I’m a constant traveller and a ten-year patron of Transport For London, and I see things on my travels that I would like to share. And yes, just for authenticity sake, I am writing this as I’m sitting on a tube going towards work.
I will be talking primarily about public transport; in particular, how Visually impaired travellers navigate, and our experiences with fellow sighted travellers.
How do you know where to go if you cannot see?
This is a question I have been asked numerous times, and it is a fair one. If you cannot see your destination and cannot look at visual signs, how do you go from point A to point B?
How it normally works is that we receive mobility training. This involves learning the route with an instructor until we feel comfortable without any assistance. Instead of signs and visual cues, we use other senses, chiefly touch. Differences in the ground and tactile landmarks such as a post-box help us during our travels, particularly because we can use our canes to detect them.
Once we’ve learnt the route, it is very rarely that we will need help again.
There have been times when I was walking, quite confidently and swiftly, and suddenly someone would put a hand on me and say, ‘Let me help you.’
With what, exactly?
I am normally quite friendly to my fellow travellers and very rarely am I sarcastic, but in situations like these, when I have not given any signs of having needed assistance, I can’t help but cynically wonder what gives this person the urge to play the white knight.
If they were purely seeing a person who is blind and automatically assuming they need help, then we have an issue.
How do visually impaired travellers build up their confidence if they were stopped constantly and assumed to be in need of help? Plus, it is extremely exasperating having to stop and let someone know that ‘yes, I am ok, have a nice day.’
Ironically, there have been times where help was not needed until someone had in fact interrupted me to offer it.
Picture this: I’m walking along, and that notorious hand is placed upon my arm and a voice goes, ‘Hey. Let me help you, mate.’
‘No, I’m ok. Thanks for offering, though.’
‘No, no, it’s no trouble.’
‘Seriously, I’m ok. Thank you.’
*Walks faster to try and get away from Mr enthusiastic Good Samaritan*
*Crashes headlong into post* because of not concentrating for some reason, proving Mr Samaritan right.
‘I told you you needed help, mate…’
Joking aside, though, this is not only an annoyance, but also potentially dangerous.
Do not get me wrong. Even those who are happy with their routes and have been making the same way for years still might encounter problems; things change as they do. Scaffolding will be placed on pavements, areas could be roped off, walls knocked down.
How do I know if a blind person need help?
It is quite simple: use your eyes! If someone were lost, they will show it. For instance, they might be walking back and forth.
There have also been times when I have openly asked for help and was ignored:
‘Hey, does this train go to Bank?’
Fortunately these scenarios are rare, and after muttering some well deserved words for the person, I quickly move on.
I am by all means not a die-hard independent activist; I know there are times when it is faster and easier for me to grab hold of someone instead of walking alone. This, however, is with friends and family. It is more an emotional relationship thing.
Just like the unlikelihood of two strangers striking up conversation and walking together, letting a stranger guide me unnecessarily is not something I want.
Blind Travel Story
I have gotten in touch with other visually impaired travellers, to gather their thoughts on this matter.
Meet Sam. He lives in Kent and studies at Surrey University in Gilford.
A typical journey for him would be getting a cab from his halls of residence to the station due to limited buses. From there he will ask for assistance by train staff to put him on the correct train and to ensure there is someone at the other end to guide him on the next leg of the journey.
Most of the time there will be someone at the other end, but there have been circumstances when no one has turned up and other travellers were around to help.
It was during one of these journeys when he was offered too much assistance:
‘I got on the train and asked if there was a free seat. Then, a woman asked another passenger to give up her seat. Apparently, she turned out to be pregnant. I was telling her its fine; I’m all right standing if she’s pregnant. She wouldn’t let it go: “You might be pregnant, but this man is blind,” She said. And I thought that was really embarrassing. I know she was trying to be helpful, but she made it worse. I recognise the fact she wanted to help, but I felt that she could have listened to me more, rather than make up her mind that this might be better for me.’
The above scenario is a good example of excessive help, especially when the person in question has clearly refused it. So if speaking out directly doesn’t work, what must we do to get the message across?
The fault does not only lie at the feet of sighted travellers–some visually impaired travellers are simply not socially educated in how to handle people. I once came across a woman trying to help a young man down some steps, but instead of shrugging her off with a firm thank you, he let her have it. Abuse spewed out of him, the majority of which included how she should mind her own business and how blind people are misunderstood. Oh, yes, if they are misunderstood, then I’m sure that torrent of anger would have cleared things right up…
It is depressing even in this day and age that we cannot seem to find the balance between the two opposites, so I thought I share my thoughts. Do share your experiences in the comment below or mention me on social media.
Spread that awareness!
