Monday, 17 November 2014

EBU Event at European
Parliament in Brussels

Last week I travelled to European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, to represent the RNIB in a two-day 'High Speed Blind Date' event held by the European Blind Union. The event ran on November 11th and 12th and was designed to reach out to MEPs, researchers and journalists through interactive activities to showcase the increasing inaccessibility barriers faced when using manufactured goods, information, services, websites and apps.

There are 30 million blind and partially sighted people living in Europe and manufactured products, such as kitchen appliances, are continuously becoming harder to use independently. The older, more tactile products contain control panels that feature physical buttons and dials but these are slowly being replaced by touch screens and LED screens. ATMs, ticket machines, television menus, shopping and banking are already headed in the same direction of digitalisation. Without audio features or accessible apps to use in conjunction with these products it is becoming impossible for the visually impaired to use everyday items without relying on the help of sighted friends and family.

Blind date with Catherine Bearder,
Lib Dem MEP for the South East

The Blind Date event consisted of shifts of blind and visually impaired people based at individual tables which housed different examples of manufactured goods, both old and new to show the contrast in the ease of access between the two, for the blindfolded 'dates' to attempt to use! Items ranged from remote controls, to washing machine control panels, to an imitation iPad emblazoned with a CAPTCHA image on the screen. CAPTCHAs are verification codes that often appear when shopping or banking online and a huge barrier for visually impaired people when such visual generated responses are not accessible with an audio feature or when the website itself is not compatible with screen readers.

100% of the blind dates I talked with (including MEPs, researchers and journalists based all over Europe) found the older model of washing machine control panel much easier to use with its tangible buttons; and admitted that they wouldn't be able to do their washing independently if faced with an LED screen or a touch screen, with their blindfold still firmly in place. The majority also confessed to finding it extremely difficult when attempting to read the CAPTCHA code, provided on the imitation iPad, whilst wearing the simulation spectacles.

With this foundation of evidence, it is clear that we urgently need the EU to deliver a strong European Accessibility Act to regulate products and services, as well as a robust Directive on the accessibility of websites and apps. With strong political support we can achieve this change.

Meeting with Theresa Griffin, Labour MEP for the North West

I also had the opportunity to have personal meetings with local MEPs (Theresa Griffin, Julie Ward and Jacqueline Foster) to discuss more localised issues that I face in my home area of Salford and Greater Manchester. The discussion was mostly focused around transport, especially buses and trams, in the Greater Manchester area.

TfGM have recently installed scanners on Metrolink station platforms for Concessionary Pass and Concessionary Plus Pass holders to scan their passes. Not only is it difficult for a blind pass holder to actually find the scanner itself on the platform, it is also an obstacle to make sure the pass is facing the correct way against the screen. This is a major concern for me as I have just been matched to my Guide Dog and will be wanting to travel more independently via tram in the very near future.

Buses are also a serious problem with many bus drivers not acknowledging their blind passengers waiting at the bus stop and continuing to drive on, with a good number of drivers not knowing how to correctly support a blind or visually impaired passenger onboard. When I travel to London, for Envision steering group meetings at Judd Street, I always grasp the opportunity of travelling aboard a talking bus when heading back to Euston. I'm constantly blown away by how easy they are to use, with each stop being announced before the destination is reached. In contrast, buses in Greater Manchester do not have these systems implemented and I never know which stop to get off at resulting in disorientation and panic.

The MEPS were enthusiastic and supportive to be involved with helping eradicate transport issues in my area and hopefully we can make a difference to the barriers currently in place to visually impaired and blind passengers.

Small article in the MEN newspaper
about my visit to European Parliament

My visit to Brussels was documented in a small piece featured in the November 10th edition of the Manchester Evening News. Article reads: A blind campaigner is to travel to Brussels to meet MEPS. Kimberley Burrows, 26, backed by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), is seeking new laws to remove barriers that people with sight loss face in accessing ticket machines, websites and apps, and household goods. Kimberley, from Irlam, said: "Campaigning and making your voice heard is important if you want to change things and make life better."

The European Blind Union published their Access Denied report online on November 11th to coincide with the Blind Date event. The report summarises the issues that the EBU are currently in the process of working on. You can read more about the two-day event that I attended here and can follow the EBU on Twitter here.

I had an absolutely wonderful experience at the European Parliament and met so many supportive people who had nothing but positive things to say about my involvement with the project, and my enthusiasm for blogging and social media as a severely visually impaired person. I want to say a big thank you to the RNIB and to the EBU for having me at the event!