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!

Belgium EVS: Jan & Feb 2018

So here we are, a long overdue update about the first few months of 2018 in Belgium. I indulged in a prolonged Christmas break which meant that I didn’t get back to Belgium until mid-January, so I didn’t feel like I had enough to write about at the end of last month to publish a post. Now I’m trying to remember everything that’s happened during the last couple of months and struggling to know where to start. Typical!

Logically I guess I should start with January 1st 2018. I saw in the new year watching the fireworks display over the Space Needle in Seattle, USA. Myself and boyfriend got on a plane a couple of days after Christmas and headed off to the emerald city to spend a week with friends. It was a great trip; not my first time in America, but my first time there since I was nine so it’s fair to say a bit different. Our friends were great hosts taking us to visit the Museum of Pop Culture and the Space Needle of course. I’m afraid we displayed an inappropriate amount of Britishness on a couple of occasions; exclaiming about portion sizes and worrying about tipping etiquette and so on. A highlight was a walking tour of Hike Place Market when a local tour guide took us to five different bars/restaurants in down town Seattle to sample some delegacies. I’d definitely recommend walking tours to blind or VI travellers when visiting somewhere new. They are a great way to get to know wherever your visiting, with the added bonus of being shown around by a local so you know they know their stuff. We contacted the guide beforehand to let him know that our group included four VI people and he couldn’t have been nicer and more helpful.

I spent another week at home after Seattle before travelling back to Belgium, but not before going to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Palace Theatre, London. I’ve talked about my love of live theatre before in this post and how companies like VocalEyes provide live audio description and touch tours of performances. This was also included in this performance of The Cursed Child and I can honestly say that I’ve never been to a performance with more people there for the audio description than this one. The play itself was amazing and overall it was a very nostalgic day for a long-term Potter-head like myself.

And now we finally get back to Belgium. My first week back included the second session of training for all the EVS volunteers, organised by the national association. This was a great opportunity to get together with the other volunteers again and to reflect on our progress and our expectations of our EVS projects. I found it a little hard coming back to Belgium after spending so much time at home with family and friends over Christmas, but I had a good time with other EVS volunteers and exploring Brussels a little more.

After the training it was back to work at the office. I feel more comfortable and confident in my job in the office now; I feel like I know what I’m doing and what is expected of me. I’ve been doing more of the same, helping organise local events and international projects, managing the social media and helping out with other various tasks here and there. I’ve also continued my French classes, but all be it in a new school which I much prefer. The lessons I attend now are much better suited to my current level of French and I feel more comfortable with my teacher and classmates. It just goes to show that if something doesn’t work, it won’t get better unless you do something about it.

Otherwise, I’ve managed to get a bit more active by joining a walking group and a Torball club, and I’ve even given blind football a go. For those who don’t know, Torball is somewhat similar to Goalball which is far more prevalent in the UK, but with a few minor changes to the rules. I’m enjoying playing but also enjoying the social side of training as well.

I’ve also done a little more travelling this side of the new year. I spent a weekend in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago and am heading off for a couple of days in Paris tomorrow. I’m joined on both these trips by my boyfriend, but I am hoping to get in some solo trips to visit different friends in various places very soon. Germany is on my bucket list, as well as Bruges and Ghent in Belgium. My discounted Belgian travel card arrived in January which makes travel much easier (cheaper) and the assistance system works much the same as in the UK; you book your travel assistance online or over the phone and all being well you should have no problems.

The obligatory Jazzy update is very positive. She very much enjoyed her holiday at my mum’s house while I was in America, but she was happy enough to get back into the harness on my return. She seems very settled and comfortable here in Belgium now, even if she is still bemused whenever we get into a car on the wrong side. I’m pretty sure she finds our excursions to new places very exciting if the increased speed and wagging tail is anything to go by. With the combination of my selection of navigation apps and her intuition, we manage to get around pretty successfully most of the time, so I don’t worry about heading off and exploring new cities. Plus, the puppy-dog-eyes come in very useful if we’re trying to get someone’s attention to give us a hand 😉

It’s a bit of a strange time right now because even though I’m only half way through my project I have to start thinking and planning for afterwards by applying for graduate schemes and internships and so on. In other news I’m still trying to get used to people greeting me with kisses instead of a handshake; I think I’ve gotten better at not cringing away when someone lunges at me with pursed lips, but I can’t say it’s something I’ve yet mastered. I also think I’ve stumbled on a really innovative way of making friends; a few times now I’ve been wandering around looking a bit confused when I’ve momentarily lost my Barings, when someone lovely has offered to help, and we’ve ended up swapping contact details and keeping in touch. Maybe not the most conventional way of meeting people but so far, it’s worked.

And I suppose that’s it for this instalment of the EVS diaries. It’s a fairly busy month ahead in work, my birthday is coming up and I have a trip back to the UK planned for mid-March, so stay tuned for further updates.

Change100 – Half Way Through!

Two years ago, I was having lunch with a friend in a small café in Voxel and practically turning green with envy. Why? Because she was telling me all about what it was like living and working in central London.
London has always been the dream. That and NYC are at the top of my bucket list of places I want to live in one day, so to be sitting across one of my friends who was living out that dream right then, I could think of nothing cooler. I remember spending the whole journey on my way to see her fantasising about the amazing stories she would tell me about all the places she had been, the people she had met and the things she had done. I don’t think she realised at the time how very inspired I was. So much so that I even wrote down the name of the internship programme that she’d gotten this opportunity through in my phone.

Fast-forward to last week when I met up with the same friend, again in central London, only this time I was the intern. After writing that note in my phone that day in Voxel, I applied for the Change100 Programme earlier this year and was accepted onto the scheme. This is how I came to be working in central London months after I graduated – a dream come true.

Change100

The Change100 Programme is an internship scheme for disabled students and graduates. Their aim is to change the employment landscape for students and graduates with disabilities or long-term health conditions, by offering them paid work experience tailored for their interests and needs. The scheme is run by Leonard Cheshire Disability, a UK charity supporting disabled people in the UK and around the world to fulfil their potential and live the lives they choose. The programme runs for a total of six months, including a three-month internship and three months afterwards when you will receive ongoing support and mentoring.

The application process is designed to give applicants as much experience as possible, while also giving the support and guidance needed for applicants with disabilities. You are required to submit an application, much like a job application, which if accepted will mean that you are invited to an assessment centre. At an assessment day, you are asked to give a short pre-prepared presentation, take part in a group problem solving activity and attend a formal interview. If you are successful at the assessment centre you are accepted onto the programme, which is when the Change100 team will proceed to try to find you the perfect work placement.
They try to match up your skills, interests and preferences with a bank of internship placements available that have already been submitted to them by employers all over the country. When they think they’ve found you the right fit, they offer the employers to chance to choose an applicant from the programme. This is when you are then told that you’ve been selected by an employer and are given the details of your internship. Its then up to you to negotiate with your employer things like start dates and any adjustments you might want to ask for before starting your placement. The Change100 team also present a disability awareness briefing to your employer, if you are happy for them to do so.
As part of the programme you are given a contact within the Change100 team which you can turn to for any support or advice you might need during your internship, and you’re also invited to attend peer development days once a month which include workshops on topics like managing your disability in the workplace. You are also assigned a mentor within your employer organisation who is there to be your point of contact within the workplace during your placement, as well as providing ongoing support after your placement has finished.

My experience

For the last few weeks, I have been interning at a charitable organisation based in central London working within their conference and programmes team as an assistant. My role is to support the team in organising and running their biggest event of the year, their annual three-day conference. I have been having the best time! My colleagues within the team and the wider organisation have been incredibly welcoming and respectful and I feel like I am getting really valuable experience, I could not have asked for a better placement.

I found the Change100 recruitment process largely positive, only encountering a couple of accessibility issues that the team were happy to work with me to resolve. It’s been such a valuable opportunity for me to practice interview skills and attending an assessment centre, as well as the actual experience of being in a workplace. I am glad I took the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone, completely relocating for the internship and joining an organisation that I knew almost nothing about before I started. I am also working in a field that I had no previous experience in, so that has been a learning curve and interesting as well. The whole programme has been challenging but massively rewarding so far and I am only half way through!

I have found the peer development days really beneficial in terms of receiving support during the internship, as well as getting the chance to meet the other interns on the programme. It just so happens that I found a fellow intern who is doing her placement within an organisation two buildings away from me, so we now meet up for lunch every week to catch up and chat through how our respective placements are going.
I am also benefiting a lot from the mentoring aspect of the programme. Change100 recommend your mentor be someone who is not a directly a member of your team, so that you can have a point of contact within the organisation but who is separate from your immediate day-to-day. Your mentor will also continue supporting you after you’ve finished your placement, doing things like providing career advice or contacts that might be useful for you to get where you want to be. I’m personally finding it really helpful having someone at work who I know I can turn to with questions, but who isn’t a part of my actual team, and I’m also learning a lot from my mentor about how to achieve my personal ambitions and goals when it comes to work.

I would absolutely recommend the Change100 Programme to any students and graduates with disabilities. We all know how difficult it is to find employment these days, without the added barrio of having a disability to content with as well. So any work experience you can get to demonstrate your skills is going to be hugely beneficial, because it will be something you can refer back to in future applications and interviews to demonstrate to prospective employers your capabilities and strengths. That’s what I’m hoping anyway!

I will be writing future posts on my experience applying for Access to Work, the government funded scheme intended to support disabled people in employment, and look out for a Dog Blog coming up all about Jazzy’s perspective getting to grips with our commute.