Guest post by Samantha

UPDATE – Monday 16th May 2011: It took no time for the BBC to respond to Samantha after Pesky People alerted them to her blog post about her visit Dr Who Experience in April.

Samantha is delighted at the response from Philip Fleming, Head of Communications, Global Brands, BBC Worldwide

It is well worth taking the time to read Philip Fleming’s response in full as it shows that it is worth letting a company know where they have got it wrong (in your view) especially in regards to disability access. Using Pesky People to blog can really help and we will support you (if you don’t want to complain direct).

The BBC are also pledging to work with Pesky People as part of the Go Genie pilot programme.

UPDATE:  – Friday 13 May 2011: The Dr Who Team are looking into Samantha’s complaints and following a phone call by Pesky People to Philip Fleming, Head of Communications, Consumers & New Ventures, BBC Worldwide it is being addressed at the highest level. An update to follow soon.

Guest blogger Samantha from Sheffield found out that despite being a huge fan of Doctor Who it certainly didn’t welcome her to be a ‘part of the experience’ on Saturday 16th April 2011. Despite contacting them several times, as a visually impaired person she faced major hurdles in both planning and visiting The Doctor Who Experience. This post is all the more shocking that a major tourist attraction fails it’s disabled customers so badly despite paying nearly £20 not including the cost of travelling from Sheffield, London transport and eating out. Below she highlights a catalogue of errors but goes on to explain what they can do right. Samantha encountered a series of failures including:

  • inaccurate website information on disabled access facilities at the attraction
  • inaccurate/poor training of box office staff when she phoned to find out and arrange her visit
  • hassle of obtaining a carers pass (impossible in advance of arrival)
  • bad customer service at the venue despite making repeated requests for assistance
  • rude and unhelpful staff making inappropriate comments/suggestions
  • treating her as if she was Deaf not Blind – including offering an itouch with subtitles and requesting her driving license as security
  • failing to address her complaints privately or offering proper means of dealing with it

Anyone visiting a major tourist attraction (at £19.75/head) would expect to have a great time, enjoy the wonders of Doctor Who (especially as it is run by BBC Worldwide that is owned by the BBC and has to adhere to The Equalities Act). Their publicity reads:  “an unmissable adventure featuring an exhilarating and unique walk-through experience and an awe-inspiring exhibition… The Doctor Who Experience invites you to step through a crack in time allowing you to join the Doctor on a journey through time and space, encountering some of the best-loved and scariest monsters from the hit international television series. Special scenes filmed with Matt Smith as the Doctor combine with amazing special effects and the chance to enter a recreation of the modern TARDIS.”

HERE IS WHAT SAMANTHA HAD TO SAY ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE (some of the text has been edited):

On Saturday 16th April, I visited the Doctor Who Experience in London in a party of seven people. I planned the trip in advance, partly because that’s just the kind of girl I am, but also because I am visually impaired. I am registered blind, I have 10% sight in one eye, and nothing in the other, so I also have no depth perception and a significantly reduced field of vision. I use low vision aids, which are kind of like half a pair of binoculars, with strong magnification on them. I need to use these even in the front row of a concert or at the theatre. They magnify a small area to the point where I can see better, but with the consequence that you can only focus on a small area at any one time. You have to pan around to get “the bigger picture”.

I was particularly concerned about the interactive  “experience” element, as I was aware from friends that this was timed and felt rushed to them. I was concerned with the time it takes for me to focus my magnifiers, and then look at small areas in turn. BOOKING THE TICKETS: I checked the DW Experience website, there was

I phoned several times. The number took you through to the booking line. Each time, I spoke to a different person, who told me the only accessibility information they had was for wheelchair users. This is not great but hardly surprising, it’s fairly common place that wheelchair users are the only disabled group considered.

