It’s never really just black or white

Hamburger Hill. Image from 'Slaughter of the innocents: The Vietnamese war as never seen before.'

Hamburger Hill. Image from ‘Slaughter of the innocents: The Vietnamese war as never seen before.’

Nothing in life is ever set in stone. Or illuminated in black and white. Nothing. Nada. Which means you should never say never. Statements like there is no reason for homes to have a PC, or what would you want a mobile phone for, or there will always be cars or trains to take commuters to work should never be believed in.

Then there are opinions held by folk that advise us that the Russians will always be our enemies (harhar) or that Communism is evil. Perhaps you would believe that North Korea will always hate South Korea? Is that possible?

Before you say yes, best have a look at this statement. The USA will always hate Vietnam and North Vietnam will always hate the USA. Mmmh. No. But it certainly felt like it during the Vietnam/USA war didn’t it. And it’s this black and white fact that has now disappeared that I want to mention.

Commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the start of the conflict a book of photographs by press photographers is being published. Slaughter of the innocents: The Vietnamese war as never seen before. It is considered to be the last newspaper war. That is one where  journalists were the bringers of actual news. What the press photographers shot was what people saw.

What made me take note was one image that showed a US paratrooper wounded in battle at Hamburger Hill in central Vietnam. You see I actually drove past Hamburger Hill in a bus with staff from Hope Center on a work outing. They pointed it out to us. We were past the little bump (hardly a hill really) within seconds, hardly seeing the gun that commemorated the spot.

Yet that insignificant spot was a nasty battleground with many dead soldiers from both sides. And what were they fighting for, both sides? Besides the hill? During those years perhaps the issue was black and white. Communist against Capitalist. Or whatever. But it wasn’t really. It was a bunch of determined locals prepared to die to keep their country safe from a foreign invasion.

And now nobody could be bothered to even remember the hill. Except perhaps the relatives of the hundreds of dead soldiers. What happened to that black and white principle that had to be fought for with guns and human sacrifice?

So before you get stuck on defending a principle you think is cast in stone think really hard. Is it still going to be this black and white in a few year’s time? Think of gay marriages, or women priests in the Anglican church, or women car drivers in Saudi Arabia or time travel or never aging. What of that list is impossible? Thought so.

A society focused on the young populated by the aged

Thanks for the fun image Dorothy, 87 years old.  (AP PHOTO/DALE SPARKS)

Thanks for the fun image Dorothy, 87 years old. (AP PHOTO/DALE SPARKS)

This stat came up in 2008 already. At the time the UK Office for National Statistics revealed that there were more people of pensionable age living in the UK than children under the age of 16. This was five years ago.

Look at our society. What do you see? A celebration of youth. The entertainment industries focus on young topics using young actors and actresses. Older protagonists are only thrown in as a token. The fashion industry uses teenage models to show case it’s fashions for the young. (and thin)

The marketing and advertising industries focus on selling products and services to the youth. In fact even the players within this industry disappear after the age of 35. Unless of course they own the business as is the case with Martin Sorrell who is still around at age 68. But then he owns a big chunk of WPP Group. Not sure where the others disappear to though.

Big brands such as Apple, Nike, Volkswagen, P&G direct their products at the 18 to 35 year old demographic. If they are really daring they might extend that age bracket to 45. Yet the bulk of their customers are older than 45. Your 60 year old is just as readily buying an iPhone as she is getting herself some running shoes from the Nike store or buying a new VW.

Every single person over the age of 60 will buy a cleaning product of some sort. Yet how many ads for cleaning products are directed at the ‘grey’ market? Perhaps a Gran appears in an ad but only to ‘advise’ daughter on what to buy. Never the shopper herself. Perfume? Sure Julia Roberts advertises one at the age of 45. But she has been digitally enhanced in such a way that she appears 30.

And did anybody notice that Glastonbury’s main stage in 2013 was packed out and they had to extend the area when the Rolling Stones did their gig this year. Guess what their average age is. And what does that say about the ages of Glastonbury goers?

I did an interesting exercise a day ago. I googled for weddings for young people and had 70 million results. I googled weddings for older people and my results were 6 million. So nobody is getting married over the age of 50? Certainly nobody is writing about it.

As the stores shut down all along the High Streets of the UK one thing retailers might want to consider is opening stores for older people. Comfortable sized aisles, seating areas to rest on and great displays, labels with bigger font sizes and products of all things ‘old’. Whether more comfortable clothing, health and wellness products, mobility aids or easier to cook and consume foods it’s what older consumers might be interested in. Add on excellent delivery services and you could be onto a winner.

