Parisian weekend

For the first weekend in March I took the train and met my boyfriend in Paris for a long weekend. Neither of us had ever been before so it was going to be interesting whatever happened, but the main reason for the trip was for a First Aid Kit gig that was happening on the Monday night. They are one of maybe four bands that we both like, so it was an opportunity not to be missed.

We booked a hotel specifically for its proximity to Gare du Nord, the station where we’d both be entering Paris. The staff in the hotel were very helpful and were more than willing to accommodate us with any questions or requests. I was even pleasantly surprised when, just as the station staff member assisting me was expressing his doubts that I could get a taxi with the dog, a driver immediately corrected him saying that of course I could get a taxi because it was illegal to refuse assistance dogs. I was very excited about this!

Taxis are not always the most cost-effective way of getting around though, so as an alternative I am a big fan of the hop-on hop-off guided bus tours that you will find in most cities. I can’t recommend them enough for blind or disabled people discovering a city for the first time. Sure, you might not be able to appreciate the views from the window, but I still find it interesting listening to the audio guide and it’s a huge plus that you can use the busses to get to all the main attractions without having to faff with public transport or fork out for a taxi.

I’d already purchased the hop-on bus tickets online and had them saved on my mobile so the main challenge on Saturday morning was finding the right bus stop. We managed it though and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as we headed off to test out the “accessible audio tour” at the Louvre Museum.

Now, I hate to be negative, but it has to be said that the “accessible audio tour” is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a clever system where you choose the audio track to go with an exhibit using a little Nintendo DS, but this isn’t so useful if you can’t use that Nintendo in the first place. I imagine it’s a great feature if you’re going around with a sighted person who can change the tracks for you, but as there wasn’t any speech output that enabled us to use the devices independently and the Museum weren’t prepared to send someone around with us, it was a bit of a disappointment. We ended up giggling in the tactile exhibit for a while and then spending waaaaaaay too long trying to find our way out. If you’ve never been to the Louvre, trust me when I say it is a labyrinth. We asked for help from fellow tourists a few times, but literally everyone we asked were just as confused and lost as we were. We only made it out in the end because a security guard came running when we accidently skipped the queue to see the Mona Lisa. Definitely an experience!

After refuelling in a small Italian restaurant, we hopped back onto the bus and got off at the Champs Elysées, the largest and most expensive avenue in Paris. We had a few hours to hang out there until we could hop on the bus again for the night tour. We wanted to take the night bus in case either of us might be able to make out the lights of the buildings better in the dark. I didn’t buy anything from the Champs Elysées, but we had a lot of fun people watching (AKA eavesdropping) and marvelling at how many American’s seemed to be wandering around Paris. The night tour was good too; not quite as illuminating as we’d hoped, but still interesting.

We hopped on the bus again the next day to get to the Eifel Tower and enjoyed a Seine river cruse (with audio commentary) before making our way to the tower itself. There was something a little different about this audio commentary though; it had been scripted as a kind of conversation between the characters of “the spirit of Paris” and “the River Seine”. It was bizarre and hilarious. Interesting, but hilarious. I really hope we didn’t disturb people too much with our sniggering.

After the river cruise it was time for the grand event, the Eifel Tower. I can’t praise the Tower staff enough in terms of accessibility. I had been worried after hearing about other disabled people’s negative experiences, but we honestly had no problems. Staff were extremely helpful in directing us to different levels, and of course taking the obligatory photos. Jazzy was pretty nonplussed by the whole affair. I was a little concerned because she wasn’t too keen when I took her to the top of the Shard in London, but the Tower didn’t seem to faze her at all. She just sat patiently and posed for pictures as if she goes up the Eiffel Tower every day.

We’d booked to have dinner in the Eifel Tower restaurant that evening, and that was amazing too. The food was delicious, the highlight definitely being the chocolate brownie eyeful tower we both had for desert. The only criticism I’d have is that we never received the photo we had taken by a photographer in the restaurant, that would supposedly be sent to us by email. We even managed a cheeky trip back to the top of the tower after dinner, so we could (try) to see Paris by night. We only noticed that the whole Tower had lit up behind us 30 seconds before it turned off, but it was still magical.

