Campaign for access to public transport for everyone

A2BForAll Logo

A2BForAll have launched their campaign to get fair treatment for all on public transport, in particular to get more access to public transport for disabled people. It has launched with a big presence in newspapers and on TV fronted by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson and backed by Unity Law and the Disability Alliance.

Channel 4 News is doing a series of videos highlighting the problems that disabled people have in accessing public transport, starting with an excellent film last night, shown here.

You can read the story on the Channel 4 News website: How Paralympian Tanni had to crawl from train and No Go Britain: ‘Using public transport can be horrific’. Tanni’s story has also been covered by the Daily MailThe Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Unfortunately many of the comments left at the Daily Mail website show an astonishing lack of understanding or sympathy and show that there might be quite a long way to go to get full public support.

Tanni appeared on ITV Daybreak this morning, which you can also view here.

Other stuff

I have written several times here on this blog about my own clashes with public transport. The most recent blog post is Travelling in a wheelchair – or failing to. A related blog post that I wrote about getting hold of a wheelchair Legs, wheels and money. You might also be interested in my experience trying to get my powerchair into one taxi. (Spoiler: I couldn’t.) My Taxi Adventure.

How can you help?

First – sign the petition: Fight discrimination against disabled passengers on UK public transport and fill in the A2BForAll disability survey.

Please find A2BForAll on Facebook and Twitter and like / follow them. If you have experiences of your own to add to the others then please let them know through those social networks. Channel 4 News have their own Facebook page, No Go Britain where you can send your stories to them too.

Another group called Transport For All campaigns for access to public transport within London, and you can also find them on twitter @transportforall.

Please look out for the campaign on the TV and elsewhere, and share any articles you find with others through email, social media or word of mouth. Keep an eye on this blog as I have no doubt that there will be more to come here.

Legs, wheels and money

My old broken power wheelchair
My old broken powerchair

My electric wheelchair broke a couple of weeks ago after going up a too-steep ramp into a train, toppling backwards and then falling forwards fairly hard. That was quite inconvenient, especially when I discovered that the motors and brakes have burnt out and it will cost about a thousand pounds to fix. Since then I have had to fall back on a manual wheelchair, pushed by my wife. I can move my own wheelchair, just about, but it is still painful and exhausting for me. Fortunately I have just got a new car, so I can drive to most places and then use the wheelchair on arrival. Unfortunately, the manual wheelchair that I was given by family doesn’t fold up enough to fit in the back of my car.

I will qualify for a wheelchair from the NHS, and so I have asked to be referred to the local Wheelchair Services for an assessment. I am slightly stuck though. Walking and standing around result in high levels of pain and fatigue for me, as well as leaving me in danger of losing my balance and falling over. Despite this, I can walk around at home most of the time with only an occasional fall. NHS rules say that I can have a manual wheelchair for use outside, but because I can walk around at home I will not qualify for a powerchair even though I can’t propel myself most of the time. In fact, I probably won’t even get a self-propelled wheelchair since moving it myself can cause some pain and fatigue too, so I will end up with an attendant wheelchair, requiring someone to push me with no option to move myself at all. (See page 16 and 17 of this document for the full rules.)

Because a referral to the wheelchair service will quite likely take a few months, (I won’t be a high priority) and because I will probably get an attendant wheelchair rather than a self-propelled one, I bought a new wheelchair yesterday – a shiny new Karma Wren 2 self propel. The chair cost me £279 from a local shop called Indy Mobility. I could have found it slightly cheaper online but the staff at Indy Mobility were very helpful and put up with me for a couple of hours while I looked at all the options. They also didn’t charge me for the work done so far on my broken powerchair.

Karma Wren 2 wheelchair
My shiny new wheelchair

I was surprised how much easier the new chair is to self-propel than both my old one (and it is old!) and my dad’s one which I borrowed when my power chair broke down. That is partly because the new chair is made from lightweight aluminium but I think also due to it not being worn out. It is light enough that I can lift it into my car myself as long as I am not too tired at the time. It fits nicely in the boot of my car, as you can see in the picture below.

My new wheelchair in the back of my car
My new wheelchair in the back of my car

Wheelchairs are one of those extra expenses that disabled people can have which Disability Living Allowance is supposed to help pay for. While chairs are available from the NHS, it is quite common for them to be inadequate or to take a long time to get, even apart from cases like mine where I won’t qualify for a power chair which would help me the most. The Motability scheme which leases cars to disabled people in return for the mobility allowance from their DLA can also lease high-end powerchairs to them but I can’t do that because I already spend my DLA on a Motability car so I have had to buy my wheelchair with a credit card at very high interest. I think there are quite a few people stuck in this situation including Kaliya (@BendyGirl) who is currently trying to raise funds for a powerchair of her own. She really needs one to get around outside – just see her “deathwalk” video if you need convincing. Kaliya could use a powerchair inside as well, except that her flat does not have enough room for one. You can donate to Kaliya’s powerchair fund by sending money with Paypal to wheelchairforkali@carolineengland.co.uk or visit her blog post about it.

Karma Traveller 2 powerchair
Karma Traveller 2 powerchair

I have a possibility of getting part of the cost of an powerchair paid for by a local charity – the same one which gave me a small grant when I went to university and gave us food money last year when our benefits were screwed up. They require me to have attempted to get one from the NHS first, and so I must wait until I have been assessed before I can do that. I am hoping to take a voucher towards the cost of a wheelchair rather than a wheelchair itself from the NHS so that I can then put that voucher together with a charity grant if I can get one and buy a powerchair. I plan on getting one that is small and light and can come apart to go in my car – my old one weighed 90kg and even healthy people struggled to lift it. Indy Mobility suggested a Karma Traveller 2 which I think costs about £1,700, although I will have to find out what else is available. For now I will just have to rely on my wife to push me.

 

What’s the point?

