Fast Virgin Train, Blindness, and the Talking Toilet

If you’re blind and travel you know a good deal about the world of talking appliances which are designed by sighted people and are intended to help people with vision loss but are really rather goofy: elevators that announce “doors open” and the miserable voices of bank machines. But just this week I met the greatest talking device of them all: the speechifying toilet on the Virgin train from Liverpool to London.

Now the Virgin fast train talking toilet (hereafter known as the VF3T) wasn’t designed for blind people. She was created for morbidly depressed travelers. I call her “she” because I’ve been told her voice is that of a woman who won some kind of contest.

Imagine reading an advertisement: “Be the voice of the Talking Toilet!” and thinking it sounds like a great opportunity. You want to break into the big time, be a star of stage and screen. Surely you’ll work your way up from the crapper. (Whatever happened to being on the radio?)

Picture me in the unfamiliar swaying toilet cubicle. No Braille on any buttons. I can’t figure out how to shut the door. A passing stranger reaches in and says, “Here, I’ll press the shut button for you.”

Poof. Door shut. The toilet starts her speech.

Before saying anything more let me just ask: “who thought that giving a toilet a woman’s voice, an actual human voice was a grand idea?” Of course the answer is “a sighted person” for if you’re blind and groping in a vaguely intimidating water closet hearing the following is piercingly bad:


“Hello there! Welcome to Virgin!”

I was mortified.

Had I entered an already occupied WC?

“I hope you’re having a wonderful day!”

“Did you know there are many splendid traveling opportunities with Virgin?”

“Alright,” I thought, “she’s a toilet bragging about train service. Not a big deal.”

But she continued. She was a kind of self help guru talking up the glories of life, the virtues of moving about the world and the joys of being alive.

The VF3T wants to keep you alive.

The VF3T is designed to prevent disheartened travelers from offing themselves in the loo.

“Aren’t sighted people funny?” I thought.

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
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Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger