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Today I attended the Pain Management Clinic at Woolmanhill Hospital in Aberdeen.  As with the last appointment I saw Sheila Clark and as with the last time the clinic was running late so I was seen 30 minutes after the scheduled start time for my appointment.  Nevertheless, I was very happy with the outcome and I hope that her forthcoming efforts will finally help me to turn the corner with the agony that is reynauds phenomenon and which has plagued me since 2008.

After explaining that on average the pain in my fingers has remained at a similar intensity since my last appointment in April albeit slightly better at times since I completely cut tea from my diet due to less tannins entering my body), the doctor stated that in her opinion we have gone as far as we can with respect to trying to solve a problem through conventional painkillers and routine medication.  She said, and I agree, that there is little productive use and increasing the strength of painkillers due to the long-term effects they will undoubtedly have on my health and given my relatively young age.

Sheila stated that in her opinion we should proceed down the surgical route beginning with a stellate ganglion block.  This involves an injection into the main branch of nerves that travel down the arm via the neck.  The injection is designed to effectively shut down and reset the autonomous nervous system (that is, the system responsible for involuntary movements including contraction of blood vessels).  It would help to relieve any trapped nerves and the effective reset will hopefully dampen the pain signals emanating from the nerves in my fingers.  The procedure is not without risk however the Professor who oversees sheilas cases has done this many times without incident.  Unfortunately he was not in today but Sheila said that she would speak with him later this week to confirm that this is the best course of action before writing to both my GP and I.  The waiting list for this procedure is approximately 2 to 3 months so barring any major delay there is every possibility this may be done before Christmas.  Ironically, despite the major nature of this procedure the only thing I am really worried about is the needle going into my neck - needles and I do not get on the best of terms!

Any meantime I should continue taking my regular painkillers and medications as usual, but this is certainly a major step forward if approved by the professor.  Rest assured that I will keep you updated as things progress but I'm definitely keeping fingers crossed for a better future in a few months time.

After visiting their stand at the Techshare Europe conference last week I was privileged to receive trial access to the new RNIB Overdrive Digital book service.  The service, which goes live on 15 September 2014, will run concurrent to the existing RNIB Talking Book Service (CD subscription) but will offer the ability to stream books directly from the Internet or download books to a PC or compatible mobile device for off-line listening later.

I was able to access the website without issue using both Internet Explorer 11 and Mozilla Firefox on android using the trial login credentials provided and without need to consult the supplied user guide.  The website interface is relatively intuitive although the number of search criteria have been increased to include those relating to book publisher, formats, loan duration etc.  Search results can be displayed in either a grid or list layout with the option to display cover art where available.  a navigation menu offers access to service options including the ability to browse by catalogue section, access information on recommended and featured titles.  It is worth noting however that different screen readers may interpret the website code in different ways and thus the way in which the navigation menu is accessed may differ depending on platform and browser used.  For example, when accessing the mobile version of the website (or that rendered as such) in Mozilla Firefox on android, I was unable to navigate the website easily using the Talkback screen reader as performance became extremely sluggish with resulting frustration.

It is possible to listen to books within the browser and this worked well with little to no lag time.  Note however that I was only able to try this on a PC and it may well not work on mobile devices depending on the browser used and/or limitations imposed by the device manufacturer.  The Overdrive Media Console software is used to download and listen to books on a PC, iPhone or android device.  The software is completely accessible and I had no problems navigating around it using either SuperNova Access Suite or TalkBack.  Books are presented in multiple parts allowing for only a particular section to be downloaded, something which may be useful if data quotas are an issue or if you intend to continue listening to further sections on another device, although the size of the audio files is comparable to those supplied on their corresponding CD version.  Once downloaded, the software offers all the standard playback features that would be expected on any other media playback application with the inclusion of playback speed adjustment (PC version only) and bookmarking.  Performance is reasonable, although I did notice that the TalkBack screen reader exhibited stuttered speech announcements when attempting to navigate quickly around the application interface whilst audio was playing.

The PC version of the Overdrive Media Console allows for audiobooks to be transferred to a portable device such as an DAISY player, MP3 player or other audio device which can be connected to a computer.  Apple devices seem to be the exception (although I was unable to test this since going Apple-free in August) as audio must be managed through iTunes unless the device has been jailbroken and the appropriate file browser apps installed.  The transfer process is straightforward however I did note a couple of bugs with the Transfer Wizard; namely that there is an exceedingly long delay after selecting a portable device to which audiophile should be transferred whilst the application scans the device.  Some users without useful vision may feel that the application has crashed due to the lack of speech feedback during this process.  I also encountered an error when trying to save audiobooks to the internal storage of my Booksense DAISY player although I was able to save to the external SD memory card without issue.  I have reported all of these bugs to RNIB and hopefully they will be fixed in a future application update on all platforms.

Overdrive also offer a Windows 8 metro version of the app although RNIB do not recommend that users use this on accessibility grounds.  As I do have some useful vision and am able to use my access technology would magnification support, I decided to try the app anyway but could not get very far as I did not have a valid library code to connect to the RNIB service and the organisation did not show up when attempting to perform a search within the app.  My reason for wanting to try the metro app was that it also supports the synchronisation of bookmarks between devices.  This feature is not offered by the desktop version and was not made entirely clear when I downloaded it, resulting in some wasted time whilst I tried to find a feature which did not exist in the first place.  I made this issue known to RNIB as well and hopefully arrangements could be made whereby users who are able to use supported features of the metro app can do so.  The android version of the Overdrive Media Console offers the ability to insert bookmarks and synchronise them with an Overdrive account which can be created online for free.  I recommend doing this using a PC desktop browser however as you may experience better accessibility using a desktop access technology product.