I seem to care about politics. I ask what party policies are. I vote. I joined a political party. I campaign, I tell other people what is happening. I write to my MP. When that doesn’t work I protest. I write about it all here. But at the end of it all, after two years of this disgusting inhuman government, after so much effort, all the bad things I’ve been shouting about happen anyway. The bills go through. Maybe a tiny fraction less bad than they would have been without the input of campaigners.

What’s the point? What’s the point of caring? I wish I didn’t care. I wish I could just stop worrying about it and ignore all the shit until it affects me personally, just like all the other shitty selfish humans beings out there. All the pathetic people cocooned in their bubble of mindless TV and expensive possessions bought on credit. The ones who won’t care until five or ten years later when they can’t get support while they are sick, and they have to wait an extra year for treatment because their hospital is busy with paying patients, and the treatment is useless when they get it because all the money went on shareholder profits. When the schools are all business-owned academies and focussed on turning out brainwashed corporate drones. When only the rich can afford to go to university, and therefore to get any jobs with power. When every road is either a toll road or a beaten up dirt track. When the police won’t help you because they’re busy investigating what their private owners have decided is a higher priority, or beating up anyone who dares to protest. When claiming job seekers allowance means becoming the property of some private company, who sell you to some other private company to do hard work for next to no income.

Why the fuck should I care then? Most of the population haven’t even noticed, and now that it’s all going through, AFTER we’ve been protesting for more than a year, THEN some of them might go out and protest? “It worked for the poll tax” people say. Yes, people protested because they were charged money! You think they even know what’s going on until their dad fails to get surgery in time and dies?

I want out. I want to stop bloody caring. I want a lobotomy, or some mind-killing drugs. Something. Anything. Because all those people are shit and they deserve what they’re about to get and I wish that meant nothing to me.

 

Heavy handed police threaten NHS protest

Several hundred people gathered today in front of the Ministry of Health to protest against the Health and Social Care bill and what it will do to the NHS. During the course of the protest riot police intimidated and grabbed at protesters, held them against their will, and broke up the protest into small groups that petered out. This was suppression of protest, something that I have written about many times before. As yet the mainstream media outlets have been silent about the protest and about the policing of it. Read on for some images, videos and tweets from the day. For a detailed personal account with many pictures and videos please read This blog post by Cai Wingfield, and see the links at the end of this post for more.

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181040095707672576

Video taken by Kate Belgrave

"Outside the department of health!" - photo by @thinktyler
"Outside the department of health!" - photo by @thinktyler
"protest in Whitehall" - photo by @COPDdoc
"protest in Whitehall" - photo by @COPDdoc

 

Despite being completely peaceful, the protest received significant police attention within an hour. Large numbers of police vans arrived with Territorial Support Group (TSG – riot police) as well as armed police. The police surrounded the protesters, possibly with the intention of containing (kettling) them – that was certainly how it was perceived. The presence of armed police and being surrounded raised tensions among the protesters significantly.

https://twitter.com/#!/WailQ/status/181048809189679104

Armed police at Save the NHS protest - photo by @heardinlondon
Armed police at Save the NHS protest - photo by @heardinlondon
Armed police officer at NHS rally - photo by MELPRESSMEN MELPRESSMEN
Armed police officer at NHS rally - photo by MELPRESSMEN MELPRESSMEN
Armed police leaving NHS rally - picture by @WailQ
Armed police leaving NHS rally - photo by @WailQ

https://twitter.com/#!/Brixtonite/status/181040965920886785

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181046914572226560

https://twitter.com/#!/chris_coltrane/status/181047579600097280

Let me describe the atmosphere at this point, because in a second things get nasty. COMPLETELY peaceful. The crowd is sparse and moving at a fast walking pace. There is a little chanting but no aggro. The yellow-uniformed police are walking at the same pace of us, and have not (that I’ve heard) requested that we don’t march. The mood is very upbeat. People are smiling and laughing, happy to be doing something positive and perhaps get a little attention (there has been almost no media presence that we’ve seen, unless you count the Socialist Worker as media). The crowd is made up of people of all ages. There are young children and babies, medical students, young adults, up to middle-aged and some elderly people. There is a high proportion of people who have reduced mobility. I spot several people walking with sticks or crutches. I see someone in a wheelchair wearing a V mask, there with their V-masked family.

Now someone shouts something. I’m within a few people of the front of the march. Suddenly, to my right, tens of baseball cap-wearing cops stream out of concealment, running. They’ve obviously been waiting for us.

The mood of the crowd turns quickly to dismay. This is completely out of the blue. These new cops are highly organised and running quickly. They have helmets and truncheons on their belts. People are suddenly scared. There are shouts of “KETTLE! KETTLE!” and “RUN!” from those who see what’s about to happen. People start to run (including me). But it’s too late, they’re already blocking the way ahead of us.

Quote taken from personal account by Cai Wingfield.

Suddenly it’s clear something is happening. More shouting and running. A line of riot cops is forming ahead, their arms outstretched. Shouts of “KETTLE!” and “RUN!” again from the protesters. We start to run, searching for a break in the line or another way through. All around there is running and screaming, people don’t know what’s happening. I reach the first cops as they start to grab people. I think I see some people grabbed bodily and with serious force, but I don’t stop running. My arm is grasped at by a gloved hand, but I break free. Others are not so lucky, including some of those I’m at the demo with. The line is being held now, people are not being allowed to leave or enter the zone. I see passers by, elderly and disabled people kept inside the cordon. It’s about 4:14pm.

Quote taken from personal account by Cai Wingfield.

Riot police appear suddenly - photo by Cai Wingfield
Riot police appear suddenly - photo by Cai Wingfield
Police kettling the protesters - photo by Cai Wingfield
Police kettling the protesters - photo by Cai Wingfield

Video by Cai Wingfield

Note that the containment (“kettling”) is fairly loose; it is not the hyper-kettling favoured by the ACPO where crowds are surrounded and compressed and then held for hours as the police and horses closed in. It is people being held without charge and against their will all the same.

