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Friday, 3 December 2021

Fighting for rights in a post-Covid era

Firstly, for me, the jury is definitely still out as to whether we are post-Covid. It hasn't gone away. Sure, we have to learn to live with it but that's easy to say for someone like me, who is healthy and particularly has a strong immune system. I have family, friends and general contacts though who are clinically extremely vulnerable... who have been vaccinated but still have no immunity... who are afraid. I can't even imagine what post-Covid means to them.

International day of people with disabilities

IDPWD logo with the full text: international day of people with disabilities.

Today is International Day for People With Disabilities. (I'm sure we could shorten that a little!)

The company I currently work for, SSCL, and its parent company, Sopra Steria, have both been working really hard this year to improve online accessibility. Now that more people are working from home, it has become even more important, as people can't just ask a colleague at the next desk when they get stuck. 

On Wednesday, we held a Lunch and Learn event, in preparation for today. The aim was to show people a few simple things they can do in their daily communications to make content more accessible for all. It covered a range of impairments and the barriers that prevent people with them from accessing content, and we showed how to remove some of those barriers. At the end, we asked everyone to pledge to take action from today and either start or stop doing something. The response was amazing! So many people pledged to add alt text to images... to check the reading order of their PowerPoints... to reduce jargon and speak in plain English. For me, the one I liked best though was: I pledge to start asking people for feedback on the accessibility of my content. This came from an idea related to lorries having a sticker on the back saying, how is my driving? What a fab idea!

A few reminders

So, with no further ado, here are my top five tips for making your normal, daily content accessible:
  • Provide alt text for all images - usually, right-click and then add a description of your image. On social media, this is usually done through an EDIT button when you upload your image.
  • Check colour contrast is sufficient - ideally, start using a free tool such as the WebAIM contrast checker.
  • Give your hyperlinks meaningful text - the text on the page should tell the user what they are going to see. The URL (web address) should be hidden in the background.
  • Check the reading order - this is especially important with things like PowerPoint, where you create content in a random order and then rearrange it on the page. A screenreader doesn't know how it should be read unless you check the reading order. This is often in the Review menu under Check Accessibility.
  • Structure your content correctly - use headings and subheadings so that your content is easy to follow and understand. Don't just change the size and style of the font. Change it in the Styles section of your software.

If you don't know how to do any of the above and want some help, please let me know. I have videos to show how some of these work in practice, but I'm happy to make more and look at different applications if it helps.

Sunday, 14 November 2021

What makes a place accessible?

I rang a pub yesterday to find out whether they are accessible or not. As I asked the question, it occurred to me that it was a somewhat vague question to ask. I mean, what makes a place accessible or inaccessible for me might be different than for other people, even with similar conditions. So here are some thoughts on accessibility of places.

Getting in

For a wheelchair user, getting into the venue is usually the first hurdle. Steps make this pretty much impossible, so some kind of ramp is usually used to give buildings level entry. Ramps vary though. There are the kind of ramps that have actually become part of the fabric of the building... concrete, sensible and compliant slope (1 in 12 or less) and that generally bring you into the main entrance of the building. There are other permanent ramps that are installed somewhere to enable wheelchair users to get in, though maybe not at the same entrance as everyone else. Then there are the temporary/portable ramps, which may or may not have a usable gradient. I've been presented with some that are at a 45o angle and downright impossible to use.

I believe that the vast majority of venues, if they really wanted to, could provide some form of level entry. Many blame listed building status for not providing it but I've been to many historic houses, old buildings and so on, that have managed to adapt their entrance area and allow wheelchair users to get in. 

To be fair though, I have also been to some places, like the church where my son recently got married, where I fail to see how they could provide safe level entry to the grounds. This is usually due to being built into a very steep hill and not having enough space. I have more sympathy when this is the case, rather than just blaming listed building status and the local council.

Of course, there is one option I haven't mentioned... and that is the alternative entrance. This can work well but not if it takes you, e.g. through the bins in a rear yard, then through a busy kitchen with people running around with knives and hot pans, to get you into the restaurant.

Getting into a building shouldn't be stressful, scary, make you feel like an inconvenience or reliant on another person for assistance. 

