Flash Says…

Archive for February 2011

The variety of train providers across the UK creates a problem; the services you take for granted on one service may not be offered on another. Knowing what to expect can be difficult, but if you’re a wheelchair user, it’s even more varied and you’re certainly not equal to other passengers. Let’s take a closer look…

John arrives at the station, buys his ticket, picks up a sandwich from M&S and spends a minute pondering coloured ties on a stall. Then he checks the departure screens, and strolls down Platform 2. He identifies coach D, and takes his seat at a table, by the window, ready to watch the world pass by as he eats lunch and works on his laptop. Ah, train travel is so easy.

If John had arrived in a wheelchair, it would be another story. After checking in with the assistance counter, he would be told to stay there, left for ages (unable to go shopping), then just as he was starting to worry that he’d been forgotten, an assistant would walk over, grab the handles of his wheelchair (without asking), push him briskly to the platform, bundle him up a ramp, and leave him in an open space next to the toilet.

John decides to go for a coffee, after all his ticket entitles him to a free drink and snack. Meanwhile, John’s wheelchair using counterpart waits, hoping that a staff member will come through to check tickets, so he can ask them to go to the buffet for him. Until he can access food and drink, he can’t take his painkillers. It’s usually an hour before anyone comes through. John, blissfully unaware, sits down, peels the foil from his milk and adds it to his drink. He inhales happily and relaxes as the world rolls by. What could be more calming than a trip on the train?

This is not just about “John” and his counterpart. I’ve attended various forums and focus groups recently; I know that it’s not just me who has a hellish experience purely because they are disabled.

My needs are simple, and the same on any train. I require a ramp to board, I would like to sit in a wheelchair bay at a table, ideally one with a power point. I need one of the train staff to come by after I’ve boarded, to check I’m ok and see if I need food (e.g. to take medication with). I also request that nobody pushes my wheelchair without asking me first.

The experiences between first and standard class can vary, and also between train companies, so no two trips are the same – I always have to ring ahead to find out what’s on offer.

Wheelchair space on First Great Western
On board with First Great Western – a standard class carriage, so I am next to a power point, aid call button, and accessible toilet.

I regularly travel with First Great Western. They treat you well – as long as you are in standard class! Recently I was told “I’m afraid there’s no space left in standard so we would like to offer you a free upgrade to first class” – for most people these words would be a relief, a chance to have a larger seat in a less crowded carriage for no additional charge. However, I have a concern. The entrance to first class is narrower. My new wheelchair only just meets the measurements – I hope it will squeak through the doors, else I’ll have to get out and take the wheels off in order to get inside!

Also, I won’t be able to show my ticket at the buffet to claim a free drink and snack – because I can’t get to the buffet. But, unlike in standard class, there’s no aid call button. And although every other seat has access to a power socket, frustratingly the wheelchair bay doesn’t. But I need to charge my phone, in order to arrange a lift at my destination. Never mind, I’m in the quiet carriage where phones are forbidden… This doesn’t make sense to me, as a disabled person is likely to need to make arrangement for their onward travel, since they are the least able to walk into town or stroll to a bus stop. Yet First Great Western forces first class disabled travellers to sit in a quiet zone.

Worse still, the only accessible toilet is in standard class. So if I’m “promoted” to First on a long journey, I’ll have to hold on…

Still, at least I know First Great Western will be able to accommodate me. With Southeastern, it’s another story.

Last autumn I visited Hastings with my choir – a 111 minute journey, so it’s as long as London to York, for example. I called in advance to find out about the difference between first and standard – so I could ensure I booked a bay with power socket – but I received a confusing response about “the space”. I didn’t understand, so I said I’d work it out later and buy my ticket on the day.

When I arrived it was explained to me that there was no wheelchair bay in first, just a large space in standard, which is where I’d be placed. Once I was on board my contemporaneous tweets told their own story:

  • Now I know why the Southeast Trains lass was stumped by my q. about the diff between 1st & std. All wheelchair users go in a pit by the loo.
  • WHY did I say train travel is underrated? Already I’m dirty & can feel my soul ebbing away. Not even any power points & my phone’s abt to d..

You get the idea. And I was stuck with a drunken idiot who used the toilet and then laughed “ah! You’re downwind, at least it wasn’t a number two!” Charming. He then sat in a flip down seat next to me and then proceeded to interrogate me about my disability throughout the journey, and although I made polite excuses about reading my book I couldn’t physically escape, so that is how my entire journey was passed…. I’ve never had such a horrible trip and was glad to return home by car.

Wheelchair space on Southeast train
The space I was forced to use in my wheelchair on Southeast Trains – next to the toilet.

Since I’ve been accommodated adequately by First Great Western, Virgin, Eurostar and others, I had never imagined that wheelchair users would just be left in an open plan space next to the toilet! If I had bought a first class ticket, I wouldn’t have been able to use it.

What have I learnt from this terrible experience? Well from now on, I am adding to my list of requirements: “at least one sliding door between me and the toilet”.


I have followed up to several stories I reported in the last year. Here are the updates.

The new Routemaster – if this is the future, I’m not on board
I revisted the Routemaster on 27 January and found that two poles had been moved so that it was now possible to get into the wheelchair bay more quickly. However, it was still a tight fit and there’s a lot of work to do! Transport for All attended and recorded my thoughts for the video in this article by BBC London News.

Life at Glastonbury
I received some lovely comments about my Glastonbury diary but I’m afraid I won’t be going to Glasto 2011… nor any festival, at this point. The fact that my powertrike broke at Glastonbury is part of it – if I want to go to a festival I’ll have to spend a lot of money on a power adaption for my wheelchair so I can no longer book tickets on a whim. I still hope we can go camping in 2011 instead.

Purple, blue or green?
Despite everything I said about my preferences for the green hotel, I regularly end up staying at the blue one because it’s on the same estate as a bus stop, supermarket, and pub – the others are just off the motorway and have no other facilities on site. The blue hotel still doesn’t hoover around the edge of the room. I am tempted to sprinkle glitter to see if they notice.

A guide to the Wii Fit for disabled people
These articles were very well received. I released a new video on 18 Feb 2011 showing two more games you can play sitting down and how to do so. In general, when playing an aerobic game sit on the edge of a chair and tap your feet; when playing a balance game, sit on the board and lean!

Kidnapped by the council
At last a good news story and one I am delighted to report – on Christmas Eve, Steven Neary went back home to live with his dad Mark – hopefully for good.


Usually, access improvements benefit both wheelchair users and parents pushing baby buggies. So why is it so awkward when both parties meet on a bus? Is there any common ground, or will they automatically resent each other’s presence? Sophie, pregnant mum to a toddler, and Lisa, a wheelchair user, explain where they are coming from.

Sign reading 'Priority wheelchair area. This space is reserved for someone in a wheelchair. Baby buggies. Buggies can use this area if it is not needed by a wheelchair user.'

The wheelchair user

I regularly travel on the buses, but if I could be on the tube for a journey that takes half the time, then I would be. I’m only there due to lack of alternatives.
When I see a buggy on board my heart sinks because I know that either the bus driver won’t stop to let me on; the bus driver will tell me they’re not letting me on because there’s already a buggy there; the driver will ask the parents to fold the buggy and the parent will become verbally abusive; or the parent will fold the buggy but because it takes time everyone else on the bus becomes hostile towards me for making their journey longer. Whatever happens I feel that I’m going to end up hated by someone just for being a wheelchair user.
I can’t fold my chair, because it has a rigid frame. Some bits are removable but that’s far too complex for doing on a bus.
I’ve shared the bay, and it’s not big enough for two!
I wish that… there were both buggy bays and wheelchair bays, like on London’s bendy buses. Signage and awareness are, of course, key issues too. A lot of parents think of the space as “the buggy space” despite the fact that its designation actually is “wheelchair space which may be used by buggies if it’s not needed by a wheelchair user.”
I would like buggy users to remember that they can choose whether to buy a buggy that’s difficult to fold or doesn’t fold at all. I had no choice in the matter.

The buggy pushing parent

I regularly travel on the buses, travelling distances of between 2 and 35 miles. I use a lightweight single buggy, for my 22 month old son. However, I’m expecting my second child soon and will be using a much heavier, bigger double buggy.
When I see a wheelchair on board I dread getting on the bus. It’s nothing personal, I just know that I’ll have to collapse the buggy and then control my son for the journey! On longer trips this is daunting and a bit exhausting.
I can fold my buggy, but being 7 months pregnant, it’s not ideal! It’s hard having to hold a small person while doing it.
I’ve shared the bay, and it was a bit of a squeeze. The bays on most buses have a metal column against it, which is very difficult to manoeuvre round, especially in a hurry (and bus drivers do like driving off when you’re trying to get out of the bay!)
I wish that… the bays were bigger. I also wish the drivers would stop longer at ‘halts’ if they know a buggy user is getting off or on – I’ve often had to sway up a moving bus, because the driver can’t hang on for 30 seconds. Or they have driven away from the stop while I am still trying to get the buggy into the aisle to get off.
I would like wheelchair users to remember that it is not always easy transporting small children and that the bus service is a community service, for everyone.

Sophie and Lisa were speaking to Flash Bristow

Having dealt in Part 1 with a general guide to how the Wii Fit can work if you have a disability, let’s look at some specific impairments. Of course this cannot cover all possibilities; I welcome comments as to how you get on with the game!

Firstly, let’s consider mobility impairments.

If you have balance or fatigue issues, you’ll probably be able to find a way to play, as long as you can stand still for 5-10 seconds at the start of each game. As demonstrated in my video, there are lots of different ways to play; you can stand (as the manufacturer intended), take your weight on a stool so your feet are just tapping on the board, or you can even sit on the board, although this is a little harder to control in my experience.

If you can’t use your legs at all, you’ll need to sit on the board, and shift your weight from left to right, and front to back, by wiggling and leaning. You’ll also need to use your hands to hop you up for a “jump” in some games, but if you can lean there are plenty of games you can play such as ski slalom. In fact, all categories include at least one activitity which doesn’t require use of legs – you can hold the remote in your hand for jogging, there’s strength training for your triceps, and Zazen is a game which tests your ability to sit still!

If you can stand but not step or jog, then if you can control your balance there are plenty of activities for you. Hula hoop is a great aerobic exercise, and there are plenty of balance games such as Perfect 10 where you lean in order to light up bubbles which add up to a score of ten. You can also take on games like driving range (golf), and a few others such as Rhythm Kung Fu mostly rely on movement of your arms; you will lose the odd point if you can’t make a step in time to the rhythm, but there aren’t many times when this is required, so the game is still enjoyable.

If you are truly “wheelchair bound” – unable to move from your chair – there are still options for you; a company called VIVIFY have created the “floor-board” which enables a wheelchair user to drive onto the Wii Fit board. Have a look at it on the Floor-Board website..

Next, let’s look at other physical or sensory impairments.

Are you missing one or both arms? No problem! Very few games need both arms, and many don’t need either. Even the “Birdseye Bullseye” game – where you are supposed to flap your arms in order to ‘fly’ – can be done by bending and extending your legs to shift your weight in a similar manner. You do need to press a button on the remote control to start each game, but the remote could be at your feet. If your only impairment is a restriction in your arms, then you should still be able to get a lot out of Wii Fit. Obviously, if you have a complex impairment including issues with your lower limbs, then you’ll find it far more challenging!

Deaf people should have little problem using the Wii Fit. Most instructions appear on screen in text, and they don’t move on until the A button is pressed on the remote control (there are a few exceptions, but these are rare, and tend to be tips on how to improve rather than essential directions). The only issue would be in hearing instructions during exercises when you are not able to see the screen – for example touching your toes – but you could always place a mirror at your feet so you can see the screen at the same time. A few of the strength training exercises bleep to let you know when you are applying enough pressure, but this is always accompanied by a visual effect, as are other audible alerts (such as notification of the last 10 seconds of a game, when the countdown will also change colour). Even in games where you have to move in time with a beat, there will be other characters whose movements you can copy. If hearing impairment is your only issue, you’ll have no problem using the Wii Fit.

If you’re blind, or have a significant visual impairment, then I’m sorry but I don’t think the Wii Fit system will work for you. From starting the game – which requires you to point the remote control at the Wii Fit icon – through to navigating the menu system, you’ll have difficulty. There is some tactile feedback from the remote control – it vibrates as you hover over a selectable icon, but you’d need to memorise the entire navigation system. Then you’ll struggle to play the games. In Yoga and Strength Training, you are expected to copy the movements of someone on screen, and in the other games you need to read the instructions. Ok, there are a few games you could play if you can navigate to them – hula hoop, jogging and free step – but then you will want to read your score afterwards. If you find it hard to see detail and read words on your TV screen, then you will find it nigh on impossible to use a Wii Fit.

Anyone with reading or comprehension difficulties will also find it hard to get started, as most instructions are text based, but once you’ve got the hand of the games you shouldn’t need to read the directions again as they pop up, so if someone can assist you through the first few attempts of each game, it shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.

If you’re colourblind then you will notice the occasional reference such as “keep the blue bar in the red area” – however the graphics are clearly understandable even if you cannot distinguish colours. The only potential issue that I have noticed is in Step aerobics, where your footprints are shown in red, until a green footprint indicates that you should lift that foot up. However colour references are few in the Wii Fit activities and you should not find it particularly limiting.

People with learning difficulties should find the Wii Fit easy to use, as the navigation system is straightforward and consistent. Each game is illustrated by a picture, and each exercise is illustrated by a diagram. However, some activities require the user to copy their movements – for example, in Yoga and Strength Training exercises there is a trainer on screen who says “think of me as your mirror image”. In other games such as Rhythm Kung Fu and Rhythm Boxing you have to copy the movements of another character, so if you find it hard to do this, there will be fewer activities open to you. However, once you learn how to play them, many of the games are great fun. There are some other good features – one of these is a reminder to take a break for 10-15 minutes every hour, so if you are the kind of person who becomes very engrossed in computer games, you will still be reminded to rest as necessary.

It should be clear now that many people with disabilities or impairments can use the Wii Fit, with a bit of imagination or by sticking to certain types of activity. Disability is certainly not a barrier in most cases, and the Wii Fit can be a very enjoyable way to have fun, and maybe lose weight.

That concludes part 2 of the guide to Wii Fit for disabled people, but please bear in mind that I am just offering advice as a user. Please read part 1 of the guide as well. Before buying the Wii Fit, please do try it in a shop such as Toys R Us, or even better at a friend’s house, where you will have the chance to see how you get on and how your body feels the next day. Enjoy “Wii Fitting”!

I received a Wii Fit for Christmas – lucky me! But I’m disabled with a mobility difficulty. I was wary – would I be able to get to grips with the game? There was no option but to dive straight in.

I’d considered buying a Wii Fit in the past, but couldn’t find any information online other than short uninformed discussions on messageboards or this brief article which dismissively says it’s “not suitable for those in wheelchairs or with otherwise limited lower body mobility”. Having been using the Wii Fit for a month now, I disagree with that statement (within limitations of course). I feel it’s time to provide the information I wish I’d had – along with info for people with different impairments, as far as possible. So, here’s a guide to using the Wii Fit with a disability.

Although I’ll be considering a range of needs and limitations, I should declare my own: joint hypermobility meaning I have to be careful of my knees and wrists; “the more I do, the worse I am” which means I might be able to use the Wii Fit, but need to consider any additional pain or instability the following day. I am also unable to kneel, and find it very hard to stand on one leg or crouch down. Therefore, there are plenty of activities I haven’t been able to try – but many more which I could do with ease.

This will be a 2 part article, in order to provide a necessary level of depth.
Firstly: General information
Secondly: Information for specific impairments

I must start by saying that there ARE a few user groups who won’t be able to use the Wii Fit, in my opinion;

  • those who cannot stand still for 5-10 seconds, which you need to do before each game (if I lift my hand I am told to “keep still!”);
  • those who cannot see, because nearly every game has visual prompts with no audio equivalent;
  • and those who cannot move their torso or any of their limbs, as you need to be able to at least wriggle and lean from side to side, or hold a remote control.

Other than that, I reckon you’ll be able to get something out of using the Wii Fit – please leave a comment to let me know how you get on!