It seems that the police still don’t understand that modern protests are arranged through consensus and social media. They persistently try to find the leader, even though there isn’t one. (And then they often use the inability to negotiate with a leader as justification for escalating their tactics.)

https://twitter.com/#!/stavvers/status/181041462295789570

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181041678721892352

 

The protest moved away despite being surrounded by police.

https://twitter.com/#!/hangbitch/status/181048011328196608

https://twitter.com/#!/MediocreDave/status/181048591966674944

https://twitter.com/#!/piombo/status/181049537429905409

https://twitter.com/#!/directreaction/status/181050507840860160

https://twitter.com/#!/stavvers/status/181052438780985345

 

The police have not come out of this looking good.

Video taken by Kate Belgrave

https://twitter.com/#!/LosTheSkald/status/181045205229780992

https://twitter.com/#!/Ade_on_drums/status/181056068716208128

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181052526882332672

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181059824249876480

https://twitter.com/#!/JoshAJHall/status/181060643674267648

https://twitter.com/#!/JoshAJHall/status/181063903575408641

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181058210319433728

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181058624251113474

https://twitter.com/#!/Beckiebroccoli/status/181067934825844736

 

Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group officer U1632 attacked an innocent and totally peaceful protestor, from behind, during a demonstration against NHS privatisation in London, today, 17 March 2012. U1632 ran up behind the young man and whacked him across the calves with a 2-foot long steel-core truncheon, causing his victim to collapse in agony on the pavement, before hauling him off to an unknown fate, out of sight, behind police lines.

Quote from Cop thug U1632 attacks NHS protest [indymedia]

 

I was there today. The van pulled up in front of me and three police got out with what I would identify as a machine gun but not knowing much about these things i@m not sure exactly what type of gun it was.

The protest was not at Parliament Square. It started at the dept. of health where the cenotaph is on whitehall. It moved out onto whitehall where we intended to stay, completely peacefully. A huge number of police started towards us from parliament and we broke and started moving up whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. The police were trying to kettle but the protest was keeping ahead of them. As I got to Trafalgar Square a red police van pulled up as described above.

They only stayed for a few minutes before getting back into the van but it seemed to me like they were trying to intimidate. I still can’t quite believe it. To see this at a peaceful protest in the uk is not in any way normal. I asked a police officer who was stood by the van what the reason for deployment was and he told me to ‘fucking jog on’

Some senior police I spoke to later suggested they were diplomatic police and the van was under threat but I can tell you that they came up, under no threat and made a show of getting out with the guns.

The protest had a very mixed turnout. Many older people there and a lot of disabled people. We weren’t a rabid mob threatening anyone.

Quote from voxxtrot posted at reddit

 

 

 

https://twitter.com/#!/stavvers/status/181068695160897537

 

It appears that the armed police may have been at the protest by accident, having simply been close by at the time. It should be noted that the armed police were from the Diplomatic Protection Group, a part of the Metropolitan Police that guards diplomatic residencies in London. DPG officers are routinely armed when deployed. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to send armed police to a peaceful protest and it is not known why they were present.

https://twitter.com/#!/_gmh_/status/181091702361169920

 

More:

The NHS demo and the failure to report [Personal account by Stavvers]

Police suppression of peaceful pro-NHS protest, March 17th 2012 [Personal account by Cai Wingfield with lots of pictures and videos]

Some thoughts on machine guns, Nazis and who kettles the kettlers [soundfurynothing]

Twitter timeline and photos – Storifed by @DrNoCuts [Storify]

Blog and videos by Kate Belgrave – Save our NHS demonstration London 17 March 2012 [katebelgrave.com]

Photo set by MELPRESSMEN MELPRESSMEN [Demotix]

Photo set by Heard in London [Demotix]

There has been no coverage by any mainstream media as yet, but I will provide links here when I find any.

Travelling in a wheelchair – or failing to

I went to Manchester this weekend to attend a conference, and getting there involved travelling by bus and train from my home in Badsey. Karen was travelling with me but I decided to do the trip in my power wheelchair rather than my manual chair so that I could get around the conference by myself without getting too exhausted.

I booked assistance several weeks ago to provide ramps and get me on an off the trains, but to my surprise I received a phone call from the First travel assistance booking line on Friday morning which informed me that for some unknown reason I could not use the wheelchair space in standard class which I had booked and I would be put in first class instead. That was strange but I wasn’t going to complain.

I got in my fully-charged wheelchair just before eleven and set off to go the short distance to the bus stop. The bus turned up and the driver hopped out and lowered the ramp for me so that I could get on. Once I was on the bus, though, there was a problem. The doors wouldn’t close and the bus barely moved away at a crawl from the bus stop, and then stopped in the middle of a road junction. The driver tried several times to move the bus but it just wouldn’t go into gear. He tried several times to open and close the doors and then phoned the bus depot for advice. He realised that it might be something to do with the ramp and tried moving that a few times to no avail until I pointed out that the space under the ramp was full of mud and little pebbles and that it probably needed cleaning. He got his broom out and spent a few minutes clearing the muck out and the bus started working. Fortunately the 15 minute delay wasn’t a problem for us but several other people on the bus were late. Bus companies: remember to clean under the wheelchair ramp!

A surface drain in front of a dropped kerb
A cleverly placed wheel trap

We walked and rolled the half a mile or so from the bus station to the train station (Dodging the wheel trap on the way – see image on the left.) and reported to the ticket office about twenty minutes before the train was due (We are always told half an hour) and got waved through to wait on the platform. I had been told to go in coach G at the back of the train instead of coach C but when the train arrived coach G was off the end of the platform because Evesham station has short platforms. We were told by a member of staff in coach F that someone would be along to sort it out in a minute. At that point we saw someone in a wheelchair getting out of coach C – the one that I had originally booked. I was quite confused, since it made no sense. She must have got on the train after I received my phone call in the morning, and she couldn’t have booked the space since I already had. Even if she had booked it, I could have had it between Evesham and Worcester.

