Holes and other hazards for people with sight loss

Post date: 
Tuesday, 3 October 2017
Picture of Geoff playing cricket

Geoff Smith has been visually impaired all his life, but he has found it increasingly difficult to get out and about due to random hazards appearing on his route. Geoff shares his experiences with Connect.

In July I turned 65, which for me was a milestone (or perhaps it's a millstone). I have been visually impaired all my life with a hereditary eye condition called rod-cone dystrophy.
In 1998 I became the first partially sighted man to qualify as a mobility officer. I did this for 20 years, spending a lot of my time suggesting to people with sight loss how they might get around obstacles and deal with hazards in the street they could no longer see.
Since then, slowly but surely my sight has deteriorated. I now have two additional sight problems with a cataract in each eye. Each day gets a little harder and one eye is worse than the other. I’m sure many of you will understand this very well.

What you may also understand is that the way we use streets and pavements has changed in the last 20 years or so too. Yes my sight is worse, but it’s fair to say that the ordinary conditions of daily life when simply walking down the road have changed as well – and not for the better.

Just to give a few examples: my hometown, Lewes in East Sussex, it’s an old town that was highly regarded by King Alfred and used to protect the local population against the Vikings. Lewes is one of those places where the high street changes its name every 200 yards because it’s so old. Many of the buildings reflect this. It is a 17th century town stuck in the 21st century.
What this means, is that when I walk into town every morning there are numerous obstacles as well as random and unavoidable hazards to deal with.

Here’s a short list of some of the obstacles I have to deal with on a daily basis: 

  1. Cyclists: Most mornings, there is a Lycra-clad warrior cycling straight at me on the footpath. In the past I’ve tried to point out that this was an offence and that they should be fined, which didn’t make any difference to their behaviour and three people offered to break my legs as a result.
  1. People on their phones: There now appears to be a large number of young people who like to walk along the footpath while looking at their phone and not looking where they’re going – I have even seen several people crossing the road without looking!
  1. Scaffolding: Most buildings in the town need renovation and this involves the regular planting of large numbers of metal poles and cross supports across footpaths.
  1. Parked vehicles: I’ve spoken to the police about this and they assure me that they are allowed to park on the footpath, provided that a double baby buggy can get past. Not surprisingly, many drivers don’t know and don’t care about this rule. Consequently, I frequently have to walk in the road to get around.
  1. Wheelie bins: Bins, signs and other items of various sizes also litter the footpath most days.
When I was a mobility officer, I tended to use fixed items (that might be regarded as hazards) as points of reference – such as a postbox. It doesn’t move and is a steady reminder of where you are in relation to other things. Bollards, street benches, steps and other parts of the built-in environment can also be used. When you know they’re there, you know where you are when you find them.

But in the last 20 years, I’ve noticed an increasing challenge just to get from one place to another thanks to a long succession of holes and hazards. Many improvements have been made in recent years to the lives of disabled people, but we’ve had to fight for them all the way. And I believe that we must now fight for the simple right to walk down the street without being attacked by the habits of other users.

I’ve tried repeatedly to address these issues and have contacted the local police, district council, county council and even my MP, in a quest to retain my right of ordinary pedestrian movement. I must report a total failure to date.
In 1990, I was a member of an RNIB committee. It had the glorious name of the "Joint committee for the mobility of blind and partially sighted people" and it met in Great Portland Street in London once every couple of months. I remember saying at the time that I didn’t like the idea of shared space, by which I meant a facility that could be used by both cyclists and pedestrians at the same time, saying it would lead to bad habits and that cyclists will abuse such space.
Sadly, I appear to have been right and it is now a well-established habit that cyclists use footpaths as a cycleway, despite the fact that it is an offence punishable with a fine of £30.
It’s not just blind people who are in danger from cyclists on the footpaths either – children, older people or any other user shouldn’t have to put up with avoiding collisions with someone on a bike.

One of my suggestions to the police (via my MP), was to actually enforce the law once or twice a year. A couple of plain-clothes policeman could simply stand and wait in Lewes and stop every cyclist that cycled past them on the footpath. The idea was stemmed from more of an educational venture, rather than simply fining them £30 on the spot.

In effect the law is an ass, as hardly anybody obeys it. I have taken to looking at the enemy (sorry cyclists) to see how they generally behave. I have seen many examples of cyclists going through red lights, cycling on the footpath, leaving their bikes outside a shop lying on the ground and so on.
Without being too self-righteous, I’m just fighting for my rights and I believe if I don’t do this soon, I won’t have any.

Further information

  • Find out what RNIB is doing to make pavements safer for blind and partially sighted people.

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