Please Watch Where You’re Going…Because I Can’t

One of my favourite places to navigate is my university campus. People are reasonably polite. The place has a distinct community college atmosphere, which means there are few large crowds. Generally, fellow students respect the “stick to the right side” rule, so even heavy foot traffic flows quite smoothly.

Every now and then, though, someone will surprise me. I was climbing a near-deserted staircase, staying as far right as possible so I could follow the railing (I love railings, they make me feel safe and loved and whatnot). As I climbed, I heard someone approaching from above, though I found it odd that they were climbing down the left side rather than the right. Thinking that they were probably taking advantage of how empty the stairs were, I continued on my merry way (it would seem I’m always merry—who knew?). As she drew closer, though, I realized she wasn’t going to move. Rather than shift left a little—she was on the wrong side, after all—she chose to let us collide. Only as we did so did I notice a familiar clicking sound—she was texting. As I swayed, clutching the railing for dear life, I began an apology. Talking right over it, she said, “Watch where you’re going!” and stormed off. Well, darling, I would, but…

In an age when distracted driving is an epidemic and texting lanes are a thing, it’s becoming harder to trust that people will respect basic rules of foot traffic. I’ve always been used to bumping into people who refuse to move. That’s not going away. There will always be oblivious people who are too wrapped up in their conversations, or their phones, to notice what’s happening around them. Almost everyone I know has done this a time or two (I’m not blameless myself) but there are some who take it to extremes. Take a stroll through West Edmonton Mall sometime; you’ll see what I mean. Things are getting more dangerous, and I blame two things: mobile phones, and general apathy. People are so ready to assume that, if they’re not watching where they’re going, everyone else will compensate. As my city squabbles over bike lanes, I fling myself to one side as soon as I hear a cyclist approaching on the sidewalk. More than once, one of these cyclists has nearly knocked me over. No one is in such a tearing hurry that they can’t slow down for five seconds while they pass a pedestrian who can’t even see them.

“But Meagan,” you say, “people don’t always know that your blind! Most people can watch where they’re going, so how can you blame them?” I can blame them because of a little thing called visibility. If I’m standing around, sans mobility aid, then yes, I can understand people’s inability to recognize that I can’t see them. My eyes are relatively normal-looking, so it’s hard to tell that anything is wrong with them. They dart about in a frantic manner, but some people mistake this for extreme shyness. But if we are standing with canes out or dogs at our sides, there is very little excuse not to notice us. If people are paying attention to what is directly in front of them, they will definitely spot us. The girl who collided with me on the staircase was breaking an unwritten rule, and wasn’t aware of her own surroundings. This is a toxic combination. I do my best not to get into people’s way, and I apologize at least half a dozen times a day. It’s all the rage in Canada, don’t you know.

I have no problem with people bumping into me because it’s crowded, or because I accidentally cut them off. People bump each other all the time. It is not necessarily wrong or rude to do so. I’m not saying that people should throw themselves out of my path in case they brush my elbow. I am, however, saying that people could stand to pay more attention. If you know that you’re a bit distractible while texting, then move to one side, finish your text, and go your way. Don’t expect everyone—people who can’t see you, especially—to flow around you like an accommodating current.

Please, put your phone away and watch where you’re going…because I can’t.

Unfriendly Reminders: On the Dangers of Complacency

While walking home a few nights ago, I got lost. This would have been okay, but I was traveling a route I know intimately; I’d used that route for almost three years without mishap. That might have been okay too, except that it was -25C outside and, since it is supposed to be a two-minute walk, all I had was a pair of woefully inadequate mittens and a winter jacket. I still don’t know exactly where I went wrong. I was navigating the crosswalk, the same as usual, and I must have veered sharply, because I missed the sidewalk entirely and ended up wandering into relatively unfamiliar territory. It was nearly one in the morning, so there was no traffic to act as an auditory guide. It was one in the morning, so I couldn’t even use what little vision I have to help me. It was one in the morning, so I was totally alone.