Still, eventually the train manager brought the ramp up to the rear of the train, but then he realised that he had to go back to the front of the train to unlock the doors of coach F. After another wait he opened the door and let us on to coach F, but then to my horror he told me that I had to go through the whole length of coach G to get to the wheelchair space. It turns out that my power wheelchair is exactly the same width as the aisle between the seats on those trains. I made it through but got stuck several times on the way.

We got into place and the train had moved off when we heard an announcement: the train we were on would no longer go to Worcester Foregate Street where our connection to Birmingham would go from, but would instead stop at Worcester Shrub Hill, three-quarters of a mile away. That caused immediate panic for us, and one of the train staff went off to find out what was going on. About five minutes after that we heard another announcement, this time saying that we would be going to Foregate Street after all.

Another of the train staff came back with first-class perks of free coffee and pastries which sort of made up for some of that chaos. Unfortunately I was still eating and drinking when we arrived at Shrub Hill and waited there for a long time. Suddenly there was someone putting a ramp in place at our carriage and I realised that we were about to leave the train. It turns out that the platform at Foregate Street is also a short platform and I would be unable to leave the coach that I was in, and so I was being being moved to the front of the train. Doh.

At coach C the ramp turned out to be a lot steeper than before, probably because the platform was lower. My powerchair is only capable of safely climbing an 8 degree slope and so it toppled back as I was going up the ramp. Fortunately my chair has small wheels sticking out of the back designed to prevent it from falling over completely but my front wheels were still high off the ground. Suddenly falling back like that makes me flail around painfully and in my flailing I shoved the joystick forward and ended up racing up the ramp, wheels of the ground, arms and legs out, before falling back down with a thump. Needless to say, I wasn’t really very happy at that point. Nevertheless I moved into place for the next bit of the journey.

That’s when things got even worse. We arrived at the station and someone put a ramp into place but when I pressed the power button on my chair it just sat there with all the lights flashing. No movement. I tried desperately to check the connections, and make sure that the motors were engaged but it wasn’t having any of it. It just wouldn’t power on. Something must have been damaged on that last ramp, or by squeezing through the train. A crowd of passengers surrounded me at the point which did not help in the slightest so I disengaged the wheels and persuaded the guy with the ramp to drag my and my chair off the train. That is no easy feat since my powerchair weighs more than me and does not have handles – it isn’t meant to be moved by hand.

Abandoned on the platform with bags and a broken chair, we were panicking. I got out of the chair and started to try to look underneath it which quickly started to exhaust me. Karen tried to lift it up but it was far too heavy. We realised that our train was about to leave from the other platform but getting there would be nearly impossible. Karen went off to talk to station staff and I stayed with the chair. At that point a couple of other passengers came over and offered to help so I let them turn the chair on its side so we could see the motors and wiring but we couldn’t find anything wrong. One of the staff there offered to let me leave the chair in a store room there but we had already missed our train. Instead I got back in the chair and Karen managed to push it outside of the station so that we could find out about getting it repaired. It looked like getting the chair to anyone who could repair it without a car would be impossible though, so Karen phoned my dad and asked him to drive out to us with a manual wheelchair and to take mine to be repaired. We had only got about twenty minutes drive from home so that didn’t take too long. Unfortunately, despite me having a wheelchair to continue the journey with, while we had been waiting all the trains out of that station for our route had been cancelled and we had another hour to wait.

Sign: Wheelchair SpaceAfter an hour at the pub next door we came back and arranged a ramp to get on the train, then went up to the platform. Then the train we were getting was delayed, repeatedly. It eventually turned up twenty minutes later than expected and crowds of passengers rushed on to it. I began to panic again because there was no ramp in sight but eventually someone turned up and let me on to the train. We tried to get to the wheelchair space but someone was sitting in it, staring at us. I commented to Karen at least twice and quite loudly that I had to go in the official wheelchair space, and the guy carried on sitting there staring at us. Eventually I directly told him to move and he got up and wandered off, seemingly in a world of his own.

Sign: Wheelchair Space: Priority by lawFor a while it looked like we would catch a reasonable connection from Birmingham to Manchester but as the journey continued our train got more and more delayed, arriving at Birmingham about ten minutes after our connection. We made our way to the right platform and someone turned up to help us but it was 5pm and the platform was crammed full. When the train arrived it was even worse; it was already standing room only and when we passed the window next to the wheelchair space we could see that it was completely filled with luggage. The lady with the ramp managed to get the space cleared and came back to let us on, but then the corridor had filled up with people too. We shouted at people until they let us through and got to the wheelchair space only to find it full of luggage again. We shoved luggage out of the way and I managed to squeeze into the space, but the wrong way around and with my feet in the way of the door. By this time my blood sugar was low because in all the chaos I hadn’t eaten lunch. Karen went to fetch me a sandwich from the other end of the train. It took her ages because the train was crammed full of passengers standing in the aisles, and she had to wait for other people to leave the train before she could get through. After an hour or so enough people left that Karen found a seat and I was able to throw more cases out of my space so that I could turn around and get my feet out of the way.

We did eventually get to Manchester, and only three hours later than we expected and only an hour late to meet our friends at the pub. It doesn’t end there though. On the Sunday night after the conference we wanted to catch a train from Manchester Picadilly to St Helens. Unfortunately at weekends there are no trains on that route, only a replacement bus service. That bus runs from Manchester Oxford Road but we couldn’t get the train from Picadilly to Oxford Road because Oxford Road is completely impossible to get out of in a wheelchair. It turns out that Oxford Road wasn’t too long a walk though, so Karen pushed me there, carrying our luggage too. We were able to fold up my wheelchair and put it in the boot while we were on the coach but if I had been in my power wheelchair then they would have had to get me a taxi instead.

Then finally in St Helens on Tuesday we wanted to catch a bus to meet someone. The bus turned out to be an old one which not only didn’t have a ramp, it also had a bar dividing the front entrance in half which meant that the wheelchair would only fit on by being folded up first. I would have been completely stuck if I had been on my own or in my power wheelchair.