Overall, and although I was only able to try the service for 24 hours due to previously recovering from ill health that caused me to leave the Techshare conference early, I was very impressed with it and, were it possible, would love to move over to it immediately when it goes live on 15 September 2014.  Unfortunately, as my current Talking Books Service subscription is funded by my local authority and given the limitations of the RNIB invoicing system, my subscription service can only be changed at the start of my next renewal period next January.  When visiting the stand at the conference and after learning about this I expressed my view that this is ridiculous as the organisation seem to have no difficulty taking payment for any other purchase and I was advised that this is something that may be investigated in the future.  For now, I can see a lot of people being very disappointed at being unable to switch over unless they are enrol into a new subscription that is self funded.  Nevertheless, I think the launch of the digital service is a major step forward (in addition to something that is many years overdue) and something which will offer better flexibility to members, encourage reading for those who do not have, or do not wish to use a playback device with CD support and hopefully increase the number of people using talking book services overall leading to higher revenue and the launch of additional features and services in the future.

Today I attended the last of three (although my first) RNIB Education, Respect & Awareness events at the Highland Hotel in Stirling. The ERA project was first conceived about 18 months ago by the Haggeye group with the purpose of bringing together older and younger generations, improving awareness of sight loss and learning from each other. The event was originally designed for 15-20 people however, 35 attended on the day with most travelling from the greater Glasgow conurbation. Two members from Haggeye were present in a leading capacity however; a number of other young people also attended which provided an even mix across the generations. As one of the RNIB Scotland member representatives, I was asked if I could attend the event in order to provide information about membership and the benefits it can bring. As happened and as far as I'm aware, only two non-members were present one of whom opted to join RNIB on the spot.

I travelled from Aberdeen and was met at Stirling railway station by the RNIB Scotland Youth Engagement Officer and another volunteer who were present to meet people arriving by train. I have previously arranged to attend the event with a friend who also lives in Stirling however; they proceeded to the venue beforehand as their mum was acting as one of the volunteers and guides. On arrival at the hotel and after registration and tea/coffee, we were given a very brief welcome by the ERA Project Officer and had a round the room introduction before proceeding to our first workshop - an introduction to yoga. Having never done this before I was interested to see what it was all about and at the risk of being labelled a heretic, I will say that it was similar to the full body exercise warm-ups we used to do whilst at college. The professional yoga instructor leading a workshop stressed the importance of the concept of breath, being aware of breath and how it affects the body and the energies flowing through it. I don't know about the latter point, but I definitely felt a slightly unpleasant tingling in the fingers by the end of the session, although my neck and back felt more stretched out and less tense than they have in ages. I asked the instructor if yoga had any relation to the Buddhist discipline of Chon Gran, a discipline dedicated to ordering and mastering the mind with the goal of improving memory recall and allowing one to view memories from different perspectives and draw attention to subconscious thought and detail which may otherwise be missed. He confirmed that this was so, and said that yoga may be of benefit to the Raynaud’s in my fingers (from which he also suffers) although it was mainly a physiological discipline.

The workshop lasted for approximately one hour and was immediately followed by an iPad demonstration workshop. This was somewhat of a step back from me since I sold my iPad and became Apple-free in August. However, someone must have mentioned that I knew about iPads as I was asked to demonstrate some features to several present who were interested. I was unable to demonstrate some points which they wanted to know about as the iPad was not connected to the Internet and there was no Wi-Fi access available, although I did manage to run through some of the accessibility features available in the new iPad models, which may be of benefit to them. As always, I was happy to help, and mentioned that I would be happy to take any questions or points, which they had after the event as long as they could obtain my contact details from RNIB staff. The latter really reiterated the point in my mind that I really need to get around to making business cards, which I can give to people, rather than rattling off my contact details repeatedly like a broken record. I had my Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 with me and was happy to let other people see and try it as long as my friend took guard of it as insurance.

Lunch was a surprise compared to many RNIB events, which I attend with a wide choice of sandwiches, potato fritters, chicken skewers, prawn crêpes walnut cake and blackcurrant cordial for beverages along with the usual tea and coffee. Attendees also had the opportunity to make a fruit smoothie on a bike. A regular bicycle had its chain linked up to a manual blender. As the cyclist pedalled, someone would add different fruit into the blender until enough have been liquidised to create enough smoothie for one person. I was very excited to try this as I haven't been on a bicycle from nearly 18 months, and when mentioning this was told that, I would be able to create a smoothie in 18 minutes. For some reason I took this literally which was quite funny for me as I was just about getting to full power and have barely ridden a bike for 45 seconds when it was all over and this movie was done. I was so keen to get on a bicycle again I honestly think I could have ridden it for the rest of the day and even suggested that they could turn it into a fundraising event - where can I sign up please? I think those who were watching must have thought I had been possessed as I was really going to town on that bike!