It was bitterly cold—so cold that even I, a brave little Canadian, had to admit I was getting a little anxious. I took off my mittens to use my phone. My fingers were so cold that the phone didn’t even register my touch. I had to use Siri to call a nearby friend so she could rescue me. Meanwhile, I was trying to find a safe place to stand. I settled for a precarious perch on an ice-encrusted snowbank, reasoning that this, at least, would be traffic-free should any traffic actually show up. Luck smiled on me that night, so my friend said she was coming to get me. I waited. And shivered. And wondered what in hell I’d done to get myself so lost in such a short amount of time. And I worried.

It took my poor friend a while to find me, so I had ample time for reflection. Before long, unwelcome tears were emerging, freezing as quickly as they materialized, naturally. I had grown complacent, I realized. I had failed to bring a backpack containing warmer clothes and some headgear. I had already spent a lot of time that evening walking around outdoors, so was pretty chilly to begin with. I didn’t count on getting lost. I thought I was infallible, with this route at least. Maybe, I thought grudgingly, there was a lesson here.

There are, of course, some obvious lessons: don’t go out in dangerously frigid temperatures without carrying extra clothing. Don’t count on having help so late at night if something happens. Invest in a pair of gloves that can be used with a touch screen, perhaps. The most uncomfortable lesson, though, is don’t ever, ever grow complacent.

Confidence is fine. We all deserve to take a few things for granted, particularly routes we’ve been navigating for years without a single serious misstep. Sighted people don’t have quite the same worries as we do when they get lost, so it’s comforting when we can enjoy that level of assurance, at least in certain locations. Nine times out of ten, everything will go as well as you hope it will.

But be prepared for the times when it doesn’t. Know that, sometimes, anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Know that the climate may not always be kind. Know that people may not be around to assist. Know that you are not perfect, and that you can always make mistakes you never even imagined. Confidence is your friend; complacency, your enemy.

Many of you are likely shaking your heads: “Getting lost is not that bad, Meagan! It’s not a life or death situation!” You’re right, usually it isn’t. Most of the time, if we get lost, we wander around until we find a landmark to get us back on track. We approach someone and ask for help. We use our orientation skills to figure out where we went wrong so we can backtrack. When all that fails, however, (and it will fail), you’re left with unpleasant consequences like frostbite, dangerous neighbourhoods, and unexpected hazards or obstacles. Worst of all, though, you run the risk of becoming even more thoroughly lost. I have wandered through sketchy neighbourhoods after 11:00 p.m. and I don’t recommend it. I think my blood alcohol level rose just from being in the vicinity of some of those people.

By all means, take precautions. I chose not to do so and I paid dearly for my negligence. Next time, I might not have a friend I can call at a moment’s notice. I’ve been hopelessly lost before in nasty weather, and it never gets easier with time, I can promise that. What I’ve come to realize, though, is that more than precautions, an attitude adjustment is sometimes most valuable. Tempting as it may be, autopilot is never really an option—not when you’re blind. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking with a group of sighted friends; they can get lost, too. It doesn’t matter if you have a guide dog; you’re supposed to lead them, not the other way around. It doesn’t even matter if you know this route inside out and backwards. You’re not invincible. None of us is.

For as many years as you are on this earth, you will discover new and interesting ways in which you can screw up. Learn to accept this. It’s an unavoidable part of being human, and unfortunately for disabled people, the consequences are especially dire. But for every bonehead mistake you make, there is a lesson. As they say, life is a harsh teacher, but an effective one.

Safe travels, guys.

Let It Snow! (Just Keep It Away From Me)

So, as many of you may be aware, we lucky Albertans have already seen our first snow. Yes, the calendar says it’s still summer, but Canada has always been something of a free spirit: it shuns all constraints and does what it damn well pleases. Conclusion? We have snow. And soon, it will stick to the ground, pile up in drifts, and hang around being a general nuisance until May or June.

Normally, this is little more than an annoyance: it’s harder to travel, whether on foot or in a vehicle, and we’re forever shovelling it aside. For a blind traveler, however—especially one who uses a cane—it can be an absolute nightmare. As silly as this may sound, enough snow can actually make the entire environment seem hopelessly unfamiliar. Not only does it turn the entire world white (as those of us who can see contrast always notice), but it also makes everything feel and sound different. Most sighted people probably don’t realize that snow changes the way a car sounds as it travels down the street. Instead of being crisp and clear, the sound is muffled and a little quieter than it should be. Cars themselves are quieter than they’ve ever been, so it’s even harder to hear them coming. Scary stuff!

