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Wandering the Braille trail

Meet Sarah Boulton:

“It was a hot afternoon in November 2019 when my parents, who were visiting from Canada, and I made our way to the Queensland Walks AGM.

Colleague and friend, Janice Rieger and I had been invited to present the short film Wandering the Braille Trail (produced by Janice Rieger and directed by Janice Rieger and Megan Strickfaden).”

Queensland Walks had inquired about the film when it was showing at Artisan Museum and this led to my path crossing with Anna Campbell and an amazing organization.

I was born in Brisbane and raised in Canada eh?) and have been living here for the last 8 years.I lost the majority of my eye sight approx. 20 years ago due to complications of being a Type 1 diabetic and high stress from working at a financial institution. The stress elevated my blood sugar levels which ultimately over time raised my blood pressure which detached the retinas off the back of both of my eyes. It was a sudden event and currently I do not see out of my left eye and only see a slight portion out of the top inside-corner of my right. I can only see well contrasting colours and outlines. I tell people that I can see enough to stay out of, or in some cases, get into trouble!

I always use my white cane (named Seymour) as I rely on it to keep me safe and to detect tripping hazards that I can no longer see. What my cane does not detect are overhanging branches and flower pots as well as leaning poles so this puts me in high risk of bumping my head.

In Calgary, Canada, as well as being on the National Board of Directors with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) I had also gotten involved with the Advisory Sub-Committee for Accessibility with the City of Calgary (Access Design) where I became aware of Janice Rieger’s name as we had not met until we both moved to Brisbane.

On the Access Design Committee (under a volunteer capacity) I learned in the 8 years I was on it how to speak up for the low vision community who I was representing, and how to make suggestions for the majority of the community even if some of the outcomes didn’t work specifically for my eye condition – diabetic retinopathy. The committee also had representatives from the paraplegic and quadriplegic community, as well as blind, hearing loss/deaf, and seniors. We were involved in making suggestions with builders and contractors on city properties in accordance to the accessible guidelines. I learned a lot during this time, not only for the needs of my community but for those with other disabilities.

Coming to Brisbane was a change my husband and I consciously made as living with a disability in 6 months of harsh weather was beginning to effect me mentally. Brisbane was a wonderful change – no snow! Woo hoo! This meant that I could get out all-year round!

I began volunteering with Vision Australia as I felt familiar with the community and had a lot of experience with access design, public speaking and was an advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

In many conversations with Australians I have been told that they feel like they are behind North America when it comes to accessibility and inclusiveness. Although this is true this is not a negative comment against Australia but rather, I see it as an opportunity for the beginning of change.

Thanks to Janice Rieger, who works at QUT, I was brought in to discuss and do some consultation work to make the QUT more accessible to the blind and low vision community. I was so elated to be back in this area again and it was so refreshing to be involved with people who really wanted to incorporate the changes. I was so impressed with the QUT Art Museum that I have stayed on as a volunteer to assist with their descriptive tours which also include tactile and sensory examples as well. These tours are not just for the blind and low vision community but for everyone. It’s amazing to see people’s reactions to feeling something (like satin, for example) or smelling a fragrance called “wet garden” to go along with the art piece we’re looking at.

At one of the tours, we had the artist’s paint brushes with the scent of paint still noticeable and it was a grade 11 art student who said, “this makes it real” after she handled them.

This is a long story about how I got involved with Queensland Walks! After filming “Wandering the Braille Trail” that came out of my involvement with QUT, the film gained attention and Janice and I were invited to meet the wonderful people at Queensland Walks during their 2019 AGM.

I was very impressed with the people on the Board of Directors as it was clear to see their passion and involvement to make Queensland a more accessible place for all sorts of activities with people of all levels of mobility. Again, I felt alive as this was my background – inclusive design! Although my involvement with Queensland Walks will focus on the blind and low vision community my husband is also a cyclist and we understand the importance of all people being able to enjoy the outdoors and to feel safe while doing so.

The Braille Trail is an amazing way-finding structure to support the blind and low vision community get around. It is found mainly in Queen Street Mall and it helps as it keeps me going in one direction so I don’t have to worry about not walking in a straight line. Queen Street Mall is chaotic at the best of times with people distracted by the many shops while others are on their smart phones. The Braille Trail gives me one less thing to have to worry about so I can listen to my surroundings, like footsteps that are getting too close to me and don’t sound like their going to stop. This gives me a chance to brace myself and to stop in order to avoid a collision. Having the Braille Trail there gets me back on track and back into the direction I was going.

As much as I support the Braille Trail in very busy areas, I do not feel that it needs or should be everywhere. I say this as I believe that the blind and low vision community do need to keep up their orientation and mobility skills because not all places and cities have a Braille Trail to rely on. However, this being said, it would be nice if there was more uniformity.

My experience with different builders and contractors design with their own style, for example some put in tactile bricks around trees or poles that our canes will pick up and others don’t. Different contractors use different materials that feel different to our canes. Just because our canes can detect it, it doesn’t mean we know what the message is trying to tell us. The reason this is happening is that the accessible guidelines are just that – guidelines. They are not mandatory or compulsory so builders and contractors can pick and choose what they want to put in. This is often done without any consultation with any of the communities that have specific needs. It is unfortunate that those who are deciding for us have no understanding of our safety issues but do understand their tight budgets.

Again, this is not all doom and gloom. I feel that there is strength in numbers and with an organization like Queensland Walks there will be a lot of advocacy and awareness promoting as we all have a common goal – get outdoors, into the fresh air and enjoy the beautiful city of Brisbane!!”

Thank you to Sarah Boulton who provided her story to Queensland Walks.

We’d love to hear from you too! Do you have a story to share about walking ? Contact us.

Image: Sarah Boulton (right) is pictured with Sarah Jean (left) who is the Public Program Officer at the Anne Wallace Strange Ways exhibition at QUT in February 2020.

QUT offers guided tours of exhibitions with audio descriptions where you can meet and hear from Sarah and Sarah Jean. A wonderful experience.