We’d booked a walking tour of Montmartre for Monday morning and as our bus tickets had expired we’d planned to get a taxi to the meeting location. This turned out to be a little tricky because of the annoying but inevitable taxi refusals due to drivers not wanting to accept the dog, but thankfully we made it to the meeting point just in time and enjoyed a truly fantastic walking tour of the artist’s neighbourhood for two hours. Our guide was so attentive and descriptive, it was one of my highlights of the weekend. She obliged us by taking lots of photos and left us to have lunch near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica at the end of the tour. It was a beautiful day, so we sat and had our lunch outside in the sunshine. I would also recommend walking tours to anyone and everyone; you’re not going to get much better than being shown around an area by a local.

After making it back to our hotel there was just enough time to change and get ready before heading out again for the gig, which was superb too. Staff at the venue weren’t happy to watch Jazzy for me during the performance so she stayed with me for the duration of the concert, but they did swap our standing tickets for seated ones to accommodate us having Jazzy with us. The band were amazing and were definitely the cherry on top of an amazing weekend.

So, there you have it, a summary of my trip to Paris. I think that each time we try to do something like this, namely swanning off to a completely new place with just guide dog and GPS in hand, it will get easier. I definitely feel that this venture was noticeably less stressful and tiring than the trip to Amsterdam, so I guess that like everything we will get better at doing this with practice. I do think that we could have had a much harder time of it if neither of us spoke French on this trip though; we both got the impression that locals were much more obliging to help and answer questions if I started out with my garbled French first.

I look forward to recounting my next trip, undecided as yet, and will leave you for now with this song that played on a loop on the tour buses audio guide and ended up being our soundtrack to the weekend. Enjoy!

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Change 100

I’ve been keeping this under my hat for a while now, but some exciting things are soon ahead for Jazzy and I and I’m excited to share them here.

AS you might know, I graduated from University with a 1st in English Literature in 2016. Since then I stayed in the city I studied in, hoping to find work. I would like to work in Communications, doing things like writing press releases, managing social media platforms etc. I’ve had some experience working in the Corporate Communications team of my University while I was studying, but unfortunately haven’t been able to find work in the sector since graduating.

The process of looking and applying for work as someone with a disability is a topic I’ll expand on in another post, but for now I’ll share the fantastic news that I’ve finally gotten an internship for the summer which will hopefully go a long way to helping me into full time employment.

I’ve gained this internship through the Change 100 Programme, a scheme run by Leonard Cheshire Disability aiming to help disabled students and graduates into work by offering internship opportunities and mentorship. It’s a relatively new programme that is gaining success every year, this year partnering with organisations to offer 140 internships to disabled students and graduates around the country. Find out more information about the Change 100 Programme via this link:

https://www.leonardcheshire.org/support-and-information/life-and-work/skills-development/employment-programmes/change100

Undertaking the internship means relocating for Jazzy and I as we’ll be working in London. We’ll be living just outside the capital and commuting in every day, working five days a week for three months. Inevitably it’ll be a big change for both of us and though it sounds a little daunting I’m excited and confident we’ll both take it in our stride.

We’ve already taken steps to ensuring a smooth transition, having mobility and orientation in London and escalator training for Jazzy. It’s important to take my guide dog into account whenever big changes like this are on the horizon. Thankfully Jazzy is an adaptable and confident dog; she is very quick to learn new routes and enjoys doing it so I don’t foresee any problems where she is concerned.

I’ve also had my first experience of applying to Access To Work; a government funded scheme intended to level the playing field for disabled people in work by providing accessibility equipment and support for a disabled person so that they need not depend on their employer for those adaptions. Access to Work has a somewhat mixed reputation and from my experience with them so far, I’m not sure that reputation is unfounded, though my dealings with them are currently ongoing so I’ll update on my experience with them in a later post.

For now, I think that’s as much as I can say at this point. I start my internship in a couple of weeks so I’ll be sure to keep my readers updated with our progress adapting to working in the big city. Until then, wish me luck!