Folded wheelchair on a bus
The only way it would fit on

Before I finish, here’s an extract from a previous blog post, the end of Invisible Invincible: my day of protest:

When we went to find our pre-booked assistance for boarding half an hour before the train was due to leave the manager told us that Evesham station was unmanned after lunchtime, which we already knew, but he also didn’t think there would be any staff on the train who could place the wheelchair ramp for me instead of station staff. This caused me to panic a bit but the station manager called another manager who called the train driver who thought there might be staff on board after all. I went to board the train, which is where we discovered that the train did not have a wheelchair space at all. I eventually ended up blocking the door area with my wheelchair for the whole journey. I am quite surprised that the assistance booking line were not aware of the situation with the station staff, the train staff or the type of train.

Unfortunately when we arrived the ticket inspector could not unlock the ramp at the station. She had been given the code for the lock but it did not work. My family had come to meet me at the station to drive us home and so I was carried off the train into a manual wheelchair by my brother, mother and wife, apparently dropped near the edge of the platform on the way. (I wasn’t really conscious, being too exhausted.) They also carried my extremely heavy powerchair off the train. Between them my brother and my wife got me into the car and then from the car to my bed, although I was almost completely unable to move.

I know all of that was a long tedious read but I felt it important to write down. These events are not uncommon, they happen to lots of people all the time. Accessibility should be simple and straightforward but we still have a very long way to go.

In which I ramble on about how much I liked #QEDCon

Well that was QEDCon, and it was good.

For those who don’t know, QED stands for Question. Explore. Discover. QEDCon is a conference about science and other interesting stuff for people with a sceptical view of the world. I was lucky enough to get a free ticket courtesy of Chris Hofstader via Hayley Stevens otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to go.

Despite a horrible journey full of wheelchair-access cock-ups, broken trains, delays and my power wheelchair breaking down, I made it to Manchester only three hours late on Friday night and still managed to meet up with @Jules_Clarke and @Karenatetories (Who weren’t going to the conference) and @living_as_if and @Baggelboy. (Who were.) Later on the Friday night I saw @JenClone who I have met before, and @girlonthenet introduced herself to me. I finally got to meet @Psythor and @sillypunk of Pod Delusion fame, as well as @kashfarooq. On Saturday night after trying for constantly to meet for 24 hours I managed to see @LudditeWebDev and then @Tannice_. (You would think being at the same conference, it would be easy to meet up!) On Sunday I unexpectedly bumped into @RogueStardust and Thom who had realised late that QEDCon was just down the road from them. I was also introduced to @TheCharmQuark just as the conference finished.

Amazingly I managed to get up on Saturday in time to have breakfast and be in place for the start of the conference at 9am, despite how tiring my journey was. This has been helped by my sleep pattern being relatively normal at the moment.

The start of QEDCon
The start of QEDCon

The first talk of the day was about werewolves. I hadn’t expected it to be interesting but it turned out to be a fascinating run through the history of real-world beliefs in werewolves, from people who believed they actually were werewolves to people who were accused of being witches who performed rituals to call on the devil to turn them into wolves.

Deborah Hyde talking about werewolves at QEDCon
Deborah Hyde talking about werewolves at QEDCon

The second session looked like a bit of a rehash to me, covering evolution and creationism so I decamped to the breakout room for panels on Cryptozoology and then Science vs Skepticism. I spent lunchtime with James and Liz of Pod Delusion fame, eating an extremely expensive sandwich from the hotel bar because I didn’t have cash on me to buy a cheap sandwich. In the afternoon I was back in the breakout room for sessions on Mediums and Psychics, Skeptics Beyond the Pub, and then a live recording of The Pod Delusion. I was late for the first session as I had gone via my room and since Karen was out shopping I had no one to push my manual chair and I attempted to self-propel which meant I had to rest when I got there. I arrived at the packed session half an hour late and would not have even attempted to get in but conference volunteers made space for me and ushered me in anyway.

I found the afternoon sessions very interesting. The first panel talked about combating the harm done by mediums and psychics and mentioned the threats of libel lawsuits against people who said anything publicly about that. Simon Singh joined in from the audience too. The second panel talked about interaction between skeptics and some of the people whom they tend to annoy with more talk about libel cases. I found it interesting that in both sessions people talked about ways to engage people with opposing views and how to show people that they may have been deceived, and in both sessions the panel and audience emphasised a more gentle approach than skeptics are known for with less conflict. The Pod Delusion live recording was brilliant and thought provoking, I can recommend listening when it comes out.

I nearly didn’t make it to the evening entertainment. I tried to go out for dinner but I was just so tired and went to bed instead. I made a decision at the last minute to go downstairs for the comedy and since they were running late I also caught the end of the Skeptic awards and saw The Pod Delusion receive the award for best podcast! I was right at the back and actually in the room behind the main hall, just behind the doors. I managed to see and hear most of the comedy but there were quite a lot of immensely annoying people talking loudly both next to me and at the tables in front of me at the back of the hall, and they made it very difficult. Apparently they were so loud that people at the front of the hall were getting annoyed by them.

QEDCon Saturday night entertainment
QEDCon Saturday night entertainment - from the back
Paul Zenon
The largest round of applause of the night was for swinging a glass of beer around on a wooden triangle without spilling it!

Despite staying in the bar until 1am talking, I managed to be back in the hall ready for 10am on Sunday morning. I found the first talk by Edzard Ernst to be really informative. He has been conducting proper research into alternative medicines for decades and had some amazing insights and anecdotes about it.

QEDcon Panorama

I also unexpectedly enjoyed the talk on UFOs and their history. After that I spent the day with @RogueStardust and Thom who turned up on the Sunday when they realised that the conference was just down the road from them. We heard from D.J. Grothe on How to be a Bad Skeptic (Or a good one if you do the opposite of what he said!) and I was pleased again to hear mention of inclusiveness and less confrontation. There was a rather distressing and eye-opening talk from Maryam Namazie on Secularism, Social Cohesion and Citizenship which highlighted the need for secular state in many Muslim countries for the sake of freedom of religion as well as freedom to have no religion. The final talk was a run through by Joe Nickell of paranormal cases that he had investigated. I personally didn’t find it very interesting but most of the conference were quite happy for him to overrun.