The final workshop of the day involved listening to a selection of traditional Scottish Travellers stories presented by a freelance storyteller accredited with the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The stories have all been handed down over the generations and mainly incorporate folklore along with historical events in the local area. Whereas this was interesting as it is not something I have been part of before, I couldn't help thinking that the stories lacked substance although this is perhaps a little unfair as they were quite short and I am used to listening to and reading longer stories. I ask and it was confirmed that many of the stories have Norse origins given Scotland's long history with Norway and the impact of the Viking age on the country. I could picture myself sitting with others around the fire on Midsummer listening to stories from long ago, perhaps even told in the original Norse tongue - that would be quite an experience. I have always been fascinated with the Norse history and customs particularly those which predated the mass disbursement of the Christian faith amongst the population. I have been able to get into Norse history, as I never could with that of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The day started at 10:30 and finished at approximately 15:00. My friend and I decided to go for a coffee and a chat followed by some shopping before I returned home to Aberdeen. A football match between Aberdeen and Celtic took place earlier, and although I thought I would miss the football crowd by travelling later, I was unlucky as half the carriage was filled with supporters getting rather rowdy. I managed to sleep for most of the journey and they must have thought I was dead or something as they didn't bother me, however shortly before disembarking I heard from the conversation (not difficult to overhear) that most of them were from Portlethen which had me a little concerned as I planned to get off their and walk home from the station. I decided to play it safe though and go home by taxi even with the additional expense (together with that in the morning given the lack of available buses).

Overall, I was pleasantly impressed with how the day turned out and with how it was organised. Prior to attending I mentioned through social networking that I had some concerns as to whether the project was really living up to the aims set out in the original lottery funding application. I was there when the draft of the application was written and it is my understanding that the educational component involved engaging with members of the community who were not already RNIB members to spread awareness of sight loss. After all, there is little point in spreading awareness to those who are already partially sighted or members of RNIB. I wasn't able to attend the first or second ERA events in Inverness and Galashiels respectively although was told from those who were present that there were very few non-members in attendance. The same was largely true for today and I was asked about my concerns and mentioned this to the RNIB Scotland director as well when he dropped by. It was agreed that the concerns were valid and I can only hope that if funding is made available to continue the project into the future, something that I think would be a great idea, that more attention is given to this point. As the country encompasses an increasingly ageing population, the prevalence of sight loss amongst the older generation will only increase with time. A project such as ERA could be a great way of spreading awareness of sight loss but also in filling what I feel has become a gap between the generations with respect to learning knowledge of areas such as local history, life lessons, experiences which have shaped the way people live and act today as well as handy skills which are dying out giving the ever increasing encroachment of technology and gaming into our lives. These skills could include, for example, woodcarving, crochet, playing traditional musical instruments such as the penny whistle and other pursuits. I must also express my pleasure at how non-corporate and non-institutional the event today was. I cannot recall hearing the phrase 'RNIB Scotland' or 'membership' once during the public leading of the event. I feel that this contributed to a more relaxed atmosphere, with less pressure on attendees to behave in a manner which may otherwise have been more tailored towards portraying an impression, whatever that may be, to the organisers. Although one of the aims of the project was to increase membership, this was done in a purely informal way and I feel this could be more effective if the project is extended into the future. I feel that this informality is particularly important when mixing generations as it creates a neutral environment where everyone can express themselves as fully as they wish without concern of offending sensitivities. I am grateful to have been invited to attend today and hope that I may be allowed to drop in at some point hereafter. -

After what was in actuality a rather short just less than two weeks in Tanzania attending my cousin’s wedding (although it also felt interesting, long and loud at times) it was time to return home to Aberdeen. We returned via the same route as on the outward journey with stopovers in Zurich and London although without the need for an overnight stay. Once again, I treated Mum to Business Class as far as London, something I’m sure she appreciated and which made the long journey a little more bearable, not to mention comfortable.

We very nearly didn’t get off the ground though as, although the airport is less than 10km from where we were staying at my grandmother’s apartment and although we left at 18:00 (3 hours before the scheduled departure time), we were caught up in Dar-es-Salaam’s escalating traffic nightmare and it was nearly 20:00 by the time we arrived and were cleared through the initial check at the airport entrance. This was despite our driver taking every shortcut known to man, including a detour through a street market with the associated weaving and winding through thankfully empty market stalls.

We were checked in and met by assistance and the requested wheelchair for me without incident and, after completing the departure paperwork, were guided through to the Tanzanite business class lounge. I had to walk the last bit as to reach the lounge you have to first go up to the first floor and then down a flight of stairs to the lounge, which wasn’t a problem for me, but I’m not sure if there is a level access entrance. The lounge was comfortable enough although Mum said the food looked a little unappetising, so we stuck to soft drinks and rejoiced in the luxury of being able to watch Euronews uninterrupted for the first time in a fortnight. It may seem trivial, but I really did feel disconnected from the rest of the world whilst over there, as world affairs didn’t seem to be high on the list of interests for most present. We were boarded a mere 8 minutes before departure and left the gate at 21:17. The configuration of the at-seat facilities changes for night flights. We were each given a blanket and a night kit consisting of eyeshades, earplugs, toothpaste, toothbrush and fresheners instead of the iPad case and stationary we had on our outward journey. Also, the mid-flight progress announcements and details of our flight path are withheld, presumably to avoid disturbing passenger’s sleep, although I personally would have enjoyed hearing them.

I chose beef with potatoes and vegetables from the selection of offerings for our multi-course meal with mousse for dessert. It doesn’t sound very fancy in print, but the presentation and overall quality was definitely better than what I’ve had in Economy before. Then, it was time to lie back in the 6ft bed with a talking book, although unsurprisingly I didn’t get very far before I was fast asleep. Then next thing I knew it was 04:30 and after a comfort break, time for breakfast. I chose a fruit smoothie, Danish pastry and fruit yoghurt, although again multiple choices were available. The breakfast selections are made at the same time as for dinner to avoid delay in the morning. Shortly after                       wards, we landed in Zurich at 06:20 to a light drizzle and half as warm as when we left Dar at 14.C.

