Travel Independently and Interdependently As a Professional Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

Two women with white canes wait for a NYC transit bus

I have been using my orientation and mobility skills in typical and more complicated travel situations a lot lately. You really have to get out there and use your skills to keep them up to a high level. I have been a bit too complacent about my skills lately, and I knew my skills needed some sharpening. I have been putting my skills to the test quite a bit over the past month in New York City and New Jersey. Because I’ve been in the area doing work and such, I’ve been taking a lot of trains, subways, and generally navigating through different communities in the New York City area and boroughs.

I can tell you that I have become more comfortable with many areas and situations. At times, I definitely ask for assistance, such as at Penn Station. Part of the reason is that I don’t often have too much time to spare. Another reason is that the trains come in and out on different tracks. It is funny, when the tracks are announced; people literally sprint through the station to get to the train. I understand that people want to make sure they get a seat, but I was quite surprised by this. I remember traveling through there over the years, but I still find this all quite shocking. I utilize assistance for getting to the track. I head to the ticket center for New Jersey Transit, and I ask for assistance. They have been extremely nice to me. “Rosa” (a NJ Transit employee) looks out for me—yes, I know the names of a few of the customer service people who act as guides down to my train.

Coming off the train at Penn Station, I usually follow the crowd to the stairs, which tends to be in a similar place on the platform from track to track as I tend to sit in the same area of the train. I navigate up and I ask people questions along the way. I navigate through Penn Station to the subway, as I have been using the E train quite a bit. I am willing to take assistance, but depending on the time, it isn’t always necessary. I have also made friends with people on the train, and one person has been really kind to me. When I have to go to our New York City office at Two Penn Plaza, she has offered assistance, as it is kind of on her way. I take it. As I have said in the past, I am not afraid to take assistance if it will make my life less stressful and a bit easier. If I were doing this commute every day, I would spend a lot more time learning the entire station, but I am only doing a litte work in New York at the moment. And the kindness goes both ways. I have become friends with this person. She needed help with something, and I was able to assist.

But mistakes still happen. I have made mistakes exiting the subway stations. I was leaving the E train late one evening and wanted to navigate into Penn Station. I asked for some directions and the directions I received sent me outside of Penn Station. I was pretty sure this was not right. But, I asked a few questions and started walking to the entrance into the main part of Penn Station. Some guy, who seemed to be a bit off, may have started cursing at me incoherently and walking around me. But, I can tell you that security came in quite quickly. It was probably the only negative experience I have come into contact with during this time.

This experience is helping me to get back my top-level travel skills, and I’m remembering a lot of my old rules of thumb.

Joe’s Basic Tips For Travel

  • If you ask for directions, don’t be afraid to ask someone else to confirm their accuracy. I paid the price for this once and it added at least six blocks to my trip because of having to backtrack. There are a lot of people with sight who have no clue about the streets.
  • Always check for the gap getting onto and off the subway and train. I have not made a mistake with this one, but I have been around people who have.
  • If you are emotional or frustrated, stop and calm yourself down. Just as people shouldn’t drive in that state, we shouldn’t travel like that either. Being keyed up means you are distracted. Your skills will keep you safe, but paying attention is a big part of being safe.
  • Have your ear buds for access to ATMs, your smart phone, and other devices.
  • Be smart and aware; don’t be too stubborn to stop and ask questions.
  • Ask very specific questions, such as asking, “What is the street on my left? What street runs across it at the next intersection?” I really double-check this type of information.
  • Be smart and trust your gut. If something seems strange or not right, it probably is worth being cautious.
  • Know about landmarks along your travel route, as you will be amazed how many people don’t know street names.
  • Don’t use generic landmarks such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Although, I do like a good cup of coffee at times.
  • Know uptown, downtown, or toward specific areas such as Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, and Epcot. Just kidding on Epcot, as that is part of Disney World in Florida.
  • Good cane technique and dog guide use protects individuals from obstructions, although my cane doesn’t pick up low overhangs or poles across walkways. I can tell you I have encountered this couple of times. My hat and glasses have saved me a few times.
  • Busy streets are often the friend of people who are blind or visually impaired, as it provides us with a great parallel and proper street crossings.
  • Traveling with your head up and shoulders back can keep your line of travel on point, and it would make your mother proud: “Stop slouching and stand up straight!”
  • If there is loud construction or noises are making a crossing unsafe, make sure to find another crossing or ask for assistance. It is better to be safe than sorry.
  • We all make mistakes, but we will never learn without being out there.
  • Technology doesn’t substitute for good orientation and mobility skills.
  • A long white cane is a beautiful thing—use it, embrace it, and be proud to be who you are as a person who is blind or visually impaired.

I have a ton of other tips that relate to these methods of travel and many others, but I am going to leave it at this. If you have some helpful tips, share them in the comments below. I hope you are getting out there and traveling. The more people who are blind or visually impaired are out in the community, the better. Make our presence known, and show how competent we are as individuals. I have written a few other posts that relate to this topic. Check them out:

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