And that was that. Conference over, I was too exhausted for socialising afterwards. I was disappointed that I couldn’t stay for Skeptics in the Curry House too, but we had to catch a coach. I really enjoyed the conference and I definitely want to go next year. (Better start saving!)

Some pictures by @Your_FunnyUncle

Bringing the computer to me

My various illnesses keep me in bed a lot of the time. Not only that, but quite often I don’t have much choice about what position my body goes in. At my better times I can sit up in bed with my laptop or book on my lap. If slightly worse then I put my laptop on the shelf next to the bed and lie sideways to use it, but that can quickly lead to pain. If I am really exhausted then I quite often lie on my front with my phone on the bed next to my head and one hand on the phone to type with, however this still causes pain in my arm, hand and shoulder and sometimes my lower back too.  At my worst points the only near-comfortable position is completely flat on my back with my arms on the bed by my sides. This obviously makes it difficult to read a book, or use a laptop computer, or even just use my smartphone.

I do have other options for entertainment at these times – I could use the radio or an MP3 player to listen to music or audio books. However I use my computer extensively to keep in touch with friends (and chat to people to minimise my depression) and to write on my blog. If I have any chance of paid work in the future it is likely to be writing or programming with the aid of my computer and so being able to use it more in bed is quite important.

Ultra 510i Long Reach Inverted Wall Mount LCD Arm
Ultra 510i

I’ve been thinking about solutions to this problem. The logical solution to me would be to mount a computer monitor over the bed on an arm attached to the wall. This isn’t exactly easy since there is a shelf unit between the bed and the wall to the side of me which is quite a big gap to bridge. I could attach an arm to the wall behind the bed but again it has to extend quite a long way. In addition I want the monitor to be able to swivel for viewing above me or in front of me. There don’t seem to be many arms that fit the specification, although I have found two from ErgoMounts that might work. The Ultra 510i Long Reach Inverted Wall Mount LCD Arm (Pictured to the right) costs £411 while the Wall Mount VisionPro 500 Series Long Reach Gas Assisted LCD Arm (Shown below) costs £215 but is not quite long enough to be comfortable. With this solution I would have a computer of some sort next to the bed, and a wireless keyboard and mouse on my lap.

Wall Mount VisionPro 500 Series Long Reach Gas Assisted LCD Arm
VisionPro 500

 

Such a system might work, but is quite expensive and limited so what are the other options?

Duncan from Trabasack suggests that I could use a Trabasack Mini lap tray/bag to suspend a netbook computer from. The Connect version has a velcro front and points to attach straps, so I could attach the netbook to the Trabasack with velcro and use the straps to hang it from a simple arm attached to the wall which should be cheaper than an articulated arm. The downside of this is that I would have only the small screen of my eeePC 900 and it isn’t very powerful either, but I can use it to get remote control of the PC on my desk which would do all the work. Duncan has sent me a Trabasack to try, so I’ll report back on how that goes.

Trabasack Mini Connect eee PC on Trabasack

Another option which has caught my attention is virtual reality goggles. Basically glasses with screens inside, the best available are made by Vuzix. There is a whole range of Vuzix iWear. The Wrap 280 widescreen is the bottom of the range, but it has a resolution of 384×240 (That’s how many dots fit on the screen) which makes it useless for text-based computer work and barely usable for watching video. It is, however, available for £99 or even cheaper refurbished. The top of the range Wrap 1200 has an almost-acceptable resolution of 848×480 (still pretty low) but costs £399. The Wrap 920 looks like it might be worth a try though. It has a resolution of 640×480 which is what computers displayed about 18 years ago but is only slightly lower than what my smartphone displays so it might be usable. The 920 is £199 but is also available refurbished for £129. All three of these options would need a £40 adapter to plug in to the VGA output of a computer. I could use one of these displays in any position in bed, but whether I can use them for writing a blog post or chatting to people remains to be seen.

Vuzix Wrap

 

Microwriter - the original chorded keyboard
Microwriter - the original chorded keyboard

Then there is the question of keyboard and mouse. While it is straightforward to use a mouse on the bed, even with my eyes covered with display screens, a full size keyboard isn’t ideal. I can touchtype but I still have to keep my hands up on the keyboard on my lap rather than down by my sides where they are more comfortable. To solve this problem I have been looking at Chorded Keyboards. These devices use only a few buttons to type the whole alphabet by pressing combinations of keys at the same time. The original Microwriter would have been useful here but two modern versions I am considering are the CyKey and the Twiddler 2.

The CyKey (shown below) has nine keys instead of six but works with combinations of keys in a similar way to the Microwriter. It costs £74. It should work alright when placed under my hand on a bed and allow me to type without moving my hand around. Unfortunately I will still have to move my hand to use the mouse.

CyKey chorded keyboard
CyKey
Twiddler 2 chorded keyboard
Twiddler 2

The Twiddler 2 (pictured on the right) has a few more keys than the Microwriter or the CyKey but the principle is the same. It has a thumb-operated pointer stick too so that it can replace both keyboard and mouse. The Twiddler is popular with designers of wearable computers because it can be used without sitting down and using a table. It is more expensive than the CyKey at $199 plus postage from the USA but looks to be the best option if I can find the money.

I am also planning to use a Raspberry Pi as my bedroom computer. The Raspberry Pi is a new tiny cheap computer intended for use primarily to encourage children to learn computer programming but it looks to have many other uses. It costs about £29 for the top model and runs Linux. I intend to use it as a Thin Client, to connect to my PC via Remote Desktop, meaning that it will show me what is on my PC in a different room, and my keyboard and mouse in front of me will control that PC.

All of this portable technology has given me some interesting thoughts. I could team up a Raspberry Pi with a Vuzix Wrap 920 display and a Twiddler 2 chorded keyboard. Add in my USB powerpack and a WiFi/Bluetooth adapter to connect to the internet, and I will have a complete wearable computer for use anywhere. I quite like that idea if I can possibly find the money. Now, about my early birthday presents…

Raspberry Pi
So new it hasn't got a case yet

Where does morality come from?