Zurich airport is bigger than I thought. Given we had a nine hour stopover we decided to camp out in the Business Class lounge which meant first passing through a security check as the lounge is land-side, rather than air-side as in Dar or London. I guess the Swiss really do take pains over their security, as you also have to pass through security when leaving the lounge to proceed to your departure gate. The lounge was large and spacious, with lots of comfortable seats, tables and even sofas on which to relax. We shamelessly commandeered the latter and stretched out for some sleep. The lounge also features computer terminals, showers including disabled facilities and a wide selection of hot and cold snacks/meals and drinks. We both enjoyed some hot pasta with a tomato and herb sauce for lunch followed by the best cream cheese roll I’ve ever tasted – the photo I took is a testament to that. I used the time to catch up on some e-mails and to get in some light reading thanks to the free Wi-Fi available. To my pleasant surprise, it didn’t seem to have any port restrictions meaning that I was able to access my Gmail account from Microsoft Outlook without issue, something that wasn’t possible from TZ.

Our connecting flight left on time at 15:25 although it was a rush to get to the plane as the assistance was sent out at the last minute and boarding cards had to be checked manually thanks to a breakdown of the computer system. For the same reason, Swiss were unable to accept card payments for Duty-Free shopping on board the aircraft. Fortunately, we were able to find sufficient hard currency to buy a small chocolate reminder of our journey. My cousin scoffed all the Swiss chocolate we brought to Dar without permission, bully for her. It was a bit of a sting as we were given it as a little extra given that we wer the only passengers in Business on the way out. Oh well, maybe karma has a sense of humour and caused the diarrhoea she came down with shortly before we left!

After a nice pasta and beef salad and a compote on the way across the English Channel we arrived in London on time at 16:15 and after collecting our baggage and checking it in for the Virgin Atlantic flight to Aberdeen without issue I decided that we should spend the three hours before we moved on in the Serviceair lounge within Terminal 1. It cost £21 per person but as we are not frequent travellers, I figured it was worth the expense to round off an otherwise great journey. It also gave Mum the chance to start trawling through her e-mail, something she didn’t do whilst away. The flight north was uneventful and after another incident-free baggage reclaim at Aberdeen we were collected by Peter and arrived home by 22:30. It was a pleasantly tiring end to an otherwise memorable journey home and again, definitely worth the premium paid. The only thing to sour the day was finding that, thanks to the tail end of a hurricane that affected the UK the weekend prior to our return, a 12ft length of tree snapped off and caught the garden shed a glancing blow. Fortunately, damage was minor when checked in the light of day so we dodged a bullet with that one, and a couple of nails and a hammer should see that sorted.

The free shuttle bus picked us up on time and on arrival at the airport, we soon made our way to the Special Assistance point on the first floor after asking for directions in German. The assistance man collected us at 08:00 exactly and we were taken to the gate and then on to the plane after a small incident with the electric buggy that is sometimes used at the airport. A couple were travelling with two small children; however, the woman had broken her leg and wanted to ride in the buggy with us. She kept repeating that she had broken her leg but did not require a wheelchair, which the airport was happy to provide. She was trying to insist that she should be taken to her flight in the buggy, but the airport personnel explained that normally only wheelchairs are used and that our use of the buggy was as the result of a special exception. Eventually we moved forward leaving the family behind, so I'm not sure what became of them. We had to clear security again, as we arrived from outside the airport transit area; however, i somehow found the checks less intensive as those in London. Again, there were no questions regarding the electronic gadgets in my backpack.

As business class passengers, we were allowed to board the aircraft with little to no waiting time. The cabin crew were extremely helpful and i once again enjoyed talking to them in German. We were given hot towels with which to refresh ourselves and a bottle of mineral water. In flight, announcements were given in both English and German with a short Swahili recording in deference to the many East African native passengers on board. The announcements given by the crew sounded far more genuine and less scripted than those given by the Virgin Atlantic crew yesterday.

Having never been or even properly seen business class accommodation before, I was fascinated to see what was on offer. The seat pitch is significantly more than one gets in economy class, 60” compared to less than 33”. Instead of armrests, a semi-padded top allows for increased room on either side that allows one to keep personal items or use it as an extended table. The actual tray table is stored horizontally inside the pseudo-sideboard and folds out to cover the full width of the seat, approximately 4-5 inches wider than the standard economy class seat. Sufficient legroom is provided to allow even the tallest person to stretch out fully, and a shelf directly in front of the seat contains the around-ear headphones as well as allowing for additional storage for items that may be needed throughout the flight.

We had to wait for passengers to transfer from connecting flights and thus flight LX292 departed Zurich 25 minutes late. This time was made up later by a shortened stopover at Nairobi for refuelling and to take on extra passengers. Shortly after take-off, we were presented with a menu offering three selections each for a starter, main and dessert. The starter was served and I enjoyed the meat platter with cheese. After this, the main followed with beef, potatoes, vegetables and a side salad. Everything tasted delicious and was definitely of superior quality to any airline food I have tasted before. We also had our selection from a range of soft and hard drinks including champagne. Finally, we were offered Swiss chocolates included the name and logo of the airline embossed onto the front. Incidentally, whilst being spoilt by the cabin crew on the flight to Zurich yesterday, we were given a large supply of Swiss chocolate together with a bottle of champagne. Unfortunately it was confiscated by security this morning – no matter, we can get one on the way back.

