Travel By Leg: on my mobility abilities

This post inspired by Adventures in Low Vision, a blog about the different challenges and happenings its author encounters as she adjusts to low vision life. She writes snippets that I always enjoy, as they turn visual images into words.

In her most recent post, she asked the question “What do we as blind or low vision people do to ensure safe travel.”

In my now defunct blog, I had written about a series of techniques lumped into the general category called Orientation and Mobility that are designed to help blind people learn to navigate their environment. These most commonly include crossing the street safely moving around in large spaces such as malls and department stores, and using public transportation.

When many think of Orientation and Mobility, (O&M) they think of learning routes to specific places. Yes this happens, but if one only knew how to get from one particular place to another I don’t think one would be able to adapt well to new settings. I am happy to say that my instructors, probably some of the best there ever have been taught me methods that allow me to figure out where I am even when I locate to another area.

I never heard them use this exact term, but I believe the ability to put together bits of information to figure out different surroundings is called Structured Discovery. I sometimes do this by walking with a sighted person a couple of times and paying really close attention to turns, cracks in the sidewalk, street gutters, the sound of ventelation units, etc that help me memorize the layout. I would venture to say that suddenly I’ve gotten pretty good at this, and especially living in my sprawling Durham neighborhood with its restaurants, convenience stores, and leasing office a quarter mile away. I’ve also had to use this in the place where I work, as they often rope off familiar hallways without warning and I am forced to readjust.

The only thing that does concern me is the degree to which I rely on my rather shaky hearing in order to safely move about. I had lost this ability near totally with the lower quality hearing aids I’d had from January of 2006 till February of 2011, as they didn’t provide a high enough degree of stereophonic sound. By this, I mean the ability for both of my ears to work together to create a unified soundscape that makes it clearer when, say, cars are passing in front of me as opposed to going by on a parallel. This is vitally important when crossing streets.

Not that I’m entirely perfect even at that yet, unfortunately, but I think I do well enough to stay in one piece. I always press the button, waiting until I’ve heard an automobile pass in front of me before so doing to try and get myself as close to the beginning of the next light cycle as possible. It’s fun being me sometimes.

You might think it odd, but I believe the most dangerous part of the travel I do is actually crossing open parking lots. Here, if a car is moving it is usually doing so slowly. While I wouldn’t be hit particularly hard, hopefully, I also can barely hear the engine when there is little speed involved. I have lost a couple of canes this way, though as others point out in those situations, at least said canes did their job and kept my toes in tact.

To try and head that off, I’ll usually stand on the curb and, in a technique taught to me by my O&M instructors, wave my cane three times across my body to hopefully let anyone know that I’m about to step off. Then it’s just a matter of holding head high, trying to make sure I can be seen, and crossing fingers!

And on pressing buttons, or pulling cords, riding the bus is also usually an adventure. I’ve very much improved that over the year plus that I’ve been here as well, finally actually learning where the cords even are and thus how to properly use them.

And even though the ADA mandates it, not all stops are called out on most of the routes with which I interact on a regular basis. This is less of a concern for me lately though, as I can use my iPhone’s GPS apps to help me get a sense of where my exact stop is. I do this for the first several times I need to get to a different destination, until I get all of the turns, speed bumps, traffic lights and the like down so that I can ride without that assistance. I of course also tell the drivers where I wish to get off, but being human they are prone to forget and sail right on by if I don’t ring that ell in time.

As I stated earlier, I’m kind of afraid that my travel abilities may continue to deteriorate. I’ll probably never be able to really move around malls and such, unless perhaps I go ahead and get a guide dog. As far as that goes, I do feel I might be better with a dog than I’d thought as my basic mobility principles are solid. But if I have to get a cochlear implant, I’m raeding that others who are blind have lost some of that ability to track themselves in relation to other objects. That might render me unable to function, but I guess I have to hope not. Maybe it can be reacquired with time.

Thanks again to Adventurous in Low Vision for this post idea.