Blind people in Northern Ireland 'struggle with buses'
Nine in 10 almost or totally blind people in Northern Ireland have been put off visiting friends and family because buses do not include audio announcements on board, it has been claimed.
Many others with sight loss have missed social occasions like birthday parties because they found travelling so difficult, the Guide Dogs charity said.
The organisation said 259 Translink vehicles should be fitted with equipment broadcasting routes, destinations and next stops. It also called for more training for drivers so they can help those with no or partial sight get off at the correct stop.
Guide Dogs NI policy manager Andrew Murdock said: "Buses are a vital way for people with sight loss to get out and about freely and independently, but many feel excluded from bus travel because of a lack of accessible information."
A survey entitled Road to Nowhere was conducted between October and last month with 52 blind or partially sighted people responding from across Northern Ireland.
It said 85% of people with sight loss in Northern Ireland felt unable to enjoy the freedom others took for granted because they found travelling by bus so difficult.
The results showed 88% have been put off visiting friends and family and 64% missed social occasions like birthdays. Some 44% reported the prospect of travelling by bus had put them off attending doctor or hospital appointments, a quarter said it stopped them from taking a job and 70% felt isolated and cut off from the rest of the community.
Nearly one in three spent more than £30 a month on taxis rather than the bus.
Guide Dogs called for compulsory audio visual announcements to be included in regulations to ensure all vehicles are talking buses. The organisation said this would bring them into line with other forms of public transport like trains.
Mr Murdock called on the Department of Environment to regulate on the issue.
"We welcome (Regional Development) Minister (Danny) Kennedy's recent commitment to moving forward the implementation of audio visual information on buses and urge the Department of Regional Development to identify funding to retrofit existing buses with audio visual technology for the benefit of all passengers," he said.
Guide dog owner David Cooper had to stick to routes he knew particularly well and would not use the bus in an unfamiliar area.
"I have missed my stop on many occasions and because of this have had a long, meandering journey home. I'm totally blind so regardless of if I'm three feet or three miles from where I think I am, it still means I'm lost," he said.
Mr Kennedy's department has evaluated a pilot project on a Belfast Metro bus service which provided audio visual information systems.
"The results from the pilot were very positive, pointing to benefits for a wide range of passengers including people with visual impairments," he said.
"My department will continue to explore opportunities for funding that may provide for a wider roll out of audio visual systems on bus passenger services in Northern Ireland, including the potential to provide audio visual information via smart phones through advances in technology."