The Wii Fit system comprises a balance board (not the wobbly thing that you’d use during physiotherapy but a solid, flat plastic item) which measures 48cm by 30cm, and 6cm high, meaning that it’s not too difficult to step up onto it. It’s essentially a very clever weighing scale, judging where your weight is placed and how you move. There’s a remote control which is used to start the activities and to command aspects in some of the games… and a nunchuk which is used when it’s necessary to provide controls for both hands.

When starting the game, you must navigate to the Plaza and pick out your character, using the remote control. Then you can weigh in if you wish – your BMI is displayed which may of course not translate height to weight appropriately for people who have differently proportioned bodies, or missing limbs, etc. Although BMI is shown on the initial graph you can flick to a chart of weight, and if you wish to set a goal this is done in terms of weight rather than BMI.

The main part of Wii Fit is the training section which comprises 4 categories (yoga, muscle exercises, aerobics, and balance games) as well as a fifth category exclusive to Wii Fit Plus which includes extra aerobic and balance activities, most of which are great fun. Examples of activities in each section include:

  • Yoga – Deep breathing, spine extension, and shoulder stand (18 exercises)
  • Strength Training – Sideways leg lift, lunge, rowing squat (18 exercises)
  • Aerobics – Hula hoop, step basics, rhythm boxing (9 games)
  • Balance Games – Ski jump, balance bubble, snowboard slalom (9 games)
  • Training Plus – Rhythm kung fu, snowball fight, driving range (15 games)

There are four main ways in which you need to move on the balance board in order to manoeuvre during the games:

  • stepping on and off (used in step aerobics, boxing and various strength and yoga exercises)
  • stepping on the board (e.g. in cycling, obstacle course, rhythm parade)
  • “jump” – this means to bend and straighten the legs (in ski jump, skateboard arena, obstacle course)
  • leaning in four directions – left, right, forward and back (e.g. in hula hoop, perfect 10, and heading a football)

So whatever your impairment, you will need to find a way of adapting this so that you can shift your weight on and off, and in different directions, to simulate the movement the board is expecting. This is not as hard as you might think; watch my video to see three ways that you could “step on the board” and “jump” – both standing and sitting on the board, and taking some of your weight on a seat (click on the still image to view the video). With a bit of imagination, most things are possible even with a mobility impairment. Whichever manner you choose to move your body, you’ll need to be able to “step on” the board in the same manner before each game, or it won’t detect your movement accurately.

There is another aspect to some games – that of using the remote control, and sometimes you hold the remote in one hand and a nunchuk in the other. Quite a few games make use of the remote – you use it to steer in cycling, to fire snowballs, and to hit golf balls, whereas you will need both remote and nunchuk for boxing and kung fu style games. However, if you are unable to hold the remote, or to use the nunchuk as well, there are still plenty of games which do not require you to use your hands or arms. One game, “Bullseye birdseye” encourages the user to flap their arms in order to make their character fly, but you can bend and extend your legs to get the same effect. However, you do need to operate the remote (by directing it or pressing buttons) to select games, and to press the A button in order to start each game. It would be possible to start games by pressing the remote with your feet although you couldn’t use the remote to play games in that manner, because you would need your feet to move in other ways at the same time.

The Wii Fit aims to keep your interest from day to day in various ways. The obvious way is that you might weigh in and try to chart your weight loss. There are also hi-score tables for most activities, even the yoga and strength training exercises – the game probably assumes you will get fitter and beat your hi scores making it continually appealing, but I’ve reached my physical limits in many games. I can do them again as part of an exercise routine but once I’ve reached my limit there is no way I can beat my score; in fact it’s frustrating especially if another user has set a top score you have no hope of reaching! However there are so many different activities, many of which contain a range of difficulty levels, that it seems there is always a variety of activities to try, no matter which bit of you is hurting or refusing to co-operate on any given day.

That concludes the first part of the guide to the Wii Fit for disabled people, but do read part 2 – information for specific impairments – and please bear in mind that I am just offering advice as a user. Before buying the Wii Fit, please try it in a shop such as Toys R Us, or even better at a friend’s house, where you will have the chance to see how you get on and how your body feels the next day. Enjoy “Wii Fitting”!

Flash Says – a regular blog by Flash Bristow

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