Then, there is the snow’s uncanny ability to hide vital things like sidewalks. I’m lucky enough to live in an area where constant foot traffic insures that the sidewalks are cleaned regularly, but sometimes even I can’t find the sidewalks when I need them. Once, while bumbling around like an idiot, looking for the right path to take through all this new white fluff, I asked a passer-by, “Where did the sidewalk go?”. “There is no sidewalk,” he replied, in a forlorn voice, “…not anymore. Just keep walking in that general direction and you’ll be fine, I think.”. Comforting, indeed.

It’s also a bit of a trial to travel during a snow storm, at least for me. It’s hard enough to feel and hear where I’m going without wind and snow driving into my face on a consistent basis. Even if I close my eyes, put my head down, and charge on bravely like any good Canadian would, I still have to contend with the distracting barrage of harsh, icy flakes hitting my vulnerable little face. I find it difficult to protect my ears as well, because covering them makes it so much harder for me to hear properly. I can’t really win. This holds true for torrential rain as well. I once got lost during a tornado warning, and the rain was so disorienting that I completely missed a sidewalk and ended up lost for ages before I was rescued. Using an umbrella while juggling a cane can be a bit tricky, and that also messes with sound. Remember what I said about not winning either way? … Yeah.

Gregg tells me that when he was growing up in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario, his route to school involved walking down a road with no sidewalks. This wasn’t usually an issue, as he’d just hug the shoulder and keep an ear out for cars. When it was snowing, though, he could only really walk in the tire tracks, so if a car was coming at him, he had to book it out of the way before he became little more than paste on the roadway. Luckily, he has yet to turn to paste, so I guess there was lots of luck involved. As I mentioned earlier, the snow makes it even harder to hear oncoming traffic, so it really was a harrowing walk to school on occasion. You know you’re serious about education when …

Just when you thought you’d reach the end of the nasty obstacles snow can create, think about the two-foot drifts which line sidewalks and streets. Mostly, they’re fine: I trail my cane alongside them so that I can feel where I’m headed; in this way, it’s a lot like following a grass shoreline in summertime. The problem arises when I try to cross the street. It’s not a little nerve-wracking when you’re trying to find the sidewalk, and encountering only snowbanks because you’ve veered a bit. Guide dog travelers are lucky in this respect, but we poor cane travelers end up searching frantically for the illusive sidewalk, all the while stuck standing in the street as cars whoosh past behind us. Even though I’ve done this hundreds of times by now, it still scares me senseless every time.

Sometimes, those pesky drifts can make sidewalk travel—assuming you can even find the sidewalk, that is—a bit treacherous. I was once walking down a very narrow sidewalk, trailing the side of a building. When I came upon a very high pile of snow that completely blocked my path, I simply stopped, not knowing what to do. I had to resist the urge to burst into song: “Can’t go under it…can’t go through it…can’t go around it…I’ll have to go over it!”. Some kind soul came along and I asked him if there was any way for me to get around the drift. Without a word, this gentleman took my hand and literally lifted me right over the snowbank, depositing me gently on the other side. Normally I’m not big on people carrying me around without my consent, but in this case, I was more than grateful!

Perhaps the scariest thing about snow travel is the foreignness of my entire environment. Even if I know the area well, the whole world seems strange and frightening because everything feels and sounds so different. I’ve gotten lost a few times simply by veering a few feet left or right. The biting cold doesn’t help, either: getting lost in summertime is bad enough, but getting lost while you’re freezing is even worse. Remember those legendary prairie blizzards so fierce that you had to use ropes to get from your house to the barn and back? Remember poor little Laura Ingalls Wilder waiting hopefully for her Pa to come home because he was lost in the blizzard outside? Yeah, that’s going to be me one day. I’ll have to petition the city of Edmonton for some ropes leading to basically everywhere. (Don’t frown at me: you know you’d use them, too.)

Back when I lived in a rural area, winter was a good thing! The snow was a magical source of endless fun. In the city, though, it’s my worst enemy. As much as I love Canada, I do implore it to be kind to me this year, and keep the cottonfluff storms to a minimum. Will it listen? Stay tuned to find out! (I wouldn’t count on it, though.)

The Trouble With Transit…

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!