Moses - St John's, Wall, Lichfield, Staffordshire.

I was a Christian for most of my life but these days I am an atheist. I wrote about that journey on this blog a few months ago. Following the “militant secularism” accusation by Baroness Warsi recently a friend asked me to consider how to arrive at an idea of what is moral or immoral without deriving morality from God. He went on to mention it on his blog and also mentioned a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics called After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? which has caused some controversy recently. In Phill’s own words:

The problem with that – with respect to the governance of this (or any) country, is that I think theism in general and Christianity in particular provides the only sound, rational foundation for any kind of ethical system. […]

Let me try and explain: in atheism, you don’t have many options for morality. I’ve heard a few different explanations, including reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day when he explains that morality comes from the cultural ‘Zeitgeist‘ (his word) – in other words, what people think is right and wrong at the time. But the general principle is that there is nothing objectively right and wrong – in other words, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are simply labels which we have almost arbitrarily come to define in a certain way. That definition may well change in the future.

Now this isn’t a new question and it has been addressed by people far better informed on the topic than I am, so consider this an exploration of my own thoughts and not a precise statement of what I believe.

There is no doubt in my mind that my idea of morality does come from nurture not nature; it is a product of my life to date. Like many other things, it is something that was influenced by my parents and by the way that they brought me up, and by the people around me, and by what I saw on the TV. (Although we didn’t always have a TV when I was young.) It was influenced by what I got away with doing and what I was punished for. Of course the way that everyone around me behaved was in turn shaped by the same things in their lives, in a chain as far back as humanity goes. The way that everyone around me behaved and viewed my behaviour is also influenced by their religious beliefs.  My parents are Christians and so that shaped their decisions and it shaped what they told me was acceptable. Since in turn my parents where brought up by Christians it is clear that societal values and religious values are intertwined and impossible to separate, or even to judge the total influence of each.

But there are factors apart from that, internal factors. If I behaved in a way that upset others then I would no doubt observe the effect that had on them. When a very young child hits their sibling or takes away the toy that they want it normally leads to upset and crying, and experience of having been in the reverse of the situation should lead to empathy and understanding. That doesn’t guarantee changing behaviour to avoid upsetting other people.

A possible explanation of ethics and morals is that they give an evolutionary advantage. In an article in New Scientist in 2007 Evolution: Survival of the selfless [New Scientist] the authors present the idea that group selection – a theory previously rejected by the mainstream – could be responsible for altruism both within and between groups. The article sums it up as:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”

– New Scientist 03 November 2007, David Sloan Wilson and Edward O. Wilson

So we could conclude that morals come from this evolutionary advantage, either instinct or something that emerges from society or both. We could also be moral because we can empathise with others, and therefore treat them the way in which we would like to be treated. There is also the way that our actions are perceived by others. As much as some people might want to beat up someone who insulted them, or to murder someone and take all their possessions, that is not behaviour that others will accept. We lock up people who murder and steal because the rest of us can see the impact of those things on everyone else. We fear being murdered, so we collectively abhor murderers. Some people would still commit murder if they thought that they could get away with it, but most people would not, perhaps because they have absorbed the idea of treating people as they want to be treated at a deeper level.

Going back to Phill’s argument quoted earlier, I think the idea that you can’t be moral without God relies first entirely on the idea that there is a God at all. If you don’t believe in God but you do believe that humans follow a moral code of whatever kind, then you must conclude that you can be moral without God. The existence of morals isn’t an argument for the existence of God either, since in the opinion of an atheist, the values taught by religion or written in the bible are simply a product of society at the time that those values were set, and as such these values are simply a more rigid expression of the values that are passed down through society anyway.

I understand the revulsion at the idea that there is nothing objectively right or wrong, but revulsion at something does not mean that is not the way things are. It is very clear that values and morals do change radically over time and between societies. The desire for God to provide an absolute moral base does not call God into existence except in the minds of those who wish it.

In the end it is the actions of people which will shed light on this argument. Yes, there are people who don’t follow the morals that most people do, but it is important to note that they as often from a religious background as not. There are some people who might think that killing babies under a year old is acceptable, but the vast majority of people are utterly revolted by the idea, whatever their religious beliefs. (And I think that the paper which presented this idea is an academic exploration of the ethics of abortion rather than a call to murder babies.) Most of the atheists that I am in contact with also like to be nice to others and dislike people who are nasty. To these people, to suggest that they cannot have morals, or that their morals only come from someone else’s religious beliefs somehow, is quite insulting. There are many millions of atheists, some formerly religious and some not, who do not go around stealing and raping and murdering just because there is no God.

How am I? A personal update

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that this is my personal blog. I have written so much recently about workfare, welfare reform and politics that I haven’t had time to write about anything outside of those. I have always found it useful to write down what I have been going through, to help get my own thoughts in order and so this is one of those blog posts.

A handful of pillsIn the last few weeks I have been trying reboxetine in addition to the escitalopram I was already taking to try to reduce my panic attacks and anxiety. Two days after I started taking reboxetine I spent a day in the worst depression that I have had for a few months and was suicidal as well as being really really horrible to my wife. This is always a possible temporary side effect with a new anti-depressant and fortunately I was much better after that. The new medication did seem to be working for a couple of weeks but in the last week I have had two big meltdowns, panic attacks leading into spiralling depression again.

Since referal to a psychologist seems to be rare and slow in my area, last week I started to attend a cognitive behavioural therapy group which I have been waiting to start for a few months. CBT (and I may be wrong here) appears to be a way to learn to see and understand the problematic thoughts and moods, and then provides a method of changing them. CBT is currently the most popular therapy for depression and anxiety. It isn’t without problems, and it isn’t for everyone. One person said to me today that CBT is “feels like brainwashing” and I think he is right, but it is self-brainwashing.