After lunch, I decided to catch some sleep for a few hours and with a little help from Mum to read the labels on the buttons on the control pad located on the top beside my seat, I was able to lie flat on the fully extended bed. This was formed by the vertical front of the seat folding outwards, the back of the seat sliding forwards and the rest flattening out. Once fully extended my legs slid forward underneath the storage shelf but I still had enough room to comfortably move around. A second control panel is located to the right of where my head was when lying flat. The bed was comfortable and included a massage function with the ability to control the intensity. Everything was electrically controlled and was thus effortless to get to grips with and use as required. I tried out my Bose Quiet Comfort 20 noise cancelling headphones to see if they really would cut down the noise generated by the aircraft’s engines and I’m pleased to say they worked a treat. Other freebies offered on the flight were a toiletry bag that doubles as an iPad case and a soft, furry mascot, which unfortunately was destined for the family children. Hopefully I’ll get mine on the way back – everyone deserves to have a furry mascot of some kind!

I must have been more tired than I thought even with the good sleep I had the night before as I slept right through the afternoon (including the offering of ice cream, much to my disappointment) and woke up in the evening about an hour before we landed at Nairobi. The stopover was efficiently executed and we were back on our way after 25 minutes, thus allowing us to arrive in Dar-es-Salaam on time. Listening to one of the cabin crew talking to his junior apprentice, I learnt that he had been working for Swiss for 17 years and that his lifestyle had adapted to that to fit his job requirements. This includes getting little sleep, working 12-13 hour shifts and stopping over in a variety of places depending on which routes he was asked to serve. It sounded fun, but I could also hear from his voice that he was deadbeat.

We landed in Dar and arrived at the gate by 20:05. Someone was on hand to assist me with the requested wheelchair and i was taken to the arrivals hall via the lift. Mum was able to come with me by claiming she had hurt her leg, probably mostly true, as they have been giving her problems as of late. We had our passports checked but had to complete yet another landing card. The one given to us by the cabin crew on the plane was not valid, as we did not obtain a visa prior to arrival. Although the same details are requested, the landing cards for those who have and have not obtained a visa prior to arrival are different colours. Talk about extra bureaucracy. I then had my thumbprint taken before we collected our luggage. My suitcase was searched, as there were questions over the multi-plug extension cable I had packed for use with all my different gadget chargers. The security staff must not have seen one before, as they wanted to know its purpose. This was quickly resolved though and after approximately one hour, we finally made it outside where my uncle Hamza and aunt Nahid were there to meet us. We finally arrived home by 22:00 after an exciting and, thanks to my upgrade, not so tiring journey.




Our long-awaited departure to Dar-es-Salaam to attend my cousin's wedding finally arrived. Unlike in years gone by it was a last-minute rush to get everything packed and I'm even now wondering if I've forgotten anything crucial on the technology front. I should say here that I have mixed feelings about going to Tanzania this time. On the one hand it's great to see the family again, especially my grandmother who is 88. On the other hand, I don't really understand many of the Muslim wedding customs and with the infrastructure in Tanzania not conducive to easy mobility by people with sight loss, coupled with the frantic rush to get everything ready for the wedding, it doesn't do much for my ability to get about or even have much to entertain myself with those who understand my needs. Things will only get worse as more relatives, most of whom i don't know arrive as the date of the wedding draws near. I'm using it as an opportunity to find out more about what happens and hopefully as a learning experience with the opportunity to spread the word to others as a point of interest. Muslim weddings tend to be more drawn-out than western ones, although thankfully not as much as Hindu weddings which can go on for weeks.

Mum and I took a taxi to Aberdeen airport with our usual driver and thanks to my checking in with Virgin in advance online were able to proceed straight through security and on to the gate after first letting the airline know that we had arrived. Someone was soon send to wheel me through the airport (I usually ask for a wheelchair when travelling by air as this avoids the need for me to queue in the same spot for a long time, something that is painful for me due to my flat feet). Although we arrived in good time, we did experience some anxiety as the gate for our flight first opened, then closed without anyone showing up to guide me to the plane. Apparently, the company providing the assistance at Aberdeen Airport were short staffed and so someone from Virgin eventually came to assist.

The 11:55 flight to London Heathrow was uneventful and we were served with a soft drink, crisps and a small packet of love hearts. I just love the latter, although doubtless my teeth didn't appreciate it all that much. On arrival at Heathrow at 13:50 (we were delayed slightly due to heavy traffic at Aberdeen), we were met and guided to baggage reclaim. It took approximately 30 minutes for our bags to arrive after which we were escorted to the Swiss business check-in desk. I was unsure whether we would be allowed to check in our bags in advance of our flight, but as Swiss operate several flights to Zurich daily, this was done without issue. At this point, it’s worth explaining that although we knew we would be attending the wedding by March this year, we didn’t book the ticket until the beginning of June, by which time the price of the tickets had gone up. With all the hassle of the travel agent and trying to get a refund on the original Ethiopian Airlines ticket, coupled with the long flights I decided to surprise Mum with an upgrade to business class. I arranged this through the travel agent and given the service we received, it was definitely worth the money, although perhaps not something, I’d indulge in too often.

We had nearly 7 hours to kill and did so in the Star Alliance lounge. This is open to all business class passengers flying with Star Alliance airlines or to anyone else on payment of an entry fee. The lounge offered free food and drink including sandwiches, chicken wings, breaded crab cakes and more. The selection was more than I expected given the description of the lounge’s services on the website. I was able to get some e-mails sent before moving on to the technological ‘dead zone’ that is Tanzania. The staff were great, and we enjoyed a good laugh at one passenger who seemed to have made it his mission to cram as many freebies into his bag as possible. Watching him carrying up to six cans of drink and bags of crisps at once and repeating this every 20 minutes was quite a sight. I just hope he didn’t have any onward connecting flights; otherwise, he was liable to have the lot confiscated at security.