Everyone I spoke to said I should talk to the staff on the day of my visit, as they only sold the tickets and couldn’t help. When I explained my concerns, the staff on the telephone line gave a variety of responses, it was suggested:

  • I would be able to go through slowly at my own pace (untrue)
  • go through twice (untrue)
  • one even pointed out that children wouldn’t be able to see everything anyway (unhelpful).
  • No one at any point offered to contact staff at the event or
  • offered a telephone number or email address so I could do so
  • I was told I was entitled to a free carer’s ticket, but would need to explain all over again on the day to do this, as they couldn’t issue the ticket

So far, so par for the course. If I’m honest, I’m used to this. If I’m honest, this is exactly what experience has taught me to expect.

THE EXPERIENCE: So on the day we arrived, explained all over again, and were issued with the carer’s ticket. I tried to speak to the woman on the desk about my concerns, but was cut short and told to speak to the staff in the exhibition. We showed our tickets. I again, tried to explain my disability and my concerns. I was told there would be a member of staff with us throughout the interactive bit of the experience, and I should talk to them.

We queued up for the interactive bit of the experience behind a barrier. The staff were more interested in chatting amongst themselves than interacting with visitors, but we eventually managed to call one over.

Again, I start to explain that I’m visually impaired, I’m concerned about the timed element and had been told on the telephone it might be possible to go through twice….

The woman hurriedly cut me off. “We’ve got an ipod touch!” she exclaims proudly, and rushes off. I look confused, as do the rest of my party. She fetches someone else, again I start to explain, I do get as far as saying I’m registered blind, but not much further. An ipod is shoved into my hands, and a quick explanation given (something about a file to play for each room, follow the instructions on screen, any problems, your guide will help you).

I cannot see the instructions on screen, which is tiny, so hand the device to my carer, hoping it makes more sense to them. I am then asked for “my driving licence for security”. I blink, not quite comprehending the degree of hilarity in that question for a second, then offer my blue badge instead.

One of my group cheerfully shouts “you did not just ask a blind woman for her driving licence, did you!??!!” We all start to laugh, including his colleagues and he quickly hurries off. We enter the experience.

My carer tries to play the file, getting various error messages, it is passed round our group, with the same effect. At no point does the tour guide check it’s working correctly or how we are doing. I shrug,

I’m not sure why I’ve been given this thing anyway, so it gets shoved in a bag. We’ll just have to manage I say. The experience is wonderful, exciting, and well designed in most respects. It is a number of set pieces, one is involved in an adventure with The Doctor, set aboard a museum ship.

I’m not going to go into too much detail, as I don’t want to spoiler anyone. In the first room, a librarian (from Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, fact fans) directs you to look at various exhibits from the show. They are in darkness until mentioned, and quickly return to darkness. By the time I’ve focussed my low vision aids, they are in darkness once again and I can make nothing out. You are rushed between a series of rooms, past interesting and scary exhibits which you were supposed to see while moving, an impossibility when you are using a low vision aid. Various communications from The Doctor are played on a variety of screens of different sizes. I have to concentrate on finding and focussing on these, missing a lot of other stuff. There’s a 3D bit, wonderful I’m told, but useless to me. Oh well. I’m getting increasingly used to that too.

Despite the difficulties, we all enjoy the experience and come out the other side breathless and excited. I’ve not been able to see very much at all, and am disheartened and frustrated by this. No one checks whether I’ve been able to see anything or managed with the variable light levels etc.

We look again at the ipod, and someone in our group with a bit of technical knowledge gets it working (the staff hadn’t connected it to the wifi). What plays is The Doctor’s communications from the various screens. With subtitles. Tiny, tiny, subtitles.

I hope I don’t have to explain how RIDICULOUS and USELESS THIS IS for someone with a VISUAL IMPAIRMENT. Even if I’d been able to see the subtitles, why would I need them? My hearing is fine! And the screens were pretty large, in most of the rooms, this wasn’t the aspect I had difficulty seeing.

Much hilarity ensued as we wonder at the stupidity and insensitivity of giving a blind woman a tiny screen with subtitles on. I’m used to accessibility being bottom of everyone’s list of priorities, and going disasterously wrong, but at least this went wrong in a highly amusing way! We then did the static part of the exhibition, which was great fun.

I couldn’t read any of the written text or labels, so my carer took a long time reading everything to me.