CBT has a bad reputation among patients with M.E. because many psychiatrists believe that M.E. is a somataform disorder – that is, they believe that M.E. is a set of physical symptoms caused by mental illness. Now this isn’t impossible in some cases, although I think in most cases it is unlikely given that people with M.E. can often overdo things on a good mental health day and still find themselves stuck in bed for days recovering from their exertion. More common is that depression arrives after and as a result of becoming sick with M.E. Anyway, since M.E. is a physical neurological illness which can be partly controlled by pacing and learning when to stop, the common fear is that CBT teaches M.E. patients to push themselves too far and end up enduring serious health repercussions. This bad reputation of CBT for people with M.E. is the reason why I changed my psychiatrist and checked that the CBT group wouldn’t attempt to interfere with my M.E.

Although this group is officially a CBT group it seems to be more than that.  We will be taught how to use CBT and Mindfullness, and we are working through a book called Mind Over Mood. (Affiliate link.) We are being taught some helpful things alongside that too. The group meets for two hours per week over twelve weeks and there are six of us, plus a psychologist and a community nurse. Group therapy provides the chance for us to support each other too and I have already found this useful in the first two sessions. While Twitter has been a lifeline by allowing me to be in contact with a lot of people in similar situations it is nice to discuss these things in person. (And I might be dragging some of these people on to Twitter!)

Apart from the depression and anxiety taking a turn for the worse again my M.E. has been significantly worse for a while. I currently can’t walk very far at all and have had to use my wheelchair a lot when going out as well as rely on my dad to drive me to medical appointments. I have been stuck in bed for the majority of most days because sitting in a chair is extremely draining. Unfortunately the two hours I have to spend at each CBT group session is very draining and I have had a lot of pain since yesterday’s session.

So things aren’t so great at the moment. Despite that, I am looking forward to going to QEDCon next week and then spending a week staying with my sister. When I get back I hope to collect my new car which I hope will allow me to leave the house a bit more often. I will finally be able to stop relying on my dad to drive me around and I also intend to start going swimming when I can drive myself to the pool, and to take a few trips to meet friends around the country. I just need to build up some strength for that one.

Letter to my MP: objection to compulsory unpaid work

UK Parliament (freefoto.com)Dear Mr Luff,

I am writing to inform you of my opposition to schemes run by the DWP and the government which send people to do unpaid work and threaten sanctions for refusal to attend. I oppose the use of sanctions and removal of benefits of any sort to compel people to take part in unpaid work or to continue in unpaid work. I feel strongly that any such work placement must be entirely voluntary on the part of the job seeker. I understand that these schemes are a core Conservative policy, however I am not satisfied that this policy has majority support from the public.

Please be aware that I oppose ALL such schemes, including the work experience scheme, the compulsory work element of the work programme, the community action programme, sector-based academies, and mandatory work activity. I am sure there are others that I have missed. I find it very offensive to be told by Iain Duncan-Smith and Chris Grayling that “these are not the schemes that people are protesting about” when myself and others are very definitely protesting about all of these schemes. Even the spokesman in the DWP press office whom I spoke to in the course of writing about these schemes made this allegation, and it is simply not true. There is widespread objection to people being made to do unpaid work or face loss of benefits.

I believe that work experience can provide useful skills and training to job seekers however I do not believe that this will be found performing manual labour such as restocking shelves or cleaning floors in a supermarket, or, indeed, being sent out as cleaners to clean people’s homes. Such placements merely make use of job seekers as free labour to subsidise already profitable business but the claimants will not learn many useful skills at all, if any. As such I believe that work experience placements must be limited to those where job seekers are provided with a genuine learning opportunity and they are not displacing other paid workers as has happened in the case of Tesco and other supermarkets. (I have evidence for all of these assertions which I will be pleased to provide if you wish to query them.)

Additionally I must draw your attention to the plight of claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) who have been placed in the Work Related Activity Group. As things stand and under the welfare reform bill these people, who have been declared not fit to work at the moment but potentially fit to work in the next 2 to 5 years WITH the right support (by one of the designers of ESA) will be mandated to attend the work programme if Atos has decided that they will be fit to work within 3 months. Since a vast number of people are currently waiting for appeals against their placement in the WRAG rather than the support group, and since such appeals are taking a year or more, and since many people have overturned the decision on appeal, it is highly likely that people who are far to sick to work are being made to take part in the work programme and as part of that are being mandated to attend unpaid work placements. This is clearly not right in a society that claims to support those who are too sick to work. As patron of an ME support group you should be aware that many people with ME are being placed in the WRAG and later moved to the ESA support group on appeal, and these people can suffer serious setbacks as a result of being made to participate in the work programme or even work focussed interviews.

Yesterday employment minister Mr Grayling supposedly made concessions to guarantee there would be no use of sanctions on people withdrawing from the work experience scheme. However I have seen the statement yesterday from the minister in which he stated that “The work experience scheme remains and is totally voluntary.” and also that “The sanction regime remains in place.” As I understand it he has not admitted that whatever the rules may be, job seekers are routinely led to believe that placements are mandatory and threatened with loss of benefits if they fail to start or withdraw from the placement. There may be a small technicality here but in practice such work placements are not optional from the point of view of the job seeker. Again, I have evidence of these allegations taken from the DWP’s own documentation and from several people subject to compulsory work which I can forward to you if you wish.

I therefore would like you to make it plain to the employment minister that he must move towards removing all sanctions for failure to attend work experience placements.

Please do not reply to this email with a standard “everything is fine” letter, as I find these to be rather dismissive and I would be grateful if you could address the points that I have raised here.

Yours Sincerely,

Steven Sumpter.

PS

I have heard of cases where job seekers who have declined work experience have been immediately sent for mandatory work activity instead. This seems a vindictive way for job centre advisers to force compliance.

I also have found some of the responses from Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and David Cameron to be highly offensive. I object to being called “job snobs” “trotskyites” “Anti-capitalist extremists” “unemployed anarchists” and to protests being attributed to the SWP.  These are intended as insults, not arguments, and are not what I expect to hear from government ministers.