be no one to help at the other end, but that anyone could have had an emergency and pressed the button. A passenger on the track, heart attack, or a rare Abra Pokemon in the waiting room!  And no one would have come.

So the following morning I spoke to the station staff as a kind of post mortem. I explained that I worked for Fuss Free Phones, which has a service which makes mobile phones easy to use, with big button phones, and that I had been to The Guide Dogs Association for training.

The staff were sympathetic and explained that when someone presses the alarm button it first rings in the station office. When it’s been ringing for two minutes the call goes through to a central control room. Unfortunately the staff are prohibited from going into the office so they will never hear it. In this case the central control room didn’t respond either. Perhaps they looked on the CCTV and saw no one there, perhaps they didn’t. Whatever the case they left the alarm ringing.

Lady with white stick on tube escalatorI can understand that the move to oyster cards and contactless credit cards has meant the demise of ticket offices. And I can understand the customer service benefits of insisting that staff are always out and about, not sitting in the office.

What I can’t understand is why Transport for London has let the emergency link fall in a hole. Transport for London has a network-wide communications system called Connect. It’s old and creaking – having been conceived in 1999 – but it works. There is no, technical reason why  the emergency button on the platform could not be linked to it. Connect uses the same TETRA  technology as is used by the emergency services. It’s got all kinds of elegant systems to instantly call one person or a group of people. There is no reason why the button on the station platform could not be in multiple groups which signaled all the people who were on-duty at Finchley Central, all the people on nearby platforms and a central emergency center all at the same time.

This might be over the top for just one blind person needing to get off at right place at their destination stop, but then I’d pressed the Emergency button, not the information one. That could be linked to fewer, more relevant users, maybe just the people at that station or a central information person looking after the whole network.

As the founder of Fuss Free Phones I have 20 years experience in the mobile industry and in the past few years have been tailoring my product to meet the needs of blind people as well. Fuss Free Phones is working closely with the RNIB to provide its easy to use mobile phone service to blind users. Blind users are often not able to use the latest smartphones and require a more tactile and more intelligent solution. AI is not quite there yet.Guide dog user on the underground

I have been researching the needs of the older users for more than 15 years, but our work with the visually impaired is new ground.  I do have a little insight however; one day I woke up  without vision in my left eye. Thanks to the team at Moorfields Eye Hospital, my retina was reattached within the day. However, this experience was invaluable as it save me a taste of how frightening it might be to lose my sight. With Fuss Free Phones blind people can use a mobile phone and by pressing a big button be connected with a human telephonist around the clock. The telephonist manages a directory, screens inbound calls, connects outbound calls, and sends and receives texts. This person can look up any information on the internet and provide real help if needed.

Our blind and visually impaired customers love the service. We regularly receive phone calls telling us how liberating the service is, providing freedom and peace of mind. We’ve even had forms back with smiley faces drawn on them. I bet the other networks don’t get that.

Simon Rockman

Note: If you want to get involved, Guide Dogs For The Blind, in addition to running the dogs department, also teaches sighted people how to lead the visually impaired. It’s worth watching their videos so that you know what to do to help a blind person.