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Dealing with Uncertainty as a Blind or Visually Impaired Pedestrian

Updated: Nov 16, 2023


A man with a cane crossing the street using OKO. At the top left corner is blue text on a yellow background "How to Navigate Uncertainty as a blind or visually impaired pedestrian"

By Seth Wilson


For blind people, venturing out into the world can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s deeply empowering for us to explore our surroundings, even if it’s just a quick jaunt down to the convenience store around the corner. On the other hand, though, the fast-moving streets can feel fraught with perils both real and imagined. This paradox puts us in a strange sort of double-bind: hope drives us forward while fear holds us back.


Much of this fear stems from the uncertainty inherent in blind pedestrian travel. In a perfect world, all sidewalks would be obstruction-free as our canes glide over their silky smooth surfaces. Drivers would follow traffic laws and conventions to a T. And pedestrian crossing signals would give us exactly the feedback we need to cross streets safely.


But, as we all know, this isn’t a perfect world. The reality of pedestrian travel is often messy, chaotic, and challenging even in the best of circumstances. Cracks in the sidewalk catch our cane tips at awkward angles. Some well-meaning passer-by distracts our guide dog. Construction forces us to deviate from a familiar route. In spite of our best efforts, it’s an almost certainty that, during any given outing, something will not go as expected.


In this blog post, I want to provide four strategies for dealing with uncertainty, specifically as it relates to navigating this crazy world around us as a blind pedestrian.


Prepare


Benjamin Franklin said it best: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” One of the best ways to reduce the chance of unexpected events while traveling is to spend a little time getting ready before setting out. This can include something as seemingly trivial as checking the weather. Is it raining? Should I expect slick surfaces? Do I need to put boots on my guide dog? Should I wear sunscreen? These details might seem small, but thinking about them beforehand can help us feel a little more relaxed and ready for what’s out there.


As blind pedestrians, we often rely on our technology to help bridge the gap between ourselves and our fully sighted counterparts. So it’s also worth taking some time to ensure we’re prepared from an assistive technology standpoint. If we’re planning a long trip the next day, for example, we can make sure our phone and other assistive devices are fully charged and ready to go. We can make sure we have the apps installed and updated that we know we’re going to need, like Maps for route planning and navigation, and the OKO app for crossing streets safely.


Speaking of route planning, it’s a good idea to have a strong sense of where you’re going, from start to finish. And you win bonus points if you can plan an alternate route in case construction, public transit changes, or some other unforeseen setback prevents you from taking your chosen route.


Accept


This step is more about mindset than practical advice, but it’s equally crucial to navigating uncertainty.


Okay, so you’ve planned your route, you’ve charged your devices, and you’ve checked the weather. You’re feeling good. You’re feeling confident. You’re feeling ready!


But the truth remains that, no matter how much you’ve prepared, a situation will likely arise that has no readily apparent answer, that will test your resolve. It’s important to accept that these things will happen, no matter how much you’ve prepared. That way, you won’t be taken off guard when it happens–not as much, anyway! Trust yourself. Know that, whatever happens, you have both the external and internal resources to handle it beautifully. You’ve got this!


Pause Safely


So what’s the very first thing you should do when you run into a situation you haven’t planned for? Maybe you’ve dropped your cane and can’t find it. Maybe that Audio Pedestrian System you’ve come to rely on at that busy street corner is suddenly not working. Maybe your normal bus route is out of service.


The answer, to some extent, depends on where you are. If you’re in the middle of a street crossing, or in some other potentially unsafe area, when uncertainty strikes, your first priority should be to get yourself to safety. You can use the OKO app, for example, to reorient yourself with a pedestrian signal to finish crossing a street safely. And if you have some functional vision, you can use your Camera app and magnification to better assess your surroundings. Whatever it takes, get to a place of safety.


Assuming you’re not in immediate danger though, the very first thing you should do when faced with ambiguity is to PAUSE. Life moves fast, and all too often we feel the need to go go go, to figure things out quickly, to “seize the day”. But what’s the big hurry, really? Even if you’re late for that job interview, or that date, the world isn’t going to come crashing down.


The benefits of a moment’s pause far outweigh the minor time loss. Stop for a moment. Take a few deep, calming breaths. Tap into that sense of acceptance and self-reliance we cultivated in the previous step. I promise you’ll make far better decisions from this place of cool, calm, collected confidence than you would from the state of panic that often accompanies uncertainty.


Ask for Help


You’ve calmed down. Awesome! You’ve tried using all the tools at your disposal, from your own senses, to mental maps, to assistive technology. But none of these have helped get you out of the pickle you’ve found yourself in. Don’t panic! Help is on the way.


If you perceive people nearby, don’t hesitate to calmly and politely ask them for assistance. Most people will be more than happy to help direct you, assist you across a confusing intersection, or answer other questions. And if for some reason the first person you ask can’t or won’t help you, try again with someone else. Repeat until success is achieved and you’re back on solid ground, conceptually speaking.


This can be a lot easier said than done, I know. For me, I want to seem like a completely capable and self-sufficient traveler, and I am often reluctant to ask for the help I need. After all, asking for help would seem to contradict the mindset of self-reliance we’ve worked so hard to cultivate. But, far from being a sign of weakness, asking for help actually shows a lot of strength and bravery.


Reflect


When you’re in the midst of an uncertain travel situation as a blind person, it can often be difficult to think about it objectively. But at the end of the day, when you’re back in your cozy, comfortable home, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on the challenges of the day. What did I learn from the experience? Is there anything I can do to prevent it from happening again? If not, is there something I would do differently next time? Reflecting and pondering questions like these will help you be better prepared for your next adventure, boosting your confidence as a blind traveler even further.


Conclusion on Navigating Uncertainty as a Blind Person


My senior year of college, I took a trip to Italy with two sighted friends. We took the train from Turin to Rome–or at least that was the plan. Apart from my vision issues, none of us spoke Italian, and we were unfamiliar with the train schedule, and missed our desired stop in Rome. By the time we realized our mistake, we found ourselves in a tiny village about a half an hour outside Rome. We were lost. No-one spoke a lick of English, and we had no idea how to get back on track.


To this day I don’t remember how we found our way back to Rome. But we did. And what’s more, once we finally did make it onto the right train, one of my friends struck up a conversation with an Italian commuter who spoke some English. We were invited to dinner and wine, and we now had a companion and guide to show us around Rome. So the experience of getting lost, while frustrating, resulted in something wonderful happening that we can never plan.


And that’s the thought I want to leave you with. Rather than viewing ambiguity as the enemy, something to be avoided at all costs, we should be looking at it as an invitation to learn, to grow, and to make new connections with fellow travelers. Yes, it’s frustrating, it’s messy, it’s stressful. But it also really is a gift when we approach it with the right attitude.


Travel Safely!


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