Rather than pretending that nobody gets older and hiding the aged in old age villages waiting to die, let’s change the way we view society. Old is not redundant. Old could mean another twenty years of active life. Why pretend it’s not happening. Embrace it and enjoy it. And marketers, start making money off those oldies. They got some!

As an aside: interested in reading about weddings in general visit Yorkshire Wedding Venues or Wedding Venues.


eBay’s bizarre dance against accessibility

Amazing deaf phone.

Amazing deaf phone.

If I get the facts right about this case, and disclaimer I haven’t followed it per se, then eBay is being taken to court by a deaf person because of accessibility issues. By now it has headed to Supreme Court because the lower courts ruled in favour of the big boy, eBay.

In effect the dispute is something that could have been fixed immediately the issue was pointed out. eBay just couldn’t be bothered. Obviously for them disabled customers were not at the top of the list.

A woman tried to set up an account on eBay so that she could sell some goods. Nothing wrong with that one would imagine. In fact the internet should be a commercial space that otherwise disabled (mobility and hearing) folk should be able to operate in. Easily.

Except in the case of eBay, as final step in the setting up an account process, eBay requests the account holder to receive a phone call. Presumably this is to ensure that a real person exists on the other end of the phone line and to establish perhaps a valid phone number.

For a deaf person receiving a phone call is a slight issue.

It seems that eBay were not prepared to validate her account in any other way. Meaning that in all probability other deaf account holders would have cheated and would have persuaded a relative or friend to receive the call on their behalf. In this way nullifying the entire ID process. And in the end raising the question that anybody could cheat on this last step of identification.

This woman then took eBay to court under the ADA (Americans with Disability Act) that requires commercial entities to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Can you imagine eBay successfully defended themselves by stating that they were in fact not a commercial space because they didn’t have a physical space. Therefore they could ignore disabled people. This is simplified of course. I’m sure the arguments were more complex and even more clever.

The claimant, bully to her, has taken the matter to the Appellate Division. It also appears that US Legislature is  examining the issue with a view to changing the law to include the internet. About time one would imagine.

It is also said in this excellent article that eBay is taking steps to address the issue themselves. That is, making their website accessible. It’s a pity that they couldn’t get it right at the beginning. There are phones that can be used with deaf people. They’ve been around for ages. For years there have been solutions available. It would just mean that eBay would have had to step away from the automated process and have a human intervene. Too much hassle for one customer? It seems.

Thank goodness there are courageous individuals such as this woman who fight for their right at great emotional and financial costs too. It’s a pity she has to though. Surely society as a whole should be making sure that everybody is included.

Read the report here.

Building relationships – for the win

As a business person you can make a decision early on in your business life cycle whether you are going to offer a product or service to whoever wants it or whether you and your customers/clients have a mutually beneficial relationship.

They are not the same. Perhaps in the olden days when we had Mom and Pop stores they were. But with the advent of major marketing players the mutually beneficial went out of the window. Never to be seen again. Or at least not for a while.

But it’s not only your super stores, super manufacturers, super suppliers of stuff that are starting to realise that their customers want to be heard, taken note of. Smaller organisations including non-profits also need to play by the same rules.

Take for instance concert halls and philharmonic orchestras. In the past many of these organisations have delivered whatever the concert master/director decided was good for the public. And in fact many still do. It’s a kind of dictatorial rule of-and-by ‘good taste’. If you don’t like classical music then get lost. And that attitude kind of translates into all contact with the public. Whether it’s the ticket office or ushers in the concert hall, the public gets treated as if they were the servants.

Organisations who are looking after their customers/clients/audiences and building true relationships are making it happen whatever the economic climate is.


Toronto Symphony Orchestra

This article by a blogger shows how an organisation, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, reacted to a customer’s complaint about wheelchair accessibility. They worked incredibly hard to revise their attitude towards their customers. It’s worth remembering that the customer is part of the equation of every successful business venture, whether for profit or not.

So considering this success story, an irritating experience of another kind showed how not to do business. After trying unsuccessfully to buy a book from a website in Spain, Santana Books, with a UK credit card, another attempt with a Spanish card which was successful but did not deliver the eBook, I sent an irritated comment on the contact page complaining about the sites non-usability.

I didn’t hear back from them for over a week. And finally received email notification that my eBook was now available for download. Why it should take so long is another question of course. Surely it could have been automated? At the same time I received another email advising that I would receive a refund as I had sent in such a rude comment.  Not what I had expected or wanted. “How can we improve our website’ would have been more appropriate.