Swiss flight LX339 to Zurich departed at 20:05 although we were again delayed by 20 minutes due to heavy traffic. Our first taste of business class was a good one, as we were the only passengers in that section of the plane and thus doted on well by the cabin crew. Given my passable German skills, I enjoyed talking with the crew and I think they were pleasantly surprised and impressed as well. The service started with the offer of a bottle of water and a newspaper from a selection in different languages. Business class on the Airbus A320 offers slightly increased legroom although the main benefit is better catering. We were given a platter with a selection of cold meats, cheese and a fruit jelly compote. The flight was smooth and we arrived in Zurich at 22:45 with assistance ready to meet us. However, here’s where everything almost ended in disaster.

As Switzerland is outside the EU, it is necessary to pass through passport control. The walk to the control station was quite long, and on arrival we realised that we didn’t have our passports. Mum was adamant that I had lost them, whereas I was equally confident that I had not had them in my possession since giving them to the gate personnel in London when boarding the previous flight. We eventually thought that they might have been left on the plane in the seat pockets in front of our seats. The poor assistance man had to run back to the plane, find the passports (which were fortunately where we thought they might be) and run back. The immigration police were ready to send us straight back to London, and even went so far as to send someone to watch after Mum when she asked to visit the toilet. With much relief, we cleared passport control at 23:20 and were just in time to catch the free shuttle bus to the hotel Allegra, accommodation at which I had booked myself as an alternative to waiting for 11 hours on a lonely bench at the airport.

The hotel was a 5-7 minute bus ride from the airport and on arrival we were quickly checked in. our connecting flight was scheduled for 09:25 and the assistance man had suggested that we arrive at the airport no later than 08:00. Unfortunately my preferred shuttle service was full and so we were booked onto the 07:15 pickup from the hotel. Our room itself was a twin room with sofa bed, and apart from a foot-controlled pedestal fan with an over-sensitive timer and a walk-in shower, was pretty standard. I had a good night’s sleep followed by a 05:50 wake-up and continental breakfast, although we were also allowed to partake of anything from the cooked menu. I particularly enjoyed the bowl of yoghurt with blueberries and other fruit.

Continued in part 2.

25th-Jul-2014 12:47 am - RNIB UK Members Forum and AGM 2014

On Wednesday 23 and Thursday 24 July, I attended the RNIB UK Member forum held once again at the Aston Business School in Birmingham. The forum is a chance for RNIB Member Representatives from around the UK to come together to discuss issues related to working with members, get news updates on the latest developments within RNIB and to network with each other. My fellow rep Amanda and I departed from Aberdeen at 08:50 via Flybe arriving at Birmingham at 10:20. The flight was uneventful and standard for what one expects from no-frills airlines. I would have preferred to catch the sleeper train overnight and arrive at the venue refreshed rather than have the 06:30 start I did this time, however Amanda had expressed a wish to travel with me beforehand and as the cost of trains was higher than RNIB were willing to pay, my hands were tied. As it was, we managed without problems and travelled to Aston from the airport by taxi that had been pre-booked for us.

On arrival and after checking in, I spent some time catching up with other reps before lunch. I think I had a quiche of some kind although I can’t really remember.

The main proceedings started at 13:15 with a short address by the Chairman, Kevin Carey. We then split into workshops discussing the best ways to engage with members and later on ways to improve member involvement with RNIB. I think this comes with the backdrop of the change of leadership within the RNIB Member ship Team. Jo Stapleton is moving to her former post full time heading up Talk & Support and a new person has been recruited to fill the post of head of Membership, due to start later this year. The overall head of membership is now also shared with RNIB Campaigns, in a bid to bring greater involvement and synergies between the two departments. My contributions included that we should tailor the content of member forums to fit the interests of members and that in particular we should try to ensure that perspective members see how they can bring their own skills to the organisation in addition to what RNIB can do for them. I also mentioned the point raised before that Scottish members should receive information relevant to Scotland, particularly with respect to campaigns. Although we have a Campaigns Officer in Scotland, his remit includes multiple roles in addition to his extra-curricular work as an elected councillor.

We finally finished at 17:15. A work shop on how to improve listening skills was arranged for immediately after the main meeting however I did not feel I would gain significantly from attending this and thus chose to head to my room for a couple of hours sleep. I very nearly overslept and arrived downstairs for dinner just in time. The menu was one of those that was impossible to understand yet tasted good: A starter of Rillettes of Scottish salmon, dill and smoked salmon, salted cucumber and shallot salad, sourdough croutes, main of Roast supreme of chicken filled with watercress and spinach and ricotta mousseline, wilted greens and leeks, carrots and crushed new potatoes with black pepper, shallot gravy and Dark chocolate truffle, raspberry compote and vanilla crème fraiche for dessert. Affterwards I hung around for a little talking to other members before heading to sleep by 22:00.

I had a light breakfast on Thursday morning before attending a voluntary networking session. We split into small groups and discussed more ways in which to improve the member experience at forums. I maintained that we have a problem in Scotland with not having the same autonomy to host forums ourselves due to the role and position of the country Chair. In England, each region has a Chair that is elected by the members. The Chair has a minor role in hosting the forum, thus allowing the member representatives to engage better with members from a position of leadership. The Chair is normally only consulted on matters of governance that is beyond the remit of the member reps. In Scotland, as we are a country rather than a region, the Chair, also elected by the members, hosts the member forum. We have had difficulty in the past trying to change this however despite trying to raise this issue and have changes implemented over the last two years we have unfortunately got nowhere. This includes trying to arrange a meeting with the Chair and membership personnel to attain a compromise. I actually put this to the Director of Inclusive Society over breakfast and was told that we should simply discuss with the Chair directly without involving Membership, however this has proved impossible thus far. i was a little disappointed that the director did not see fit to offer any help to allow us to operate in as similar a way as possible to those member reps in England and Wales. Part of the problem with getting anything resolved appears to be the hard-coded role of the country chairs that requires management and board approval to change. All this takes time, although sometimes I can’t help but feel that time is moving artificially slow.

The main part of the day started with the RNIB AGM. I confess most of this flew past me as I’ve heard it before at Programme Boards or as part of briefs for member forums. I did however manage to ruffle at least a few feathers when I asked a question about what the organisations plans are depending on which way the referendum vote in Scotland goes. Although the effect of the vote will not be felt until at least Two years away, there are understandable concerns about whether members will continue to have access to products and services they currently enjoy. Having asked this question to management personnel before, I have been told that this is something that RNIB are looking into, but I’ve also been told that they will consider actions after the vote. I put this question to the CEO and was told that everything we have been told so far is the truth, but she stopped short of giving any additional information. I got the impression she didn’t want to answer the question, but at least by asking it I have hopefully managed to have it placed on record. It seems inconceivable to me that the organisation have not considered this at all, as to my mind no business or charity can operate with a ‘wait and see’ mentality or in a purely and completely reactive way.

An at-seat lunch was provided which included some excellent salmon bagels, which I simply couldn’t resist. After this, we had a presentation on the future of the Talking Book Service from the new head of RNIB Solutions, which included the announcement that new options to received talking books via either USB pen drives or internet download will be made available to members from later this year. These are developments that have been a long time in coming and which have been made available via other paid subscription services already, at least in the case of the latter.

Given the departure time for our return flight to Aberdeen, Amanda and I left the meeting early to travel to Birmingham airport by taxi. Having taken the number of the company, which delivers assistance at the airport the day before, I phoned them to let them know we were on the way and again on arrival. However, as the taxi driver tried to be helpful and moved us to a different area to wait, we had a 20-minute delay before someone finally turned up. We were guided through check-in and security without issue and I enjoyed listening to the departure announcements in different languages whilst waiting for our flight to be called. Birmingham must use the same automatic announcement system, as at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, as the voices for the foreign language translations were the same.

Owing to an operational issue with Flybe, Cello Aviation flew us back to Aberdeen on an Avro R85 aircraft. I swear this plane was never designed to fly as after take-off the wings looked to me like a diamond shape with a hole through it. It was very strange and the whine of the jet engines when heard from the front of the passenger cabin was amazing. We found however that the on-board food and drinks for purchase were cheaper than those supplied by Flybe were. We arrived in Aberdeen at 20:05 and after once again being picked up by my regular driver was home 30 minutes later. I felt the meeting went well and it was good to catch up with other reps I haven’t seen since March, and whereas it was good to get updates from RNIB and the workshops were productive, I can’t help feeling disappointed that important questions weren’t adequately answered. In addition, I was hoping to hear some information on the successor to the Programme Boards, which were disbanded at the end of the last strategy period in March, but no mention was made of this even when I confirmed that the topic would not be raised during our absence towards the end of the meeting. Perhaps this is something that will filter through in time and it’s just a question of ‘watch this space’.

After a very cold and painful winter (at least as far as my hands were concerned), I contacted Aberdeenshire Council in April to ask if I could receive my next book of TaxiCard vouchers early whilst keeping the issue date for the following book the same as usual. I would have been the only person disadvantaged by this, as it would have meant managing the same number of vouchers over an extended period, something that I was happy to do. The council would not have endured any additional hardship as a result but nevertheless were unwilling to assist. I felt this was unreasonable and asked my MSP if she could intervene on my behalf. She wrote a letter to the council asking for an explanation and received a response that the council were unable to make any changes to the TaxiCard scheme due to the additional financial costs this would involve. I then responded that this explanation was baseless as I was not asking for any additional vouchers but rather that I use the same number of vouchers over an extended period, something that does not equate to additional cost.

My MSP, Maureen Watt, wrote to me this week including the council's latest response. As you will see, they now claim that the additional costs they referred to previously would be incurred by way of every TaxiCard user using their full quota of vouchers every year if they were offered more flexibility as I suggested should be the case. With the utmost respect, such a justification is stupid and is, in my opinion, a very flimsy ‘get out’ answer to try and prevent the matter proceeding further. I will explain why in a moment.

Read their full response hereCollapse )

Firstly, note the error in the second paragraph. The council claiming that every user would use their full quota of vouchers every year implies that this does not happen at the moment, which may be true but is nevertheless irrelevant. Regardless of your views on how capable the government is at future planning, it should nevertheless (one hopes) be one of the basic principles followed at the planning phase of any project or service development. In order to determine the likely resource usage and the net number of expected users (determined by taking the average from previous product or service implementations or from similar offerings if this is the first instance, or from a matrix of national or international statistics applied to the target audience size and other criteria if both the former are unavailable), both an average and a worst-case scenario need to be taken into account with sufficient standby resources available in the event of the latter to avoid a sudden collapse of the product or service especially where this relates to public infrastructure. In the case of the TaxiCard service, this means that the council should have taken into account the possibility of users using their full quota of vouchers every year when determining the amount of subsidy offered considering that the service would likely have been projected to run for the short to medium term. To say that they do not wish to make changes to the service in case the full quota of vouchers are used by every TaxiCard user (something which is unlikely given that some, particularly elderly users, may not have the opportunity to get out and about independently very often especially given the unpredictable weather here) is thus irresponsible and indicates poor planning at the outset.