11 thoughts on “I’m a Blind Guy Traveling All by Myself, Please HELP”
I’m glad you posted this. It’s something I think about a lot, actually. I believe the problem comes from both sides. Blind people are sometimes extremely insecure and almost need people to know that they’re ok, even if they are clearly not. Any attempt to help with anything–no matter how small–is met with a whole lot of anger, because that blind person feels like less of a person if someone dares to ask if they need anything. There are people who assume we are completely incapable, but there are also people in this world who are friendly and helpful to everyone. If you yell at someone for opening a door or offering to help, you are an idiot. I used to get unnecessarily annoyed with people, though not as bad as the guy you mentioned in this article: I like exploring and finding things myself, because being guided to them tells me almost nothing and I want to learn. In densely-populated areas, I simply cannot do this without being approached every 15 seconds, and sometimes it can be distracting and just downright exhausting to have to turn around and tell everyone and their uncle that “No, I don’t need help; I’m just exploring. Thank you for asking.” But the fact is that if I’m looking for something very carefully and have never been to that place, I do look lost. Once in 2014, I was wandering around a greyhound station at 2 in the morning. I had no specific reason, but I wanted to map out the entire station just because I was bored and had nothing to do while I waited for the next bus. It was one of the larger ones, and by the time my bus arrived two hours later, I had independently found my way to the gate after exploring the entire station and getting food. While doing this though, I encountered lots of people who asked if I needed help and had to tell them no. After a while, I heard people talking about me and stopping others who wanted to ask the same. I felt really self-conscious that day, and I still think it sucks that the only way we can truly avoid being asked is by walking confidently and already knowing our stuff, but I also understand exactly why they made that assumption, and I think I handled it well. A couple of times, I stopped for a minute to explain to someone that I did actually have a reason for walking around the entire station, and I think they found it fascinating. Often, a blind person who walks confidently and carries themselves well will get asked less often than someone who shuffles along. This is not a shallow appearance-based thing; it’s an assumption that someone who is walking quickly and confidently knows exactly where they’re going and probably doesn’t need help unless they stop. This is most often true.
Blindness is normal for us, and in some cases we’ve never known anything else. It is utterly terrifying to a majority of sighted people:
So when those people see us, their first thought is not “I guess he doesn’t need help since he’s walking around just like anyone else.” Their first thought (assuming they’ve never met an independent blind person) is probably something like “How does he do it? I’d be terrified if I went blind!” (and often they voice this thought, so I’m not really making an assumption without evidence here.) Their response to this varies, of course. If they watch us for a while, they’ll probably learn some things. If they don’t, or if we’re heading straight for a pole and they haven’t yet figured out that the cane we’re waving in front of us will smack it before our head does, they’ll probably do something impulsive. It is best to assume that when sighted people demand to help you, it has nothing to do with your abilities and everything to do with their idea of what they themselves would be able to do without sight. When I moved to a big city, learning not to take this personally was incredibly helpful. I subscribe to the “be kind and don’t assume” philosophy. This does, however, have exceptions: Grabbing me is not ok unless I’m heading straight towards an oncoming bus. If I say I don’t need help and I’m not in danger, please either leave me alone or ask me how my day is going, or even ask me how I travel. Demanding that other people give me special treatment is not ok unless I obviously need it: If I’ve been standing and walking with you the whole time, how am I less capable of hanging onto a pole than anyone else? It is actually pretty horrifying that a member of train staff would simply assume that someone in a seat is more capable of staying on his feet than the guy currently doing it. My best example was the day I asked for directions to a bathroom in a bus station: A woman who worked in the terminal walked with me, then turned around, and yelled at the top of her lungs: “Terry, come help the blind man in the bathroom!”
I still kind of want to punch her, just a little bit. People have told me I should have complained, and if it had happened recently, I probably would have.
But she had no idea that what she’d just done was horribly embarrassing and utterly stupid. I wasn’t another person, with wishes and feelings. I was “the blind man” who can’t do anything and must be used to that sort of treatment. I have no idea what she thought me incapable of doing in a tiny wheelchair-friendly bathroom, but I ran inside and locked the door in her face before I could even contemplate coming up with a polite response.
Someone once followed me for half a block, asking if I needed help while I was returning from the store with a friend of mine. Just as I was about to get really annoyed with him for not taking “no” for an answer, my friend calmly turned around and started talking to him, eventually inviting him to have drinks with us later. I learned two things from this exchange: He lived half a block from me, so was going that way for a reason; and sometimes acting normal gets the point across far better than seething in silence or getting impatient.
Thanks for sharing your personal experiences Simon.
As someone who is partially sighted, I can see how drastically it changes and terrifies people who has sight, even if you’re like me with a little vision, but what I also understand however is not to jump to assumptions.