AFTERWORDS COMPLAINING TO STAFF: After finishing the exhibit, taking much longer than the guide time, I have to return the ipod. I have to say something, but it’s okay, I’m still feeling mostly good natured and amused at this point. We leave most of our group in the cafe while my carer and I go to the desk. We hand in the ipod and get my blue badge back, I mention it didn’t work. No concern is shown in the slightest.

I politely ask for an email address for whoever is in charge of accessibility. I don’t want to complain in public and want to gather my thoughts.. The woman states she would fetch someone.

The person who is fetched is the person who gave me the ipod. I start to explain that it didn’t work (no apology is given) and that in any case, it was inappropriate for someone with a visual impairment. He interrupts me and retorts that he didn’t understand why I needed the ipod, he was just told I wanted it. I explained that I hadn’t asked for it, and hadn’t understood why I’d been given it, he stated that they had been put on the spot, just as I was going into the exhibition, and had been given no notice.

I hadn’t realised that my intention to visit would need to be formally announced, but again, I explained that this was untrue, I had phoned several times and spoken to several different members of staff on my arrival. He said that the exhibits weren’t meant to be seen, they were “for atmosphere”.

I suggest then, under the DDA (now Equalities Act), that no other visitors be allowed to look at these exhibits either, since they are clearly unimportant and “not meant to be looked at”).

He stated that I “should try coming with a child, they wouldn’t be able to see everything past adults either”. How patronising and discriminatory. Yes, being a child is EXACTLY the same as being visually impaired. A child might miss one or two things because someone else is in the way but they wouldn’t have missed everything. They could move to get a better view, other visitors were very mindful of children and this did happen regularly.

How would a visually impaired child access The Experience? He stated that I had come with a friend so she should’ve told me what I was looking at (or not). Hmmmm. I’m not sure how this fits with the Equalities Act, and they did give me a carer’s ticket.

Maybe it would be less inconvenient for them if all disabled people stayed at home and their carers just told them about it. He said that I was only the second visually impaired person they’d had, the implication being that they can’t be expected to know any better. I explained that I was aware of this, and that was why I was trying to give them some feedback, so other people’s experience could be improved. I should’ve said that it didn’t remove their legal obligations.

He then said that they did need feedback, it was important (although his tone suggested otherwise). I stated that I felt there were some very simple things that could be done to meet accessibility needs, and I would like an email address to give written feedback. He gave me “the only email address they have” (I sincerely doubt this). In tiny, tiny writing, of course.

He was defensive and rude throughout. At no point did he acknowledge that he or the exhibition had made any mistakes or apologise. He offered nothing to put right what had happened. He interrupted myself and my carer repeatedly, saying “you see, my dear…” in an incredibly patronising manner.

I approached the desk feeling amused, expecting someone to be embarrassed that they’d made such a ridiculous error and apologise, I was intending to be gracious, make clear I’d still enjoyed the experience, and would return to have another chance at seeing stuff, but that I wanted to offer them some helpful feedback.

I walked away absolutely furious and raging, from being patronised, invalidated and spoken over. Any good feelings I’d had drained quickly away. I was so angry I was holding back tears for quite some time, and upset for the rest of the day.

Some of our party, I didn’t know well, and wouldn’t’ve chosen for them to witness this particular incident. I generally don’t disclose my disability, for a number of reasons. When I’m in familiar areas, I manage very well. I’m extremely independent and don’t like to ask for help, particularly from people who aren’t close friends. I don’t “look” disabled, and so when I disclose, am often met with disbelief, some suspicion, followed by “don’t you do well” and “aren’t you an inspiration”.

I expected The Doctor Who Experience to get it wrong, accessibility wise. Call me a cynic, but we learn from previous experiences. What I didn’t expect was to be treated in such an invalidating, rude, condescending and defensive manner.

That was what made this one of the most disabling experiences I’ve had recently. As I said above, I often don’t disclose my disability through a certain amount of shame and embarrassment, which I know is entirely misplaced. I tweeted about my experiences, but The Doctor Who Experience account didn’t respond. Given this, and the response I got on the day, I decided, although it makes me uncomfortable, to publish this in a public forum, as well as emailing the Experience.

