On a typical day at college, I was crossing a street when a young woman approached me and said she would help walk me to my classroom. She saw my white cane and realized I was blind.
Although I didn’t need help, I let her walk with me. As we chatted, she asked me the strangest question anyone has ever directed to me as a totally blind solo traveler – “Where did you park your car?”
“Excuse me?” I asked in disbelief. “I’m blind. I don’t drive a car.”
“Oh,” she said, unfazed, and continued walking.
As someone who is blind, I can never predict how sighted people will react when they see me traveling independently. I’ve come to expect that some encounters will be highly entertaining, while others will be a little awkward.
I don’t let that stop me. With the right combination of mobility, self-advocacy and reasoning skills, I know it’s possible to travel to any destination while totally blind. From walking across campus at Bridgewater State University, to riding the train, to using Uber, to boarding a plane for a cross-country flight, my lack of vision doesn’t stop me from traveling – as long as I have my white cane.
Not everyone understands that. One time at an airport, an employee started yelling at me: “Someone should be with you at all times!” She then yelled that she would report the airline for negligence. Well, thank you, but that’s not necessary. And please stop shouting.
The truth is that someone won’t be with me at all times, nor do I need someone to be. If I need help I will ask for it. For example, I’ll usually ask for assistance when trying to find baggage claim, boarding the right train or locating a particular conference room in a hotel.
Sometimes technology is all the support I need. There’s a mobile app I use at the mall that tells me how far or near a given store is located. Last year, with my best friend who is also blind, we moved from store to store with the help of the app on a fantastic spring break shopping spree. We only had to ask for assistance in large department stores, where finding the specific section we wanted would otherwise be difficult.
Asking for help may not seem like independence, but it is. Even when asking for directions or a sighted guide, I need to be aware of my surroundings and very specific with my wording. Well-meaning people have accidentally “led me astray” on occasion, and when that happens, being able to handle it is an absolute must. I have been accidentally dropped off at the wrong address, been taken across a major intersection in the wrong direction, and been given useless directions like, “Go to the right and then over there.”
These things happen, and when they do I just have to take a deep breath and use my senses, tools and skills to get back on track.
Traveling alone while blind isn’t all sticky situations. When I first met my friend Kari, I was trying to make my way through a large St. Louis hotel to get backstage where I would be performing in a talent show. Since Kari was headed backstage herself, she invited me to walk with her. We struck up a conversation and we’re still friends to this day.
Another time, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to take a friend to a coffee shop. We successfully did so, thanks to a wonderful Uber driver – and the fantastic accessibility feature on my phone that reads the Uber app aloud, allowing me to access our transportation.
For me, traveling by myself is an adventure, with new stories to tell at the end of every trip. It may not always be easy, but it’s always exciting and rewarding.
My solo journeys to date have sent me as far as California, and I hope someday my travels will take me to foreign countries. I know that will present new challenges, in which case I will tackle them as they happen with a positive attitude and determination.
Ashley Bernard is a 2012 graduate of Perkins School for the Blind. She just completed an internship at the Perkins Communications Department.