Needless to say, there is no way I will buy any of their other books. Not because the books are not worth buying but because the shopping experience is just too painful.  Perhaps one disgruntled customer is not a big deal. Perhaps it is. But one disabled customer managed to get a revised attitude for a concert hall’s accessibility policies. And wrote a glowing report about it.

And isn’t that how it should be?

A mutually beneficial relationship.

Technology joins us together

Remembrance Day: November 11.

You can roll your eyes and groan at how technology has disturbed our lives. When my kids visit they spend more time on their iPhones than talking to us. Easy access to technology can be really disruptive. But then you come across an example of the good side and you know that like everything in this world there is a flip side.

A really touching blog post by a writer whom I follow made me reflect on how great technology can be. Dave is disabled and a wheelchair user. And he is Canadian, at the moment working in the UK. He wrote about a chance meeting and discussion he had about war graves in the UK. And yes, weird topic. But he had discussed with some locals about a nearby graveyard honouring fallen soldiers during World Wars. And Dave’s father had served in the second world war for the Canadian Air Force.

On Remembrance day, observed on November 11,  he and his partner wanted to visit the graveyard but couldn’t find the details online. So he wrote a blog post about his experience and called on his readers for help. And there it was. Details of websites and info readily provided by some of his blog readers.

I’m totally against war myself. I tend to think it’s a bunch of politicians following their power kicks. At the end of the day I have seen Brits get on with Germans, I’m German and I married a Brit.., (so World War II?), Vietnamese and Americans get on (Vietnamese War?) and Japanese and Americans? (Word War II?) and I’m sure I could recite a huge long list.

But as much as I am against war, I am fully in support of those people who get sent out to make those wars happen. They are not to blame. And I am for fully supporting veterans in all and any way that may be necessary.

So I sympathised with Dave and his wishing to visit graves of war heroes. And so it was really touching to see the response to his request for help to find the memorial graveyard. He got exactly what he was looking for. It’s wonderful see the best of people like that. More often we see the nasties, the trolls. And I suppose it is because they make the loudest and nastiest noise. But then you see how our internet community can do the good stuff too and you know it’s good after all.

World Down Syndrome Day on March 21

Down Syndrome girl at Hold the Future, Hanoi

Wednesday March 21 2012 marks World Down Syndrome Day. And it made me remember my year in Hanoi, Vietnam working at Hold the Future as a VSO volunteer. We had many Down Syndrome young people living and working at the Center. They were the most loving and wonderful people and provided me with many fond memories.

Hold the Future offers vocational training and handicraft production work. Most of the time there are between 30 to 50 young people working there. It’s not great pay because the products are sold quite cheaply to remain competitive with other handicraft producers.

But the Center provides accommodation, all meals and a chance for young people to work for their own livelihood. The young people often work right through the week, including week-ends. There is the odd public holiday and two weeks off over the oriental New Year. But on the whole they work long hours.

The training is also over a long period. At least 6 months of repetitive learning processes might stop most people from enjoying this kind of work. For the young people at Hold the Future it’s something they love doing. Being able to support themselves is a dream come true.

In particular the rolled paper decorated greeting cards and rolled paper small jewellery containers were the favourite products to make. Of course rolling paper very tightly into small balls isn’t everybody’s idea of great fun. But for the Down Syndrome members at the Center they loved it. They were good at it and enjoyed their work.

And friendly and smiling faces most of the time. Of course they weren’t immune to unhappiness. But the Down Syndrome people were much readier to let go and smile again than most people I’ve come across. I loved visiting with them and sitting next to them at meal time or chatting to them via an interpreter. Never did get my head around Vietnamese. Fond memories indeed.

Thinking of many lovely Down Syndrome people today on their special celebratory day.

What would you change about yourself?

A blog I follow mentioned this link to a documentary. The question asked to intellectually disabled people was whether they would change anything about themselves. The answers were surprising.

What do you think somebody would say asked this question? Somebody with Down’s Syndrome for instance who has struggled all his life to be recognised as a person rather than some freak of nature. What would you think this person would want to change about themselves?

Get more intellectual capacity? Be clever?

Many of the people who got the chance to answer this question wished themselves to be nicer people! Sitting in a wheelchair would you think that ‘being nicer to people’ would be something you would want to change?

Shouldn’t that get us thinking about disability? Isn’t our reaction one of pity towards people with disabilities? We feel sorry for folk in wheelchairs. We think they have something major missing in their lives if they can’t walk like we do.

We disregard people who speak slowly and appear to us to have primitive thinking processes. We look down on people who couldn’t cope with the school system. Or people who can’t look after themselves without help.

Perhaps, people with disabilities don’t want to be pitied. Maybe they are happy with what they got given in life. It’s our attitude that needs changing.