Your blind toilet story made me laugh, it’s outrageous stories like this that me and many other people love reading, even if we question the human race just a bit.
Finally, yes as long as you don’t raise to the bait of lashing out and act normal people will hopefully be smart enough to let it go. If not, there is always dry and sarcastic words one could use. ?
I would just like to make clear that not every blind person has a mobility instructor teach us a specific route to a location. For me, I have friends or family teach me the area. Not a specific Point A to Point B, but what streets are around here. What number block this is. What businesses are around here. From there, I can figure out where I want to go, and if I run into problems like construction or a blocked sidewalk or things like that, I know my area well enough to figure out other options. Blind Square, a navigation app for the IPhone, also works wonders when you need to learn an area, or follow some walking directions. I’m new to the city I currently live in, and used a combination of Blind Square and Google Maps and arrived safely to places I had never been, with little familiarity with the streets. Blind Square is my way of reading street signs and mailbox numbers, and Google Maps gives me directions that any other sighted person would be using in the same situation.
Grabbing is not okay. I don’t care if you’re grabbing me or my cane, because my cane is an extension of me. I will pull away without a second thought. If you persist, I will get angry after about the third try. Maybe the second if I’m having a bad day, because let’s face it, we’re all human.
Always remember to walk confidently, whether you’re blind or sighted. If you look lost, you look like prey. For blind people, this means being badgered by the ignorant. It’s not their fault, but it’s best to be avoided. For the blind and sighted alike, it means not being taken advantage of.
Thanks for your thoughts Justin. Yes like you, I no longer have mobility that often anymore, I normally scout a new area with my remaining vision and try to remember it.
I too use apps to help sometimes, I am an iPhone user so I use Apple Maps, when I last tried Google I found it had a bit of a delay.
I heard of this other one, Nearby Explorer or something, shame it doesn’t work in the UK.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Alex.
A friend sent me your blog as my 5 year old son is also blind and she thought it might be useful.
As a mum I worry about how he will cope when he is old enough to travel alone, because yes, I wish for him to be independent so we encourage him to do most things like his older sister, so far this approach seem to work and he is more happy for it.
From observing, it’s an issue when you yourself make an issue of it, when you are natural doing something, it put others at ease and there is really no point to react any differently.
Looking forward to read your next post.
Aww, thanks Lucy!
Yes this is why my style of writing is normally light-hearted and borderline satire, I try not to make a big deal out of it, people tend to absorb it more when it’s like this, and not just me ranting.
Your son will benefit your support of his independence, so many times I seen parents being over protective over their child, it’s even worse for a VI child as you can’t really drop them in the deep end when they move out.
Keep on doing the things you do and thanks for reading!
What a wonderful post, thank you for sharing your experiences, and thanks to other commenters who did the same.
I’m also a blind guy from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the streets and buildings here don’t have any signs to help me when navigating alone. I’m also very adventurous. So, I look for it as a challenge to move across and live independently.
Where do I start? There is so much to say. Because there’s no signs or anything to help me on the road, I usually rely on mobility skills to avoid bumping into things.
When going to places like bookstores or shops, I usually rely on the staff to help me get the things I want. I usually do get asked a lot if I need any help from people, and I don’t mind asking for help when I need it.
Airports however, is a different story all together. The airlines provide a dedicated staff to help special needs. However, they lack the sufficient training. I was about to fall down the stares one day just because the staff member didn’t tell me about them, it was very embarrassing.
Sometimes, they ask you to sit in a wheelchair so they can just push you. I find that somewhat offensive to me, with all respect to wheelchair users, I don’t need to be pushed around. I can walk fine, and it’s not like that I’m a slow-walker either.
But with all the lack of accessibility requirements here in Saudi Arabia, I find people to be amazing. They always have a tendency to help. It’s great that I could live independently with all these challenges, and I hope that the government do some implementations to enhance the accessibility in the future.
Once again, thank you for giving us the opportunity to share our experiences, and I wish you and your readers a fine day. 🙂
Thank you for the kind words and sharing your experience ?
You mention signs, do you have good enough vision to see them?
Also, totally agree with the Wilcher thing, I’ve never experienced it before but have heard from other people.
Not only it is the grading putting us in a wheelchair when we do not need it, you’re also denying access for someone who actually needs it.
I haven’t been abroad that often, but I would love to travel to see how other country handles accessibility in travelling.
No, I can’t see them, but I was talking in general about that. Some countries have special lines on the ground to help blinds navigating with their canes in public buildings and roads, we don’t.
About the wheelchair experience, I had to escalate it to airport security once, because this staff member didn’t understand that I don’t need a wheelchair to go off the plane. It was quite frustrating.