Getting around

Many people assume that if you can get into the building, that's the job done. Not so! Moving around is also important. This means that the doorways can't be narrower than my wheelchair. I have to physically fit through. It also means not having to negotiate steps once inside. 

Of course, there are ways of making a multilevel building accessible. Lifts are the obvious... either a normal lift or one of those platform lifts that gets you there eventually. Stairlifts are an option too but often don't work for people who use heavy electric wheelchairs or scooters. We were at Castle Howard yesterday and they have a platform stairlift. You wheel on and then it takes you up the stair case just like a normal stairlift. It was painfully slow but it did the job and was probably cheaper and easier to install than a lift (in a listed building). 

Photo of a large staircase in a country house. It is decorated for Christmas. Along the left side of the stairs, is a platform stairlift, carrying a wheelchair user up the stairs.

Once we've dealt with physical barriers such as doors and stairs, other things that make moving around difficult include: 

  • Layout - are tables and chairs blocking the walkways so that you have to keep asking people to move to allow you through? Are the aisles too narrow? Do they have items such as temporary promotions blocking them?
  • Flooring - thick pile carpet is really hard work to wheel on, rather like wading through knee-deep treacle! Uneven flooring and things like cables and hoses can also make it difficult. My dream is nice smooth tiles, though flat pile carpet is also nice.
  • Queuing systems - it used to just be the post office that used those zigzag queues but now they are everywhere. It stands to reason that the posts (including their bases) need to be far enough apart to allow a wheelchair to pass between them. 

Accessible toilets

This is the most important thing for me after getting into the building, and yet it is the thing nobody ever thinks about. I get that with some places. Why would you need to go to the toilet on a trip to the supermarket? Most people don't. I often do.

Pubs and restaurants though? Come on!!! Most people, when inputting liquid at the top will eventually have to empty it out at the bottom. Me more than most, it seems. 

An accessible toilet is essential, but what do I need? I preferably need to be able to go in with my wheelchair. I can walk enough to go in without it but I worry about my chair or my bag or phone being stolen. I can't walk and carry, so I have to leave everything outside. 

Rails are extremely important. At a push, I can fall onto the toilet without them but I can't get back up. If there are no grab rails, I have to use something else to pull myself up... something that wasn't intended for that purpose. I don't want to break stuff - your fittings or my body. 

A lowish mirror and clean shelf is also handy for when I need to self-catheterise. This is nearly always forgotten. Another thing that is forgotten, is that incontinence pads can be huge - way bigger than sanitary towels, more like nappies - so a bin to dispose of them is useful. It is handy, given that some disabled people can't use their feet at all, if the bin isn't foot pedal only. It also helps if it can be reached from the toilet. The opposite side of the room presents some difficulties.

No dogs allowed/dog friendly

My heart sort of sinks a little when I see either of these signs on a door. Let me explain why.

Many indoor venues have a sign that bans all dogs. The sensible ones then say underneath, "except assistance dogs". There are very few places that have a legal right to ban assistance dogs. Even those that do have that legal right, often choose not to exercise it. Basically the only reason for banning assistance dogs is if you have ground nesting birds that could be harmed by the presence of a dog. 

I love birds! They have birds at Potteric Carr in Doncaster. I've been there years ago, in the bird hides, watching the birds in their natural environment. It was amazing! They could legitimately ban all dogs. However, they choose to allow assistance dogs. I, however, choose not to take Liggy there. I'm pretty sure she would be fine but she hasn't had much practice with bird work and I'm conscious that she's a labrador retriever and something deep inside her might make her inclined to pull towards birds. I don't need to go to such a place to live a normal independent life. I'm happy to do other things and leave the birdies in peace. 

I'm beginning to lose count of the number of places that ask us on arrival whether we intend to view the house/museum/shop/etc separately because dogs aren't allowed. I usually start by stating that she's an assistance dog but even then, it's amazing how many staff members don't know the law or their own policies. Even yesterday, the ticket lady had to go and check with a manager, having told us she very much doubted that assistance dogs were allowed into the house. She came back quite pleased that she would now know the answer... but no apology for the stress, embarrassment or confusion caused. And that was in spite of it being very clear on their own website that no dogs were allowed in the house, except assistance dogs.

