This is the 0802 from Charing Cross to Folkestone Central. I am on my way to the first school on my G-Week list. The train carriage is eerily empty and apart from a few lonely free newspapers discarded by rushing commuters, the lady slumped asleep against the steamy window and I appear to be the only living beings in the carriage.
Alone at last. Perfect. Now I can spend the next 10 minutes talking to myself as I try to figure out how to get the microphone to work.
G-Week celebrates young people’s actions to make a difference and for the G-Nation team involves travelling around the country visiting projects, assemblies and charity events. Today, I am on my way to the Channel School in Folkestone.
The Channel School have won three Giving Nation awards over the past three years and every year organise a mass of activities throughout G-Week. This year I have been invited to join them on a disability awareness “tour” of the centre of Folkestone and to join them for a special assembly with four other charity guests.
I meet the guests in the reception of the school. It is rare on first meeting for some one to put their feet on your knees and cover you in blond hair but Iona and Kirk aren’t shy about making a lasting, first impression. In fact, with just one glance into Kirk’s big brown eyes I am in love.
Alas, before we know it we are separated. Zoe Bowden, head of citizenship at the school has arrived and is about to whisk me off to a shopping centre. Kirk and I look longingly into each other’s eyes. It is going to be tough but we shall be reunited in the afternoon’s assembly. I can’t wait.
My first stop is the main shopping street in Folkestone, where we meet eight Channel School students working with Folkestone volunteering bureau on disability awareness. We follow the group as they roll around in wheelchairs and wobble on Zimmer frames through the centre of town confronting the challenges that disabled people face in accessing shops and facilities.
“It’s quite difficult getting around on the Zimmer frame, the street is on a hill and is made of cobble stones. I don’t feel very stable on the frame and moving from one shop to the next is really, really slow.”, Lisa tells me.
Two minutes into the tour and the group are already faced with their first challenge. One of the boys in the wheelchair can’t get into one of the shops because there isn’t an access ramp. This isn’t stopping them. Some of the group has decided to have a word with the shop manager.
“We can get the ramp out for you” he tells us “but, there is a second floor and we don’t have a lift so, unfortunately, you won’t be able to get up to it.”
“We’ve definitely thought about accessibility to the shop and when we refurbish it is going to be taken into account.” he explains.
“It’s strange”, Lisa, one of the students tells me, “just a few minutes into being in the wheelchair and you already face problems. I had no idea before doing this how many problems people in wheelchairs or old people with Zimmer frames come across every day.”
The activity was arranged through a partnership between the Channel School the local volunteering bureau. As Zoe explains:
“We want to give students at Channel the opportunity to empathise and learn about life for other people but also to have the chance to volunteer and raise awareness. We work closely with local voluntary services organising activities for young people in the summer holidays and on projects together throughout the school year.”
On Thursday another group of students will be blindfolded to experience getting around in the city centre as a blind person would. This fits in perfectly with the afternoon’s assembly and my gorgeous, new friend………
Kirk and Iona are now relaxing on the floor; chins slumped on the wooden tiles, playing puppy eyes with the group of year 7 students eagerly waiting to hear what our guests have to say. In between them are Gwen and Joy. They are here to talk about the work of Guide Dogs for the Blind.
Joy is blind and starts to tell the children about her life with Iona and Kirk, her current and previous guide dogs.
“I was born blind. I had some thing called infantile glychoma which means that my eyes were damaged even before I was born. When I was young I didn’t have a dog. I used a white stick to get around. I would use it on the street to feel for the pavement and lampposts but it is very hard work and you have to concentrate very hard to stop yourself from tripping up.”
Joy speaks slowly and gently.
“My life changed when I was given a guide dog. Apart from being a great companion and a great fiend, Iona looks after me.”
I am trying to scribble down every word. I f only I could just write fast enough.
“It isn’t easy to get a guide dog. Their training takes 2 years because they need to learn about and encounter all the things that a blind person might come across in their lives so they are taken to all kinds of places: busy streets, railways stations, noisy concerts and trained to guide people around. But the training isn’t just for the dogs, I needed to learn how to feed my dog, speak to her, groom her, check her paws for sores.”
I am hanging on her every word. Judging by the silence around me, punctuated only by the occasional yawn from the veteran Kirk, the children are too.
“The Guide Dogs association pays for all the dog’s vet bills, food for every day of the dog’s life so every one, rich or poor can have a guide dog. It costs £35,000 to train, feed and look after a guide dog from the day it is born to the day it dies so that is why all the money you have raised is very much appreciated.”
After the talk hands start to shoot up. The questions and responses are brilliant. These are my personal favourites:
What does it feel like to be blind?
“Some times, it feels very annoying and frustrating because there are things you’d like to do but you can’t or simply things you can do that you would like to do so much better. Being blind is like waking up in the middle of the night with no stars shining in to your room. Some blind people can see shadows, some have tunnel vision and some people really can’t see anything at all.”
How do you know when it is night?
“I have a Braille watch, I also know from listening to the radio or TV what time it is but you can tell because at the end of the day the traffic gets quieter and the sounds outside change.”
Do you rely on your hearing more than other people?
“My hearing is not any better than yours but because I rely on it, it has become more attuned. It is actually my sense of touch that I rely on a lot more. I rely on my hands more than you can imagine and probably a lot more than you do to find my way around.”
What do you miss being blind?
“Flowers, the lovely countryside, boats at sea –those are the things I would like to be able to see. I don’t mind too much not being able to see them, but one of the hardest things is communicating with people. Because I can’t see them, I can’t always tell if some one is trying to get my attention. I don’t know if some one wants to talk to me unless they come right up to me.”
When you go shopping how do you know what you’re buying?
“Well, I just get one of the assistants in the shop to help me. People are very kind and helpful.”
Do you become close to the dog?
“Yes, of course, we become very close with time. A guide dog stays with you for 8 years and then it is time for the dog’s retirement. It is very hard to let go of a dog because you become very attached and it takes time to get used to a new dog too.”
Iona, Joy’s new dog, has a sign on her back that reads: “Please do not distract me when I am working.” A great idea for many of us but in Iona’s life this means: do not stroke me when I am working because it will distract me from guiding the way …..but the sign is down and Iona and Kirk are swamped by a flurry of hands and bodies cooing and aahing all over them. Tails are wagging and wet noses are nudging as I leave them to hand out certificates to the next assembly group.
Felicity Tyson is Websites Editor of Youth Programmes at the Citizenship Foundation