Sadly, in my experience, bad publicity often shames companies into greater action than individual complaints. I hope the BBC and people associated with producing my favourite show may come to know how The Experience treats disabled visitors too. I will post any reply here too, so they will have the same publicity for any response.

HOW TO ENSURE YOU GET DISABLED ACCESS RIGHT
It’s important that a Doctor Who as a phenomenal franchise, making this much money, and associated with the BBC, a public corporation, should be expected to fulfil it’s legal obligations regarding equality of access. Sadly, it does not. Below are some points that the exhibition needs to consider to improve accessibility in general, and specifically for people with visual impairments.

  • The website needs proper accessibility information.
  • The telephone number given should be for someone who is actually able to help with accessibility needs, not a call centre.
  • Provide an email address for a named person to manage such requests.
  • The call centre needs information on accessibility for people with different needs, training and more accurate information to be given out.
  • Allow carer’s tickets to be awarded and sent out with regular tickets; this prevents a lot of anxiety and embarrassment. Why should I have to explain my disability again in an open public area? If proof is needed, fine, I could’ve easily emailed or posted something.
  • Train your staff! Insensitivity, listening skills, communication, and the different disabilities they might encounter. Find out what people want, rather than assuming you know best and have the perfect answer.
  • Deal with complaints sensitively, be prepared to acknowledge faults and errors, and to apologise for the experience someone has had and the way that has affected them, even if you don’t feel you have done anything wrong.
  • If you have done something wrong, be honest! Ask what you can do to put the situation right.
  • High tech solutions are not the only way, and may cause more problems than they solve if offered inappropriately, not explained fully, or not functioning. If you are going to offer something like this, ensure your staff know how to use it and who it would be appropriate to offer it to.

I realise that the purpose of the interactive experience is to feel like you are on an adventure with The Doctor, and the exhibits in the shipboard museum are designed primarily for atmosphere. Unfortunately, if you can’t see them, you don’t GET that atmosphere. Instead of wonder and excitement, you get despondent and frustrated.

  • Allow people with visual impairments to walk back through the interactive section once they’ve completed it, either with the next group, so they get another go at seeing things, or even better, with the lights up. In fact, why not allow other visitors to do this too? I’m sure it might eat into profits, but we visited on a Saturday in the Easter holidays, and it was not busy. Sighted visitors would, I’m sure, like some time to look at the exhibits in that section.
  • If that’s not possible, warn partially sighted users that things are going to light up briefly, where they are, and in what order. That might at least have given me a chance of seeing something.
  • Make an audio description track, like that is used in theatres. As the experience is set to predetermined times, this wouldn’t need to be delivered live, it could be prerecorded and provided on an mp3 player. This would allow people with a variety of degrees of visual impairments to get the atmosphere of the experience, and would allow people with some functional sight to be directed where to look at the appropriate times. This wouldn’t be very complicated to put in place and myself and my carer would be happy to help with this.
  • Like many museums, provide a large print, numbered, and hand held copy of all the text and labels displayed. This is so low tech and easy, and would’ve made such a difference.
  • Warn disabled visitors that their visit may take significantly longer than the times given on the website.
  • Provide an email address for feedback, and encourage it. Be open, rather than defensive.

Have whoever runs your twitter account respond to tweets. Twitter is an interactive forum, if you can’t interact, don’t use it.

  • Remember that you have obligations under law to take reasonable steps to ensure equality of access. Don’t think because you are a big endeavour , making a lot of money, that you are exempt from caring about an individual’s experience.

I realise that me telling my friends and withholding their and my own custom is going to make no difference to you, so that leaves me pretty powerless. But having a big profit making endeavour makes you more responsible, not less. And you still have moral and legal obligations.

THE LAST WORD GOES TO THE DOCTOR HIMSELF: THE HUNGRY EARTH Remember how The Doctor responded to the little boy with dyslexia in The Hungry Earth?* THAT is what you are aiming for! The child tells The Doctor he’s dyslexic. The Doctor replies “oh, that’s all right. I can’t make a decent meringue!”