How a blind scientist’s mission to get lost in London shone a light on TfL red tape – and the kindness of Tube travellers – Evening Standard

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A scientist with near total sight loss has urged London transport bosses to learn from other world cities to help blind travellers navigate the Tube more independently.

Mona Minkara, a 32-year-old bioengineer, posted YouTube videos highlighting her battles with TfL bureaucracy while travelling solo – and the kindness of “amazing” Londoners offering assistance.

Professor Minkara, whose research at Boston’s Northeastern University includes vaping’s molecular impact on lung function, travelled around pre-lockdown London’s attractions – taking in Harrods, Tower Bridge and St Thomas’ Hospital Old Operating Theatre – hoping “blend into the crowd”.

She has no sight in her right eye and two per cent vision in her left eye, only perceiving light and dark.

The American uses a white cane and voice-controlled smartphone maps to navigate, but instructed videographer Natalie Guse not to intervene if she got lost, and to keep filming.

As part of an online documentary series called Planes, Trains and Canes, the scientist aimed to “figure out” London by joining fellow passengers in platform crushes and on packed trains.

Caught up in a noisy crowd stuck behind the gates on Knightsbridge station’s concourse, she said: “This is utter chaos, and I love it.”

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After a shaky start at Heathrow – being ignored by six members of the public when she needed directions – Professor Minkara’s video reveals Londoners volunteering directions, travel tips and helping lug her suitcases down station stairs.

But the academic was frustrated when Tube staff refused to let her travel without an escort, citing disability policy and fears she risked getting lost or hurt – something she protested was her own responsibility.

They ultimately relented and agreed to her request.

Professor Minkara thanking a fellow passenger for helping lug her suitcase down the stairs (Mona Minkara)

At the same time, British campaigners for blind and visually impaired people have long fought for travel assistance available when they need it, amid complaints of lengthy waits for aid following Tube job cuts.

Furthermore, since Professor Minkara’s visit TfL, staff must now remain two metres from passengers they assist under Covid social distancing rules.

Now she urged transport chiefs to add more features helping visually impaired travellers more easily navigate the network, including extra braille signs and directional grooves in station floors for simpler way-finding by cane.

She told the Standard: “In Istanbul and Tokyo, there were cane guides on the ground, literally ridges embedded into the floor

“They allow you to orientate yourself and know which directions you need to go.

“It requires infrastructure and a different mindset, because that means more blind people will be independently travelling.

The bioengineer wants more features on London’s transport network promoting independent travel (Mona Minkara)

“I think it’s important to recognise that it’s ok to get lost and to try and get out there, I want the choice.”

She added: “I love London, I love riding the Underground, and there were a lot of amazing people.

“If I was really tired or scared or unsure, then for somebody to come up and say: ‘Hey, would you like some assistance, and I say ‘yes’ and it’s provided, I think that’s awesome.

Tactile attractions on the trip include Tower Bridge’s grand masonry (Mona Minkara)

“But I really wanted to just adventure on my own, and I have no problems with getting lost, I actually want to get lost – I wanted to figure out ‘can I do this without a safety net?’”

Clive Wood, policy and campaigns manager for the charity Guide Dogs, said: “Blind and partially sighted people should have the choice to ask for assistance or not when using public transport.

“We know that there are many people with sight loss who feel confident to travel without assistance, particularly on journeys they are familiar with.

“However, it’s important that there is the opportunity to seek help from staff when this is needed. Having a choice is key.”

Professor Minkara told videographer Natalie Guse not to intervene if she got lost, and to keep filming (Mona Minkara)

Brian Woodhead, London Underground’s director of customer service, said: “We would like to apologise to Professor Minkara for not initially being given the choice to travel independently and are looking into what happened in this case.

“All London Underground staff undergo disability equality training and are advised to speak to customers to understand what assistance, if any, they need.

“Customers not needing any help can, of course, continue their journey unassisted.”

More about: | Travel | Blind | Commuters | TfL | Tube