Every life has value. Every person can enrich another person’s life. In whatever way. There are no prescriptions, no rules that determine how we should enjoy this life. It’s up to us.

So what would you change about yourself? And what do you think about disabled people? Do you pity and cross the road to try and avoid them or do you see them as people who could enrich your own life experience?

Courage in the line of fire

Oscar Pistorius – the Blade Runner. Click on pic to enlarge.

Isn’t that what they used to say in the olden days? It refers back to standing your ground when you were being shot at by enemy troops. Or your own ones I suppose nowadays.  It always involved amazing amounts of courage and determination in the face of huge odds.

It’s what disabled people have to live with on a daily basis. The world is not designed as yet for people with disabilities. It will change. It’s all a matter of quantity. A few people won’t make a difference but many will. And the numbers of disabled people are growing. Wars are maiming soldiers and land mines are damaging limbs and minds of ordinary people.

And then there is the rubbish we put into our bodies. I’m sure that makes a difference to our babies. The excessive hormones in chicken and beef. The insecticides on veg, the affluent in our water, the garbage we pump into our air and the nuclear fall-out amongst many things all add to the numbers of disabled people coming into our world. Or becoming disabled during their life times.

Then there are the growing numbers of old people who can’t hear, see or walk that well and who often need wheels to get them around.

Eventually our world will have to take note and make provision for all people whether disabled or not and treat everybody the same by offering an accessible space as a matter of course.

Still, now in the year 2012, disabled people have to have courage in the line of fire to cope with the hurdles our society puts in their way.

So this picture, somebody emailed me, has led me to write this praise to courage. Apologies for the copyright infringement. I’m bound to be guilty as I have no idea whom to give credit to for the pic. It’s probably sponsored by BT. Being the cynic as ever.

Never mind the BT sponsorship. The guy in the photo is somebody I admire in any case. Oscar Pistorius, South Africa’s hope for a medal in both the able athlete Olympics in London as well as the Paralympics. 400m sprint. The blade runner.

And he is teaching this cutey of a little tike how to use blades to be able to run. The determination on her face speaks volumes. And the pleasure and happiness on his face of being able to pass on the thrill of mobility to another ‘different’ able person is clear for all to see.

Courage in the line of fire. A perfect picture to represent the essence of this saying. Brings tears to my eyes, it does.

Disability is about different abilities

There’s a blog I follow written by a disabled person. And every now and then I want to unsubscribe because his posts are more often than not tirades at the able bodied world and why it’s not taking more notice and making more allowances to the disabled.

Then I don’t unsubscribe because I have to remind myself that I have no idea how it must be to move around in this world in a wheelchair. And furthermore I have no idea what it must be like to be physically disabled but not intellectually and yet be treated as a moron just because you are in a wheelchair.

And it constantly surprises me over and over again how people are unable to see differences as a good thing rather than as an indictment. Something to feel sorry for, disdain, dislike and even be scared of seems to be the reaction. Fear of the unknown and rubbish like that is thrown about when trying to find excuses for bad behaviour towards disabled people.

So it always brings tears to my eyes when I come across somebody most definitely disabled but who has taken an ability they have and made a glorious something out of it. Never mind that he as a physically disabled person has the courage to stand on stage. In the olden times somebody like this would have surely been on stage too. But in circuses or freak shows.

Yet Thomas Quasthoff has taken the concept of different abilities to a new level. He became a concert soloist developing his voice into an instrument to make everybody forget his disability. And what a beautiful voice he has. I came across his name because he has decided to retire from performances. Singing placed too much strain on his body, his publicist says. I’m not surprised. Concert singing is equivalent to marathon running I should imagine in terms of the energy that has to go into the delivery.

So treat yourself to a rendition of Moon River sung by this remarkable man with different abilities.

Or watch it here.

One week left in Vietnam

Hanoi! Motor bike ready outfit!

Just over two years ago I landed in Hanoi as a VSO volunteer. It was my first visit to Asia, never mind South East Asia. What an adventure it has proved to be. Having met many volunteers from other organisations I must say compliment VSO on their exceptional preparation and induction programmes which they put their volunteers through. Added to that excellent in country support and I felt myself lucky to be part of this organisation. Well done VSO.

The year in Hanoi had it’s ups and downs. Learning how to deal with the Asian culture takes time and effort and many misunderstandings later but eventually it sinks in. As for the traffic! That is something that I couldn’t come to terms with. I managed to cope eventually but that is as far as it got.

Hau, my favourite artisan at Hope Center.