Access refusal: being refused by a taxi driver because of my guide dog. #AccessAllAreas

On Monday, 4 April at approximately 12 PM midday I experienced my first serious access refusal by Albatross Cars.
I had spent the weekend with friends in Derby and had booked a taxi with Albatross Cars to take me to the train station. I had arranged passenger assistance for my train journey and had booked the taxi to pick me upso that I would arrive at the station with plenty of time to receive my passenger assistance.
Under the equality act 2010 it is illegal to refuse a guide dog owner entry to any public establishments or business. This includes taxes, either privately owned or otherwise. Failure to comply with this legislation can result in prosecution and a hefty fine. 
Usually, when ever I am booking a taxi I always let them know that I will be travelling with a guide dog. I am not obliged to do this but I do because I would prefer to avoid any conflict concerning my guide dog. I just want a taxi, I don’t want hassle.
However, on this occasion when my friend booked the taxi I didn’t bother to remind her to mention my guide dog. This is because when we had phoned the same company on Friday, 1 April and asked for a taxi that would allow my guide dog, A representative from Albatross Cars assured us that we had no need to mention the dog because none of their drivers were legally allowed to refuse working dogs in their vehicle. At the time my friends and I were impressed and reassured by this response.
Myself and three friends Georgina, Sarah and Shane waited outside the house for the taxi. Myself and George were planning on travelling in the taxi, Sarah and Shane (who’s house I’d stayed at) were waiting with us to help us with our cases and to wave us off. George is also visually impaired and was accompanying me to the station to help me find my passenger assistance before she headed off to work.
When the taxi arrived myself and George entered the vehicle,Sarah helping me to the front passenger seat with my guide dog Jazzy and Shane loading our suitcases into the car. I entered the front passenger seat and asked the driver whether I could push The seat back so that’s my dog could sit in the footwell. He complied and showed me where the button to move the seat was.
However, when I told Jazzy to get in the car the driver said 

“no no, I don’t take dogs, I am Muslim, I don’t take dogs, get the dog out. I am Muslim I don’t take dogs.”
Jazzy was sitting between my legs in the foot well calmly, not touching the driver and not reacting. Sarah asked if she could explain that the dog was my working dog and that I have a working dog because I am registered blind. The driver did not seem to take notice of what Saraj or I were saying, only repeating that he could not take dogs because he is Muslim.
The discussion became increasingly heated as the driver raised his voice and refused to take notice of mine or Sarah’s explanations that my dog is a service animal.

