January / February 2010
Moving Blindly Through a Visually Oriented World
What is it like to be blind and walk to work, cross streets, find stores, get to appointments on time, take buses and find new destinations? As an Orientation and Mobility Specialist who is not visually impaired I cannot answer exactly what it is like. I can talk about some of the challenges my students face, and the tools they use to accomplish independent mobility.
One of the biggest challenges is lack of automatic information. With vision we instantly receive continuous information about what is around us; what is ahead; what is happening on the other side of the street; which intersections have traffic lights and walk signals; which sidewalks are blocked by construction; which corners have ramps and which corners have curbs; where the stairs are located; which slopes are driveways and which slopes are ramps into the street; which drivers seem to be aware of us as they emerge from a driveway we approach and which drivers do not see us; which drivers look distracted at the intersection and which ones see us; which restaurants and businesses are nearby; exactly where the bus stop is; which buses stop there; and so forth. We instantly avoid bumping into obstacles and other pedestrians, stepping into holes, falling down stairs, bumping our heads on truck rear view mirrors or protruding signs, bumping our shoulders or hips on car rear view mirrors or other protruding waist high or shoulder high obstacles. We do not make left or right turns without realizing we have changed directions. We do not mistake an alley for a regular street crossing. We have constant visual feedback from the straight lines of curbs, buildings, fences, streets and so forth to let us know if we are walking forward in a straight line or not. We have crosswalks painted on the street that also help us to walk straight forward. We can assess visually if an opening is wide enough for us to squeeze through, or if we need to seek an alternate path. At a glance we can read the name and number of a bus, the name of a business, or the number of the address we seek.
If we stop to talk to someone on our way to another destination, it doesn’t matter if we turn our bodies slightly as we chat. If we are facing at a different angle or in a different direction at the end of our conversation, we look around first to determine how to recover the direction we were heading in. We do this quickly and easily in most cases, without a thought, If someone yells out to us as we are crossing a street, or a driver beeps his horn loudly, we may be startled but usually discover by looking around if that yell and that beep was directed at us or not. We can visually assess that a driver was honking at another driver, not us, and the person yelling was goofing around. Those noises from other people may have startled us, but had no relevance to us. We don’t have to worry that another person or driver was trying to warn us of an unseen danger in the street.
So one answer to “What is it like to be blind and walk down the street?” would be that “It is like trying to figure out a sensory puzzle while walking.” Or, it could be that a response would be "It is like trying to figure out whether I have done something that might be dangerous without having realized it.” Or another response might be “Walking down the street from point A to point B is hard work, not “a walk in the park” “.
When one is blind, walking anywhere, no matter how advanced one’s mobility skills are, is an event that takes planning, determination, concentration, and the ability to think on one’s feet as the unexpected happens. A thought process that might occur is: “It seems like the sidewalk is completely blocked. Do I go into the parking lane temporarily to get around it, or do I retrace my steps and cross to the other side of the street to continue in a parallel direction, or do I stop and ask other people for more information?” Or another public encounter might involve the following thoughts: “This stranger seems to want to help me. Do I trust him and follow his directions or will he be following me? Do I take this stranger’s offered arm, or I am toying with a risky situation? or “I can’t understand this person’s directions. Do I thank him and find someone else to question, or do I ask a few more questions first? Am I going to be late to work?”
I have shared some of the numerous challenges that a blind pedestrian can face, but what are the tools I mentioned? Yes, having the cane skills to detect obstacles and steps are major tools, and having had training and practice in mentally keeping track of changes of direction in many settings, and having developed good auditory skills to recognize cues and landmarks are all important. Having had practice in interacting with the generally visually-oriented public is also important. Yet some blind pedestrians never develop all these skills to the highest level, and yet they are successful in walking independently and finding their destinations. A major mobility tool is the ability to ask questions of anybody, to gather useful information as well as to sometimes request specific assistance,
The world is not a static place. Things change, sometimes often. There is an ebb and flow in life that anyone who wants to be independent needs to be in touch with. Traffic lights go out, cars block intersections at rush hour, construction blocks pathways, drivers get distracted and careless, people give incorrect directions, dogs sometimes run loose, and sometimes accidents happen in front of us that may have nothing to do with us but do influence our plans. Sometimes sighted pedestrians will respond to a blind pedestrian’s first questions, sometimes a question is asked with no response. It may be that no one was close enough to hear, or it may be that people were uneasy and self-conscious. unsure of how to respond. Or it may be that the first people that were asked were impatient, hurried, self-involved and uninterested in helping. Or it may be that the first person who is willing to offer information cannot give any useful information because he simply keeps pointing and saying “It’s over there!” seemingly unaware that the blind pedestrian cannot relate to pointing or to the phrase “over there”. It is a meaningless phrase unless qualified with something like “near that fountain you can hear running”.
So, I encourage my students who are practicing mobility techniques out in the real world of their neighborhoods and downtown areas, to speak up and ask questions. I encourage them to ask specific questions that will give specific answers. I encourage them to ask more questions when the answers are not clear. I encourage them to verify answers by checking the same question with a different person. I encourage them to check and double check when it means saving time by not getting on the wrong bus, avoiding disorientation by not crossing the wrong street, avoiding delay by not entering the wrong store or coffee shop, and being appreciative of the people who are willing to stop and answer a few questions. I encourage them to think of asking questions as a necessary orientation tool, and as a skill that can become highly developed. A good question can yield useful information. I encourage my blind students to approach the public with politeness, because it is true that usually we will receive the same kind of response as the approach we use. Many of the public are very willing to assist but are now afraid to offend someone by assuming assistance is needed. I encourage the public to simply ask: Are you looking for some information?" “or “ Is there anything I can assist you with today?” if in doubt whether or not a blind pedestrian wants or needs some information. We all have times in our lives when we are in a new environment and need some directions to get to where we want to go. Many of us have experienced moments of disorientation in an unfamiliar department store or city, not sure if we can re-trace our steps or if we have turned in the direction we want to go. If my students are paying attention, they also realize they are not the only people in this world who can get lost! One of the realities of being human, whether we are blind or not, is that once in a while we may get lost!
The tools I cannot give my students are those intangible qualities of determination, courage, persistence, a sense of humor about people, and the ability to let it roll off and move on when they do encounter hostile people. Most of my students that have gotten some experience walking independently and interacting with the public know that there are a few bad eggs out there, but they do not represent the bulk of people who are very willing to offer information and assistance if asked. Developing the art of asking can even lead to friendly acquaintances and friendships for some people. So, to all O&M students past, present and future—do not underestimate the value of the question!
Rena Weaver Wyant, Orientation & Mobility Specialist