Relocating to Hue was a great move. The smaller city was more comfortable for me and easier to negotiate. I was fortunate to have a great boss lady and a fabulous center to work at. Such amazing people. Never mind a disability or a tough background as a disadvantaged person the staff and artisans at the Hope Center are just wonderful.

What also helped was the family joining me on this adventure. It gave me huge respect for people who travel and work in outlying areas and countries all on their own. It’s tough. You don’t know the language, you are trying to adapt to foreign cultures and you have no support systems. Very very tough. And very brave of people to manage that. I met a few VSO volunteers who did their own thing in remote areas of Vietnam. Huge respect for them!

What will I take with me? I’m not as brave as I thought. It’s been quite tough in parts. The language defeated me. I love the sound of it but just couldn’t get my tongue to get those special sounds to be anywhere near what they should be. After many months of struggle I gave up. Probably shouldn’t have. But it’s difficult to carry on with something so difficult when you know you are going to leave again.

The language barrier ment that I couldn’t move as freely as I would have liked to. It also made it difficult to make friends with some people such as my boss lady in Hue. What a fabulous woman. Very special. But we also had to work through an interpreter. Regrettably interpreters in Hue don’t know how to interpret. So it ended up being a chat show between the interpreter and the boss leaving me out of the loop. And I saw many instances of this same problem. Somehow they haven’t learnt that it’s not a chatfest amongst each other. In the end I would sit there and day dream about other stuff while they got on with discussing the weather, babies or whatever else they felt like.

Hue. Ancestor shrine.

But on the whole it was a very good time. Interesting cultural differences. Loved the belief in spirits, karma and ancestor worship. It’s given the people a stoic approach to hardship that was kind of refreshing. The developed world people do so bitch and moan when the slightest thing goes wrong. Here it’s a matter of shrugging and getting on with it.

I loved the sharing aspect of this nation. Celebrations are always accompanied by food and drink. And the sharing is open and welcoming. Even just popping in for a visit will mean instant tea served and somebody will rush out to get biscuits or food to ensure visitors are welcomed. During Tet (the oriental new year) people sat in their thick jackets with doors wide open to ensure people felt encouraged to visit. And it’s a veritable tide of motor bikes with red and gold wrapped presents visiting each other to wish happiness, good luck and health.

Once outside of Hanoi the true people emerged. Hanoi can be very cold towards foreigners. Not so the people of the smaller cities such as Hue. Always ready with a smile, a wave, a greeting and ready to make contact. And some truly outrageous things sometimes. My son-in-law was ‘accosted’ by a granny who wanted a lift on the back of his motor bike. Just like that. He took her as far as he could and it ended up in an argument for a while when he wanted to turn left and her way was going right.

On the other hand prejudices are still there and some of the older generation were not that willing to have visitors. My Hanoi interpreter’s parents didn’t want to meet me. They were worried that their town would think badly of them if they had a foreigner step into their house.

In fact prejudices and old-fashioned habits abound. A baby is taken out of the house on the first trip to having vaccination shots with chopsticks wrapped in tissue to keep the bad spirits away. And paper is burnt, flowers stuck in trees, ancestor temples or temples to deities are in arbitrary trees and on pavements. And even though they might appear to belong to nobody in particular there are lit incense sticks, fresh flowers and other offerings on them.

Some parts of this society are still a little behind. Hygiene in hospitals is unheard of with staff unaware of such niceties as washing hands before touching anybody. Dentists have their doors wide open to traffic and dust. And food refuse is thrown on the floor while eating.

Phoenix School. Still keeping in touch with Vietnam.

But it’s a great community of people living close together and looking after each other. And I will stay in contact with this beautiful country. For the next six months I will still work as a consultant for this school and I hope to be able to help with fundraising.

Of course it’s not an idyllic world either. Washing up dishes in the backyard while squatting down isn’t my idea of fun. And my boss from the school where I am doing some work in fundraising has his staff chopping food on the floor. And you should see his fantastic kitchen that has every modern convenience you can think of. Yet his housekeepers are cleaning veg on the floor outside next to the tap which is right next to a magnificent swimming pool. Hollywood folks would be jealous of it.

But perhaps that’s what’s so charming about this country. The opposites. Five star hotels next to houses where people are still cleaning food in their courtyards. And it is that. People live mixed up with a shack next to a fancy new house. And they all seem to get along somehow. And I suppose sometimes not. But it works. And that’s what I’m going to miss the most about Vietnam. It’s the people’s ability to make things work regardless of the setbacks they encounter. Whether it’s strapping a dozen live chicken to the motor bike or hanging your washing on the neighbour’s fence because that’s where it will get some sun during a break in the rainy season. You gotta love ’em!