The driver vacated his car and continued arguing with Shane who was attempting to explain to him that he was breaking the law by refusing my guide dog. Eventually Sarah helped me get out of the car as we decided that we would simply ring for a replacement because it was obvious that there would be no reasoning with this driver.
After George and I had left the car and while Sarah was getting our suitcases out of the car, I faced the driver and told him that he was breaking the law by refusing my guide dog, that he could be fined and prosecuted for his actions. I began to reach into my bag to show him a card that Guide Dogs provide all guy dog owners with that indicates the legislation allowing working dogs access to any business. Before I could reach the card to show him, he had gotten back in his car and driven away.
Sarah then called Albatross Cars and explained what had happened. I was shaken and she was understandably quite emotional. The representative she spoke with from Albatross Cars assured her that they would send a replacement right away and that they would log her formal complaint.
We remained outside the house waiting for the replacement taxi. In the meantime, I phoned the nonemergency police number to seek advice. No replacements from Albatross turned up. We attempted to contact them again but where repeatedly hung up. When we did eventually get through to them the representative on the phone was agitated when informing us that The replacement they had sent had failed to find us and the first driver was claiming that we had damaged his car and that he had refused to take us in his car because there were five passengers attempting to get into his four seater vehicle.
Sarah explained to the representative that there were only two passengers, accompanied by two other people who were helping us get in the car as both passengers have a disability. The representative on the phone said that if we would be willing to resolve the matter privately they would abstain from reporting as to the police. Sarah assured them that we would be reporting them to the police.
By now I had missed the train that I had arranged passenger assistance for. We ordered a taxi from a different company and whilst travelling to the station in this taxi I continued speaking with a member of the nonemergency police who assured me that the Muslim Council states that any Muslim must accept working dogs into their businesses or establishments, including taxes. He advised me that, being a matter of civil law, I should report the incident to the council.
When I got to the station I explained to staff what had happened and they were very understanding. However, I had to get on a different train than I had previously arranged. This meant that when I arrived at my connecting station the assistants were not there to meet me as they were not aware that I would be arriving on a different train.
Since the incident I have written a Facebook status about my experience that has received over 1000 shares. I wrote a review on albatross cars Facebook page and I tweeted them asking for action. I have also been in touch with Guide Dogs Nottingham who have contacted the company on my behalf.
Unfortunately, albatross cars have chosen to stick to their original story that the driver refused me because five passengers were attempting to answer his four seater vehicle and that we vandalised his car. In a comment on Facebook they stated that according to their investigation my story did not match their evidence and that they have reported myself and my friends to the police.
I can only assume that they are now fabricating evidence to support their cover story. They are lying about five passengers trying to get in the car so I wouldn’t put it past them to lie about the damage to the car either. Who is to say that the driver himself didn’t damage the car after leaving us and then convinced his managers that we were to blame? I have been informed that as the company themselves did not refuse my guide dog, that it was one of their self employed drivers who refuse me, then Albatross Cars technically did not refuse me access. However, even if this is technically the case, it should have been Albatross Cars responsibility to apologise for the behaviour of one of their drivers and rectify the attitude of that driver. I am disgusted that they have chosen to support one of their discriminatory employees rather than admit the mistake and resolve to improve the situation.
They are also claiming that they have records of a phone call in which they clearly state that the driver is happy to carry my guide dog. A phone call of this nature did occur on Friday, 1 April. No such conversation occurred on Monday, 4 April, the day of the access refusal. Even so, the representative on the phone may have assured me that none of the drivers were legally allowed to refuse my guide dog, but the issue remains that when the driver arrived he refused me access to his service on the grounds that my dog offended his religious beliefs. This is an example of why the message must be relayed from booking to driver that the passenger will be accompanied by a guide dog. This gives the opportunity for any drivers who are not happy to carry guide dogs, for whatever reason, simply not to accept the job.
I also feel the need to point out that if Albatross Cars intend on using the phone call from Friday, 1 April in which they clearly indicated that the driver would be happy to except my guide dog as evidence of their cooperation, they should also offer the recording of the phone call following the incident between Sarah and the company representative in which Sarah clearly explained what had happened and that two disabled passages and a guide dog were intending to travel in the taxi, two others were helping as load our luggage.
There have been reports of many incidents concerning service dog users and Muslim service providers, as many Muslims believe that coming into contact with dogs is haraam (forbidden or unholy). Following discussions with several of my friends who practice lamb and according to my own research, it is my understanding that while Islam does consider dogs to be and clean or impure, it is not strictly haraam to be in proximity to a dog. I was also reassured by the member of the nonemergency police that I contacted immediately after the incident that the Muslim Council of Britain indicates that no Muslim should refuse access to a service dog user on the grounds of their religion in accordance with the Equality Act 2010.
I had hoped that the company would react apologetically to the incident, hopefully learning from the incident and resolving to work with Guide Dogs to ensure that nothing similar would happen again. Obviously this has not happened. The company has gone on the defensive, making wild accusations to attempt to cover their own backs. I feel that this leaves me with no choice but to take the matter further and pursue the incident in court.
This is not what I wanted! I wanted to get a taxi that would get me to the station so that I could and a brilliant weekend with my friends easily and happily. When this didn’t happen, I wanted to raise awareness of the discrimination I faced so that hopefully it would ensure better treatment of guy dog owners in the future. I wanted something positive to come out of such a negative experience. I wanted people to learn.
I don’t know what will happen now. I am going to be in touch with RNIB’s legal team so that they can advise me on what to do next. The Derby Telegraph is running a story on the incident soon and I will be giving a radio interview on Monday, 11 April.
I knew that this would happen eventually because access refusal is not a rare occurrence. I just didn’t think my experience would be this dramatic. I’m so thoroughly disappointed and personally insulted by the company’s reaction to fabricate excuses. Discrimination is not acceptable and it never will be.