Some people still use the sign that says... except guide dogs. I generally assume that covers all assistance dogs but I find the sign a little irritating. It adds to the general misconception that all assistance dogs are with blind people.

You would expect me to prefer places that are "Dog Friendly", I guess. Well, it depends what it is. If it's an outdoor attraction, gardens, park, informal cafe, etc, then yes, dog friendly is usually great. When it comes to restaurants, pubs, other places where I'm going to expect Liggy to lie quietly, be on best behaviour and transfer situational rules across, then I prefer to be seated away from pet dogs. 

It's not that I don't like dogs. Far from it! I love dogs! However, Liggy gets to go into places that don't want dogs and that comes with expectations on her behaviour. So, for example, when we sit down to eat a meal, she always (and mean always) has to lie quietly on her bed and stay still. She does this really well and I am frequently complimented on her behaviour in restaurants because her training is very clear. If I then have to sit near someone else with another dog, that might be playful, aggressive, just have different food rules, etc, then Liggy might be tempted to relax her excellent meal time behaviour. That would be fine in that dog friendly place but she doesn't know that different places have different rules, even for the same situation. So it is just easier if we can be separate for those activities.

Also, dog friendly places often have a dog friendly area and a dog-free area. Many are good and let us sit in the dog-free area, which helps me a lot, but some don't understand why I want to sit away from other dogs. They don't understand that Liggy isn't a pet. Sure, she has times to be a normal dog and she is very well behaved around other dogs but she is different. She is a working dog and carries extra responsibilities and expectations.

Euan's Guide

So having talked a little about what accessibility means for me, I want to recommend a review site. Euan's Guide is kind of like Trip Advisor for disabled people. It is full of reviews of different places, all done by or on behalf of disabled people. I've been reviewing for them for a while now and I use it a lot to plan visits and days out. 

One of the things I really like about it, is that each review tells you about the reviewer and their disability. So I often look for information given by other wheelchair users and people with assistance dogs. 

If you have a disability, please consider reviewing places. The more people write reviews, the better it becomes. All reviews get moderated before publishing, so you don't have to worry about whether it was okay to write this or that. Just say what you found and how you managed, be honest and know that others will find it useful.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Soft rye bread rolls

I visited my Godmother yesterday and she treated me to some banana muffins, which she had baked using the recipe I'd put on here a couple of years ago. So that encouraged me that people do actually read this and some people even find odd bits of it useful. Also, I have to say, the muffins were delicious!

So today, whilst Neil is at his mum's house, painting doors, I'm having a baking and cleaning day... with a fair bit of relaxing in between. I'm starting with bread. I just love home-baked bread and my favourites are these rye bread rolls. They are soft and are great for packed lunches, bacon sandwiches, as a dipper for soup... you name it... perfect!

This recipe makes 12 decent sized rolls.

Ingredients

400g strong white flour
350g dark rye flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp caster sugar
2 tsp easy blend yeast
6 tbsp rapeseed oil
450ml warm water

Equipment

  • In an ideal world, a Neff oven with retractable door, a proving setting and a large baking tray that works like an oven shelf. If you haven't got this, you're gonna have to improvise a bit, and use what you've got.
  • Greaseproof paper, cut or neatly torn to the size of your baking tray.
  • Stand mixer with dough hook.
  • A cloth napkin.
  • The plastic lid from your last takeaway (washed... obviously) and coated quite liberally with oil.

Method

  1. Turn the oven onto the proving setting (40oC).

    Photo of oven setting showing dough proving at 40 degrees C.

  2. Sieve the flour into the mixer bowl. Hold the sieve as high as you can to get lots of air in but if you've got a tremor (like me) it more important to get the flour in the bowl and lose a bit of air.
  3. Add the salt, sugar and yeast and mix all the dry ingredients together well.

    Bowl of the dry ingredients that have been mixed well.

  4. Make a well in the middle and add the oil.

    Bowl of dry ingredients with oil in the well in the middle.

  5. Add the warm water.

    Bowl of ingredients with the water added. It looks like someone has weed in it because of the oil.

  6. Put the bowl on the stand and mix on a slow setting first, before turning up to whatever your max dough hook setting is. I start on 1 and increase to 4. Let the mixer do its work for about 5 minutes.

    The bowl of ingredients sitting on the stand with a dough hook in them.

  7. Meanwhile, find another biggish bowl, preferable something ovenproof but the oven isn't going to be that hot, so don't stress if you've only got plastic. Pour a tiny bit of oil in and use your hands to rub it all around the bowl.

    Empty earthenware bowl with a drop of oil in the bottom.

  8. When the dough has all come together and is a little bit sticky but looks like dough, transfer it into the oiled bowl.

    Large portion of dough in the earthenware bowl.

  9. Cover the bowl with the napkin (I used to use a tea towel but it overhangs the bowl too much and touches the sides of the oven) and put the bowl on a low shelf to prove. It should take about 45 mins to double in size. If you are letting it prove in a warm room, it will take a fair bit longer. Wait until it has doubled in size and smells immense!

    Napkin covered bowl in the oven.
    Before


    Same bowl with the napkin pulled back to reveal that the dough has doubled in size.
    After

  10. Pour a bit of oil on your work surface and rub it around with your hand. 
  11. Transfer the dough onto the work surface and punch it back.

    Risen dough on an oiled work surface.

  12. Break or cut off 105g portions. Weigh them on the takeaway lid on your scales so that all the rolls end up the right size and will fit on your tray.

    A ripped off piece of dough on a plastic lid on the scales, weighing 105g.

  13. Knead the 105g portion a little and then roll it in your hands to form a nice roll shape. 
  14. Put the rolls on the lined baking tray in a 4 x 3 layout. They will rise again and touch each other but this is fine... commendable even.

    Twelve equally sized rolls laid out on a baking tray. There are good sized gaps between them.

  15. Put the tray in the oven to prove for about 30 minutes. The rolls should be a good size now.

    The same twelve rolls but well risen so they are now touching each other.

  16. Take the tray out of the oven and preheat the oven to 180oC fan.
  17. Lightly dust the rolls with flour.

    The same twelve rolls but now they have a sprinkling of white flour over them.

  18. Bake the rolls for about 25 minutes. They should be nicely browning when they are done and should look like edible bread rolls. You can pull one off and turn it over to check if they are done. When you tap the bottom with your finger, it should sound hollow. Or, if you trust your oven and the recipe, you don't need to check.
  19. Leave the rolls on the tray to cool, covered with the aforementioned napkin. I usually put the tray on a wooden board so that it doesn't burn anything.
  20. When they are still warm but have cooled a bit, pull them apart and eat them all.
Tray of twleve freshly baked rolls.

Close up of four rolls, showing a beautifully textured surface.

Close up of nine rolls, showing the warm brown glow and floury surface.

If you decide you can't eat them all at once (recommended actually) put the ones you don't want in freezer bags and suck the air out before tying a knot in the bag. These can be frozen and defrosted when you want them. 

The warm rolls are delicious, cut in half, buttered and lathered with honey. I also like them filled with mashed banana, or cheese and marmite, or bacon and mushrooms. Neil likes them with corned beef and cucumber.

Why don't you make a batch and let me know your favourite filling. 

Monday, 27 September 2021

The social model of disability

I may have mentioned this before. The social model states that a person isn't disabled by their medical condition, their body, their impairment or any difference in the way they have to do things. They are disabled by the barriers, attitudes, lack of adjustments, etc in society.

Waleswood

At the end of August, Liggy and I set out on our own and spent a few nights camping in the motorhome at Waleswood, near Rother Valley Country Park. Although I was initially nervous about the whole camping alone idea, it was something I wanted to be able to do and felt it should be possible. I chose Waleswood because it had awesome reviews, especially from disabled people. 

Everything about the site had been thought about from an accessibility perspective. I could even empty the toilet myself... something I can rarely contemplate. 

So I got settled, forgot I'm supposed to be disabled and just got on with life... using my wheelchair/mountain trike and with Liggy at my side... but not disabled. I could do everything I needed or wanted to do. 

Nice!

