Visually Impaired leading the Legally Blind

I won a double pass to attend Alexis Wright’s discussion and reading of her Black Swans novel that featured as part of a conference on women writing. My friend Kat is doing a PhD in writing so I invited her to come with me.

If you’ve been following Dark Matter Zine for any length of time, you know I’m visually impaired. Kat is legally blind; she has a guide dog, Zeke. Zeke has a bad back after a very large dog attacked Zeke, jumping on his back a year ago. Zeke can’t do stairs so I arrived early to scope out wheelchair access at the State Library of Victoria.

Exiting Melbourne Central, I crossed at the lights on Little Latrobe Street and walked up a series of steps to the front door. Scaffolding adorned the front of the building, possibly closing existing wheelchair access. I couldn’t see any sign of wheelchair access to the front entrance of the Library nor any obvious signage pointing to wheelchair access.

In the foyer I turned left, walking through the locker room and Mr Tulk, the cafe, to look out through Mr Tulk‘s exit. Past the narrow balcony I could see steps but no ramp.

The staff member on duty in the locker room said there is wheelchair access through Mr Tulk so I went back for another look.

I found it: the ramp left the footpath here. Navigate past the wheelie bins if you dare.
The visually impaired leading the legally blind: I found the wheelchair ramp. First go past the wheelie bins...

Once past the wheelie bins, a wheelchair must take a sharp right-hand turn to avoid the scaffolding, then manoeuvre between more scaffolding, more corners and a stool thoughtfully left on the balcony for smokers who wished to brave Melbourne’s winter weather.
visually impaired leading the legally blind: second, navigate the tight corners. Don't trip over the stool.

Wait, there’s more.

There was a second stool at another corner with very little room for a wheelchair to pass in order to access the door where skilful gamers who passed the obstacle course – I mean, wheelchair users – were welcome to roll inside.

Visually impaired people: watch out for the ‘invisible’ railing surmounting the glass wall.

visually impaired leading the legally blind: finally, past another stool and another tight corner. Don't bump into the invisible railing and glass wall while navigating past the scaffolding corner.

At least Kat and Zeke could have managed this obstacle course.

I went inside once more to find out where the session would be held. It wasn’t in this portion of the library anyway, it was further up the street.

When Kat, Zeke and I arrived in the correct foyer, we navigated a narrow walkway with the check-in desk on one side and steps on the other to stand, waiting for the event to start. The friendly ladies at check-in suggested we take the elevator up to a room with chairs where we could wait for the previous event to finish.

We got in the elevator. I looked at the buttons. The buttons MADE NO SENSE. 1, 2, LT, 2A, 3; I thought, well, ‘1 should be ground’ so, ever hopeful, I pressed 2 – only to arrive in the lower section of the foyer. Which would have been great if they had any chairs there. Kat said that people often press the right button for her but I can ‘obviously’ see and understand the mysteries of this most creative of elevators – who needs wardrobes? – so next I pressed 3.

We arrived in an office corridor that looked particularly unwelcoming, with no chairs.

Luckily some helpful locals arrived. Kat explained that we were lost. They explained the mysteries of the elevator: ‘1’ is a lower-ground floor that only works with swipe-card access; ‘2’ is the lower foyer area; ‘LT’ is Latrobe Street; ‘2A’ is the mezzanine level above the Latrobe Street level (because 2 and 2A aren’t consecutive floors y’know); ‘3’ is office space and so on.

Not only did these lovely women take us to the correct floor but they steered us into the room with the chairs and to the chairs. I suspect they thought I was really blind by now.

It took some digging but later I found a floor plan with two points of wheelchair access and a notice saying the usual wheelchair access at the front entrance to the library was temporarily closed.

During this archaeological expedition I also found evidence of an adaptive technology room complete with a desktop magnifier. On the one hand I want to applaud the State Library of Victoria for actually having a desktop magnifier but I also want to cry. Computers including screens for non-disabled people are upgraded far more often than those for visually impaired people and the pictured out-dated magnifier is not ergonomic. Look at the fixed height of the screen to the right of the woman, the screen she’s NOT looking at; this is the reading screen for the magnifier. She seems to be reading something else on a laptop.

People with disabilities should also be able to sit ergonomically at screens when reading rather than looking up. Compare that to my desktop magnifier, which is much more ergonomic.

desktop magnifier

I guess this all confirms what those with disabilities already knew: if you need disability access, plan ahead. Make sure you have a mobile phone with relevant phone numbers in case you get stuck outside.

Investigate disability access. I am surprised the state library has any access for my kind but I’m also sad because that desktop magnifier is several years old. My experience with those models is they cause severe eyestrain due to poor focus and they cause back and neck pain because I have to LOOK UP.

But the State Library of Victoria has actually acknowledged my kind exists and they’re doing something. In my experience that’s a first for a public library apart from a small range of large print library books.