To illustrate their point, the Council also included a table (I can’t paste it here as the formatting is destroyed, but can e-mail if to anyone that wants) showing the impact of my proposed changes on potential voucher usage. At present, they show users using a maximum of 52 vouchers every three months. In their ‘what if’ scenario they showed users using 26 vouchers in the first and last three months of the year and 78 vouchers per three months in the intervening period. They claimed that the increase in the summer was due to disabled people taking advantage of the better weather. I respectfully assert that this does not hold true for many people with sight loss (I cannot comment on other disabilities), who are more likely to need a taxi in the winter due to the darker lighting conditions and poor weather affecting visibility. It could be argued that in summer, people may want to be outside more often and visit new places, but in this case, I would respectfully submit that the Council still cannot disregard the likelihood of increased taxi use in winter. In either case, the scenario is flawed.

I will shortly write back to Ms. Watt putting these points to her and asking her advice as to how she feels we should proceed. She already indicated that she felt my request for flexibility was a reasonable one and that she was unsatisfied with the council's previous response. On the one hand, part of me is worried that this may cause the TaxiCard service to be reviewed earlier than would otherwise be the case and possibly result in its withdrawal (even though such an action directly as a result of my query would, in my opinion, be highly questionable), something which would be detrimental to me as someone who tries to be as active as possible where health circumstances permit, but part of me also wants to push this issue precisely to get that independence which is currently denied to me if I use up my allocated quota of vouchers to quickly in any given season due to circumstances beyond my control. Watch this space to see how this develops.
You may recall that on 02 July I wrote a letter of complaint to Stagecoach Bluebird regarding the extremely poor quality of service I received on a bus journey in May 2014 whereby the driver failed to tell me when we reached my stop and subsequently dropped me off at an unknown location without providing any guidance as to how I could return to my desired drop-off point in order to reach my intended destination.

I received a reply from the Operations Manager at the Aberdeen office today, which was disappointing to say the least. The letter stated that the manager would speak to the driver concerned to find out what went wrong and to ensure that this would never happen again. He stated that disability training is provided to new drivers as well as to existing drivers once a year and that all drivers are required to hold a Certificate of Professional Competence before taking to the road. Finally he stated that due to the delay in receiving my complaint the CCTV footage of the event had been overwritten and thus as he was unable to fully investigate the matter he was unwilling to provide any compensation.

Read their full response hereCollapse )

My main grievances not that he is unwilling to compensate me an amount but rather that he has completely failed to grasp the principles behind it. He should have spoken to the driver before writing to me in order that he could put his response to me as a direct argument to my account of events in my complaint. He demonstrates a serious lack of understanding of the consequences of the event and the impact of that on me as a disabled customer. My letter ran into four pages and included specific points where the driver failed in his responsibility to me as a customer as well as detailed explanations as to why those failures are so critical. I detailed my disability and how my experience impacted on my confidence using bus services to travel to unknown locations or at times, where poor lighting or weather conditions are prevalent in the future. None of this was accepted or understood in the response I received and in my opinion, this demonstrates that he has not understood as to how the company has failed me as a customer. Finally, there is no mention of how the feedback I have provided will be used in any way to improve the quality of services delivered in the future.

Being completely dissatisfied with the letter I received, I intend to submit a response strongly requesting a better submission from the company before I escalate the complaint of regional or even national level. Whereas this may seem extreme to some, had the manager recognised the failure, except of my points, stated what he was going to do about it and perhaps offered some gesture of goodwill if not complete compensation, I would not feel this to be necessary. As it stands, the letter does not offer anything upon which expectations of better service in the future can be based and thus is worth little if anything at all. Watch this space to see how this develops.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) recently sent out letters to those in receipt of Tax Credits advising them to complete their annual review and declaration before 31 July 2014 in order to continue receiving payments. In the past, this has always been an annoying process involving forms which are difficult to read with boxes so faint you can hardly see to fill them in. Granted, there has been the option of completing the forms by phone, but I see this as taking away my independence to complete them in my own time when convenient to me.

I wanted to take this opportunity to let people know that there is now an option to complete the Tax Credits renewal online. You can access the website by typing 'renewed tax credits online' in Google or any other UK search engine. There are five pages in total with only a couple of questions per page and the whole process took me less than 8 min to complete with most of the time taken up with me walking back and forth between my CCTV and the computer. You will need to check and selecting which version of the form you have been through the number on the bottom left-hand corner of the front page of the declaration. You will also need to enter your unique renewal number which is the number printed on the bottom right of the same page. If you use a CCTV or other reading device, you should have no problems locating and reading these numbers as they are printed clearly. If you use OCR, the scanner or camera should also pick these up without a problem. The relevant places online where these numbers are required also provide detailed instructions on how to find the numbers and their format so there should be no confusion at all. I personally found the whole process to be painless and I welcome the considerably less eyestrain I suffered along with the accompanying headache as a result.

I would encourage anyone who is able to try the new method of filing your Tax Credits renewal. You do not have to fill in any personal information other than your National Insurance number or if your circumstances have changed. Note however that if your bank details have changed you can only complete the renewal by contacting HMRC by phone.

Ever since I started completing my self-assessment returns online I have wondered why more social welfare and tax related formalities were not completed electronically. It is great to see that steps are now being taken to improve this, not only because it improves efficiency and the potential for people to miss filing declarations on time but it also makes the process more accessible and gives people the chance to maximise their independence, always a good thing. Good one HMRC – now if only the DWP would follow suit!




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