Teversal

Yesterday, we got back from a weekend camping in Teversal. It was a club site, so I expected it to be accessible. The woods and nature reserve opposite looked to be completely accessible. I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend... and then decided I'd like to stay on for a few days to work on a project that required concentration and no distractions.

I arrived there on Friday to find the entire site is pebble. I couldn't use my wheelchair at all. The front wheels just sank into the pebbles and even wheelying didn't really work. So I switched to my mountain trike. That got me around the site but I can't do precise manoevres in it. I have to disconnect the gears to go backwards. It's wider. It's designed for the open world, not shops, doorways, toilets etc.

I needed Neil to help with everything. 

Never mind, the woods and nature reserve were calling. I couldn't get in though. They must have problems with motorbikes or something, as all the entrances had barriers. They might as well have put up a huge sign saying "No crips allowed!" I felt excluded. People like me should just stay at home, out of sight and suffer quietly, so nobody else has to deal with us.

We managed to have a pleasant enough weekend and with Neil's help, eventually got in for a nice walk... but I was disabled... very disabled all weekend.

So what?

Design is rarely acciental. I'm a designer. Every aspect of design is a choice. We look at the problem and create a solution, deciding what is important and what doesn't matter. It's the same with everything.

Campsites are designed. A lot of time and money goes into layout, pitches, electrics, toilets, access for towing/long vehicles. 

Why would somebody decide to make all the roads and paths of pebbles? Okay, so pebbles are terrible for me, but I also noticed:

  • They are noisy - every person that walked or cycled or drove past could be heard. At night, it was loud enough to wake me.
  • They get kicked up by tyres and can damage vehicles.
  • They are difficult to walk on, even for non-disabled people. 
  • They hurt when a child falls over.

There are so many reasons why pebbles are not the ideal surface and yet someone made that decision. 

I wasn't the only disabled person there. I spoke to several others who were finding it difficult. I spoke to others who found accessing the woods difficult or impossible. I got the signs in my head again...

Wheelchair users only welcome with carer!

It feels like it's okay to send that message out because it's just the norm. The Waleswoods of this world are the exception, rather than the rule. Nobody is standing up, protesting, declaring the injustice of it all. It will happen. I know it will happen because once there were signs prohibiting black people, gay people, breastfeeding mums... anyone who isn't the majority. And they fought for justice. They demanded equality. One day, equality won't need to be demanded. We'll realise one day that it is the only way for society to be okay. Equality, on all levels, should be the norm.

Until then, I believe in the social model. It's not my impairment that disables me. It's the barriers and attitudes and difficulties that stop me because my way of living is different from yours.

Monday, 2 August 2021

Baking for people with allergies

My mum had a birthday this week, so yesterday, we had a family barbeque to celebrate. On the back of a pretty successful barbeque on a recent camping trip, we did the all-inclusive idea again. So we have a number of allergies in the family and the idea was, as far as possible, to make all food safe for all of us. 

But that can be quite tricky! Rewind to Saturday and the great bake-off!

The Allergies

Gluten

My dad is allergic to gluten but there are other family members who are coeliac and can't tolerate even small amounts of the stuff. The trouble is, gluten is in a lot of nice food! One of my dad's moans is that he often can't get what he fancies to eat in gluten-free and when he can, it's just not as nice.

Photo of the gluten-free recipe book - link below
I got a fantastic mother's day gift this year! My son and future daughter-in-law (who can't eat gluten) bought me this book:

How to make anything gluten free by Becky Excell

The author is gluten-intolerant and has spent her life creating recipes that are as near to the gluten equivalent as possible. From bread to cake to take aways, this book is full of fabulous recipes. So today, I'm baking two batches of bread rolls, one that I've made before and one that is a new recipe. I'm also baking a lemon drizzle cake. 


Lactose/dairy

Also dad but again, he's not alone in the family. In theory, dairy-free cooking shouldn't be too difficult. There are plenty of substitutes out there. When eating out though, the biggest issue is that most places do gluten-free and lactose-free but trying to find something on the menu that is both... well, that might leave you with just one option, which isn't really how a menu is supposed to work. 

