How do we do it?
If you’ve ever wondered how people who are blind ride the bus, raise kids or shop for groceries, here’s your chance to find out
By Alix Hackett and Karen Shih
“How do you do that when you can’t see?”
That’s a question every person who is blind has heard – more than once.
If you’re blind, how do you watch your favorite show on TV? Go skiing? Buy groceries? Get a job? Cook a meal? Raise kids? The fact is, there are a dozen things people with visual impairments do every day that leave sighted people scratching their heads.
To answer that question, we asked people who are blind or visually impaired to tell us how they do things – from ordinary chores like grocery shopping to complex activities like raising children. Their answers show that with a little ingenuity, the right technology and an occasional helping hand, nothing is as difficult as it seems.
Here’s how someone who is blind can…
Choose a career
People who are blind want a job that utilizes their talents and interests – just like everyone else. Take 20-something Boston resident Lindsay Yazzolino. She started out as a neuroscientist, but then switched to monitoring the accessibility of trains and buses for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. It’s a good fit. “You have to know yourself and learn what you’re good at,” Yazzolino says. “You can’t listen to people who say blind people can only do this or do that.”
Almost every job can be adapted for someone who is blind. Use a computer? Text-to-speech software makes it accessible. Like customer service? People skills don’t require vision. Have a good ear? Being a musician or radio producer can be a smart choice. Ultimately, people who are blind just try to find the job that’s right for them. “One blind person might be super successful in one area, but that’s not necessarily the career I want,” Yazzolino says.
Travel by plane
Perkins Library Director Kim Charlson jokes that between flying to conferences and going on vacation, she’s at the airport more than her local bus stop. Like every experienced traveler, she’s got a system. She and her guide dog, Dolly, ride to the airport in a taxi or Uber and then check in at the ticket counter. (Self-serve kiosks aren’t accessible.) She then uses the airport’s meet-and-assist service, which provides a sighted guide. The employee escorts Charlson to security, where she and Dolly go through the metal detector, then to the gate.
Charlson usually pre-boards and settles into a window seat, with Dolly curled up under the seat in front of her. “People say, ‘You’re so amazing!’” she says. “But I don’t think I am. I’m just doing what I need to do.”
Perkins alumna Sara Mornis has been skiing since the age of 6, and can’t imagine a winter without her favorite sport. As a child, she took lessons to learn proper form – using a long pole to stay connected to her instructor. Today when she hits the slopes, she’s accompanied by a sighted guide, who tells her when to turn and alerts her to potential hazards like moguls or patches of ice. She wears a neon vest so other skiers know she’s visually impaired. “I just love the mountain. I love snow,” she says. “When I’m skiing I feel like I’m flying, like I’m free.”
How do you “watch” television without vision? With audio description, which brings scenes to life with vivid descriptions of action, scenery and facial expressions. The voice-over narration is inserted between lines of dialogue, and lets blind viewers know that the crazed killer is silently creeping around the corner – with a knife in his hand.
Shop for groceries
Thanks to grocery delivery websites like Peapod, Perkins employee Tim Cumings can stock up for the week without leaving his desk. He uses his computer’s screen-reading software to navigate the site, filling his virtual cart with everything from apples to sliced ham. He pays with a credit card, and groceries are delivered to his door within 48 hours.
Every so often Cumings visits a local grocery store like Trader Joe’s, where he requests a personal shopper from the customer service desk. But nothing beats the Internet in terms of convenience. “Shopping used to take an hour,” he says. “Now I’m done in 15 minutes.”
Dave Wilkinson never planned to have kids. Then he married Dawn, who had a little boy named Cameron. Suddenly, Wilkinson was a stepdad who was blind.
Since Cameron was already 4 years old, Wilkinson missed some of the “typical” blind parent experiences. He didn’t have to diagnose diaper rash by feel, and didn’t put bells on Cameron’s shoes to keep track of his whereabouts.
But he and his wife, who is also blind, made other adjustments. To help Cameron with schoolwork, they found online versions of textbooks to listen to. They enrolled him in extracurricular activities, using paid drivers and family friends for transportation. They made sure Cameron had typical childhood experiences – from doing chores to putting up Christmas lights. “We thought if other families could do it,” Wilkinson says, “we should be able to do it, too.”
Use an iPhone
Send a text. Play a song. Make a call. People with visual impairments can do all that by using the iPhone’s built-in accessibility features. Users can scroll a finger across the screen, and the voiceover function reads aloud every app and menu. Digital assistant Siri can read emails and texts – and even verbally describe emojis. This kind of accessibility deserves a “smiling face.”
Grill a steak
Perkins School for the Blind employee Jim Denham can sear a T-bone to perfection. How? By being hands-on, literally. Before lighting the grill, Denham uses his sense of touch to build a mental picture of his grilling surface as well as the meat he’s about to cook. His iPhone serves as a timer, and he relies on feel to determine whether a steak is cooked the way he likes it. “When you push it in the center, does it have the same firmness as your ear lobe? That’s medium rare,” he says.
Go on dates
The goal of dating is simple. You want to find someone you’re compatible with and attracted to. It’s the same for singles who are blind, but “attraction” can have a slightly different definition. For 27-year-old Perkins employee Tanja Milojevic, it’s all about good communication. “I want to meet someone who genuinely cares about the topics we’re discussing,” she says – although having a nice voice helps, too.
Milojevic has learned to be upfront about her low vision, to weed out suitors who might be uncomfortable with her disability. She relies on advice from friends to ensure her makeup looks good before heading out on a date. She encourages her dates to let her know if they’re having a good time. “I might not see facial expressions,” she explains, “so I’ll check in to see how it’s going.” Does the conversation feel effortless? That’s when she knows she’s made a real connection.
Perkins teacher Kate Katulak is preparing for the hardest race of her life: a half Ironman triathlon, which includes a grueling 13.1-mile run, 1.2-mile swim and 56-mile bike ride.
Katulak trains and competes like every other triathlete, with some adaptations. She rides a tandem bike during practice and in the race. She swims laps by herself in a pool – but uses an exercise band to stay close to her sighted guide when swimming across an open lake or ocean in the race. When running, she’s connected by a tether to a guide, who steers her around obstacles and warns her about other runners.
“Exercise makes me feel healthy and more energized,” Katulak says. “I wish more people who were blind or have disabilities would be more physically active.”
Ride the bus
Every morning, Perkins teacher Jeff Migliozzi joins millions of urban professionals commuting to work via public transportation. But he does it with a white cane in his hand. He’s memorized the location of his bus stop, and can hear when the bus arrives. Before boarding, he asks the driver if anyone is disembarking, and then navigates to a seat. Stops are announced on the bus’s PA system, which helps Migliozzi keep track of where he is along his route. “I like to know where I am in space,” he says. “With a bus, you know where it turns and where the stops are. It drops you off, and you know where you are.”