Public transit is a truly wonderful thing, especially if your city has a good system. It’s particularly wonderful for blind people, who have no alternative except expensive taxis and carpooling. It’s a bit hard on the pride to continually ask for rides, and it’s even harder on the wallet to take taxis everywhere you go. For routes that I travel often, the bus (or LRT train) is the best way for me to get around.
Unfortunately, traveling with public transit isn’t all roses, as even experienced blind travelers will tell you. Having grown up in a rural area most of my life, I’m still getting used to how transit works. Everything from finding the right bus, to locating a seat, to getting off at the right stop is a challenge. Last summer, I had my first job, and I had to figure out the ins and outs of public transit in a few short days. It was … interesting to say the least. Below are just a few of the things which make bus and LRT travel so difficult for me. They make great stories, but I can’t say they’re some of my fondest memories.
Once, I asked the bus driver to drop me off on 109th avenue and 149th street, indicating a specific bus stop. When we got close, she said something very ominous: “I’ll just drop you off over here.”. Being hopelessly green, I didn’t think to say “Wait! Wait wait wait! Where, exactly, is ‘over here’?” I got off the bus, thanked the driver dutifully, and tried to get my bearings. Immediately, I knew I was in trouble. I was on an unfamiliar sidewalk, along an equally unfamiliar street. I walked to the nearest intersection, whipped out my phone, and tried to get my GPS to tell me where I was. It wasn’t helpful at all. I then called CrazyMusician, whom I was staying with at the time, but she couldn’t help much at first, either. I must have stood there for fifteen long, long, long minutes before she finally figured out where I was and got me back on track. When a blind person memorizes an exact route in an unfamiliar area, you can’t knock them even a little off course. If you do, their entire concept of where they are is changed. If I know the area, you could drop me off a block or two away and I’d figure it out eventually. If I don’t know the area, though, my destination could be 1000 miles away for all the success I’d have searching for it. Maybe other blind people are much better at mapping than I am (I expect I’ll be hearing from them, indignantly accusing me of misrepresentation), but I need to know exactly where I am to get anywhere with any kind of grace. Drivers who drop me off “over here” probably don’t realize that they’re endangering my entire sense of orientation. From then on, I insisted that I be told explicitly where I’m being dropped off.
I used to have a very, very grumpy driver in the mornings on my way to work. Every day, just to be cautious, I’d confirm that hers was the bus I was looking for. There’s nothing worse than getting on the wrong bus and discovering it later. Every day she’d respond, sounding more and more irritated. One morning, she finally allowed her exasperation to show through. She, of course, was tired of saying “yes” every single time I asked. Probably, she thought I was a little on the slow side or something. I explained to her as politely as I could that it’s very important to check which bus I’m on. Annoying drivers for the rest of my days is worth being secure in the knowledge that I’m where I’m supposed to be. If I annoy you, well, I’m sorry, but I’d rather risk annoying you than end up somewhere other than my destination.
Locating a seat can be a bit of a challenge. The more a blind person rides buses, the more comfortable they will be with finding things. As I’ve said, though, I’m not overly comfortable with much of anything yet, so I definitely have a few stories about fumbling for a seat. For the sake of brevity, I’ll stick with this one: I was searching for a seat, reaching out with my hand like a good little blind person to feel what I was about to sit on. Instead of finding the rough material of the front seat, I encountered the lap of a very startled gentleman! I don’t think I’ve ever apologized so profusely before or since. I just hope he didn’t focus on the implications of such an intimate moment …
Perhaps my favourite story is the one where I tried to ride the LRT train with my friend Jess. Jess is a wonderful guide, but sadly there were no empty seats available, so we had to stand. I, having no balance whatsoever, was swaying so drunkenly with the movement of the train that I had to use her as a support pole, being unable to find one myself. Luckily for me, she’s a very steady person, so I just wrapped my arms around her and held on for dear, dear life. I had a similar incident on a bus one day. It was standing room only, and since I wasn’t sure where the nearest pole was, I simply fell towards the left side of the bus. Again, I was fortunate: a large crowd of passengers all rose at once and caught me. It was actually a bit surreal. I thank the universe every day for good people. They’re everywhere, they really are, and they’ll help you out of almost any sticky situation.
My final tale is one that’s a bit more serious. It happened while I was with CrazyMusician, so I’ll let her tell it:
“I was thrilled to have Meagan come and visit me. We laugh and talk like sisters sometimes, and bring out the hidden girliness in each other.
On Saturday, we went out for brunch at a mall near my house, and the timing and weather was just perfect enough to take Jenny, my black lab guide dog,
for a run in the park to expend some of that Labrador energy.
This path is a wonderful straight line of concrete where we could walk, and runners and bikers can exercise, and strips of grass on either side where Jenny
could run, frolic, and generally have a great old time, resulting in one very VERY tired dog.
After our lovely walk/run, we made our way to the bus stop to go back to my house. there are two buses that stop there – one that gets us home and one
that doesn’t. Two blind people sitting on the bus bench – one of whom is with a guide dog – are not exactly inconspicuous…
We were sitting and chatting, and I think one of us (I don’t know who) looked at her phone, when a diesel vehicle just came flying past the bus stop.
As it shifted gears, I turned to Meagan and asked, “Wasn’t that our bus?”
I don’t think either of us would’ve been surprised if the bus had slowed down, we didn’t indicate our interest, and then kept going, but at the speed it
was flying down the avenue, there’s no way it could’ve stopped safely. As a result, Meagan, jenny and I were waiting on the bus bench for another thirty
minutes in the growing – though not unbearable – heat.
I did call in a complaint to the transit company, if for no other reason than the driver should have slowed down at the very least. Had I been sighted,
perhaps I could’ve seen him at the corner and been prepared; perhaps not.
I am married to a bus driver. After chewing me out for not calling him to pick us up (the thought never once occurred to either of us), the first question
out of his mouth was, “Did you call in a complaint?” I know how bus drivers are supposed to do their job, and that driver did not do it well, period.
All this to say, as a blind person I am very visible; most blind people are. Glasses, canes, guide dogs, magnifiers, squinting at signage and sometimes
bumping into things make us, by our obvious difference, noticeable. It is sometimes a source of aggravation to me, especially when people seem to think
that I am only defined by my blindness; sometimes a big help because I get to meet new people I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet. It is unfortunate that
on that hot summer Saturday, two blind people seemed completely and utterly invisible to that bus driver.”
All in all, I’m deeply grateful for public transit. We’re lucky enough to have a reasonably efficient system in Edmonton, and for many folks, blind or sighted, it’s a real gift. As I’ve shown, however, there is a certain amount of risk and hassle involved, and the results can be disastrous at times. Next time you take a bus, just be grateful that you haven’t gotten on the wrong one, groped a stranger’s intimate bits, or been dropped off on some random street you don’t know.
I know some other blindies out there have some juicy bus stories to tell. Share them in the comments below, so we can all have a laugh at (…I mean with…) you!