This post was written by Kai Owens.
Hi, I’m Kai Owens. I am a 16-year-old athlete, drummer, and mainstream high school student. I’m also legally blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa. I’ve done a lot of Orientation & Mobility training locally, and I’ve also traveled extensively in the US and Vancouver, BC. I use my mobility cane at all times and I’ve recently been approved for a guide dog. I’d like to share a few of my observations about when drivers and mobility canes intersect.
At some point, most sighted people have been driving and seen a blind person and panicked. Some of the encounters are full of mistakes that really do not make any sense. I’m going to walk you through a few common mistakes drivers make in hopes of raising awareness.
Recently, while walking with some visually impaired friends and our O&M instructor, we came to a busy intersection in a city known for tourism. Many people visiting the area already turn the wrong way on one-way streets, almost hit sighted pedestrians, and rarely know where they are going. So when they saw a group of blind students, you can imagine the chaos that ensued!
- Mistake 1: If you see blind or visually impaired people walking or standing at an intersection, do not try to wave us on. For some reason, this is everyone’s first instinct, and it makes zero sense. We cannot see you waving at us!
- Mistake 2: Do not drive extremely slowly. This makes it seem like you are stopping or makes it more difficult for us to hear your vehicle. Continue driving as normal and imagine that we are as capable as any other pedestrians — because we are!
As we continued our walk past that intersection, we stopped at another intersection which was much less crowded. One car, however, had a fantastic plan:
- Mistake 3: Do not slowly drive towards the intersection, stop half a block away, and honk as if we know what you are trying to tell us. Unfortunately being visually impaired does not allow us to speak to cars, and this usually will result in confusion and/or laughter.
- Mistake 4: Do not roll down your window and shout towards us from across the block. These people usually say something along the lines of “It’s safe, you can go!” Unfortunately, we cannot trust this advice because you are across the block and most likely have no idea what is actually happening at the intersection. I can slightly understand this mistake, but just know, unless you get asked for help, we most likely will not listen because it can be dangerous to follow a stranger’s advice in situations like this.
I understand that your intentions may be good, but I promise your help does not make travel easier for people who are blind or visually impaired. Please avoid these 4 mistakes. When you are driving and see someone with a mobility cane please just proceed as normal; you will be helping us much more than yelling out of your window or awkwardly honking.
FROM THE TEACHER: This is so TRUE!! ACT NATURAL, do what you learned in driver’s education class. People who are blind and visually impaired have a sophisticated way to travel that involves using cars to gain environmental information about traffic patterns, traffic control (stop sign, traffic lights), and draw auditory lines in space. VI travelers use traffic in a multitude of ways to cross streets safely with efficiency. Most VI travelers use blocker cars to navigate stop sign controlled intersections and near parallel surges at traffic lights, don’t worry, a well-trained person with a visual impairment feels confident with this type of travel. It works, it’s calculated timing, and it helps them maintain a straight line of travel. Each VI traveler will experience “helpers” during navigation, and trust me, it takes a lot of confidence to move past awkward moments at intersections with honking, people yelling from across an intersection about your personal safety (you do not control the other 3 lanes of traffic, do not take on the responsibility of others safety), and the creeper cars…we hear you.
By all means, take each situation as it comes with safety. All humans make mistakes, but if you see a person with a visual impairment safely and patiently waiting to cross a street at an intersection, ACT NATURAL, and allow them to make their own choices for safety. — AJ Walker, COMS