For our family, the other problem with the dairy alternatives, is that most of them contain carotenes, and I'm allergic to them. So we basically have few options and some of them are so niche, they are difficult to get in small town supermarkets.

Soft butter: Vitalite 
Hard butter: Flora plant
Milk: Soya milk or coconut milk
Cream: Forget it! 
Double cream: Absolutely forget it!!!

Carotenes

My allergy frustrates me. I've known for many years that beta-carotene is the offender. I've never really been able to eat carrots and over the years, other foods have given me bad reactions and so we've gradually worked out that the common ingredient is beta-carotene... but basically, I now avoid all carotenes.

Having said that, until we moved to Finland, it was only a handful of veg and fruit that actually triggered an allergic response. So I couldn't eat carrot, suede, beetroot, mango, apricots... that kind of thing, but I could eat lots of other things. I don't really know what happened. Repeated exposure to carrot/suede on the 'special diets' bar at school didn't help but I suspect stress, age and some unknown factors have also played a part.

The upshot is that my allergy mutates from time to time, and things I could previously eat, I suddenly (often with dramatic effect) can't. A good example of this was kale. I'd eaten it without problems for years and then suddenly had it one day and burned up from head to toe and turned beetroot red... and now I can't eat it. It was the same with carotenes as an additive. So now, I can't eat anything that has even the smallest amount of carotenes as a colouring, e.g. margarine, most ice creams... in fact many processed goods.

The main problem with this allergy, is identifying where it might be hiding. It isn't on the list of allergens, so it is rarely in bold. It is almost never in the allergy book at restaurants. You can give a list of foods to be aware of, but the list is very long and it could also be just added as 'natural flavourings and colourings'. It is E160 with/without letters after its name, vitamin A, carotenes, or sometimes something as innocuous as pumpkin seeds. 

I can tell people I'm allergic to it and they will promise to check everything but I live with it and get it wrong. I really don't expect others to manage it with much accuracy!

Nuts

My brother and a cousin are allergic to nuts. One is more serious than the other and has resulted in a couple of facial transitions into the Elephant Man. Fortunately, neither of them have completely stared death in the face yet, but this is an allergy that gets worse with each exposure, so it's important not to get it wrong!

The bake-off

Burger buns

Metal mixing dough with a very sticky and wet bread dough in the bottom.
Last time, I made Becky Excell's brioche-style burger buns and they were quite nice but Neil found them a bit heavy going. So this time, I'm having a crack at her floured bread rolls. I made the first batch this morning, before waking Neil, so that if they were no good, we still had time to revert to plan B.
Baking tray with eight bread rolls on it. It is covered with cling film and is just starting to rise.
Once baked, I cut one in half, smeared it with butter and strawberry jam, and we had half each for breakfast. It was really nice but the middle was a little cakey. I wonder though, whether they'll be better when cool. Anyway, they were nice enough to attempt a second batch. 
Six cooked bread rolls, brown and crispy on top and lightly floured.
The thing with gluten-free bread is that the dough has to be really sticky and wet. I find it quite tricky to handle, especially with having a tremor! I keep meaning to weigh my empty bowl, so that I can work out the total weight of dough and divide the buns evenly. Today, I went for 5 oz on the first batch but only got seven rolls... then 4 oz on the second batch but the eighth was still quite small. 




Lemon drizzle cake

A wooden chopping board with 8 half lemons on it.
We tried this last week for the first time and fell in love with it. It has got a really strong lemony flavour and smell. It takes me a while to prepare, as zesting and juicing four lemons takes time. 

The cake mix itself is quite a runny, batter-like mix but it cooks up really nicely. The lemon drizzle always feels like overkill. It drowns the cake in the tin but in the end, it all soaks up, giving an insensely lemony flavour. Lovely! 

Sticky toffee puddings

Well I was going to photograph these. They are very popular though and we had to intervene to stop my 13 year old niece from eating them all up! She surrounded them with spray cream and added a whole strawberry. 

I normally make a sticky toffee sauce to go on top but the recipe requires double cream and we can't find a dairy free alternative that doesn't also have carotenes in. Jolly poor show from the cream manufacturers! Never mind though, pouring cream is nice too and there are alternatives for that!