by Tony Giles
Tony Giles is a totally blind and partially deaf solo world traveler and author from south-west England. To learn more about Tony, visit his Web site, www.tonythetraveller.com.
Traveling is amazing. It can be experienced in many different ways. But if blind or visually impaired, it can often be more challenging or difficult. As a blind traveler of some 25 years wandering around the world, mostly by myself, I understand this very well. However, there are some practical ways to help make traveling or vacationing as a blind/visually impaired person a little easier.
First, decide where you would like to go. It might be a visit to a museum, park, beach or somewhere else of interest in your own city or state. Maybe start with a day trip somewhere or a weekend away to a nearby destination. Well, how will you get there? What are the transport options, and once there, how will you find the places you wish to visit, get to your accommodation, find a place to eat?
These are all the questions I need to answer when planning any trip. Therefore, I do a lot of research using my laptop with its JAWS screen-reading software. I open Google and do a search on, say, information about New York City. I might use a website (Wikitravel or Wikivoyage), or consult the Lonely Planet website for information about how to travel to NYC, and available public transport within the city, like buses or the subway. Next I would research tourist attractions and discover which places have audio guides or offer guided tours. I might even call individual attractions like the Empire State Building or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met”) and learn they have an excellent audio guide with tactile buttons that I can use to listen to hours of fascinating information about their various art exhibits. When I visited the Met on one of my trips to NYC, I discovered there are several items from their Egyptian collection that blind/visually impaired people can touch.
Once I’ve found the info about visitor attractions in a city or town or country, I then research accommodations. I might use the website Booking.com to find hotels/guest houses/hostels in the city I want to visit. Booking.com is a fairly easy website to use with screen-reading software. I enter the dates I want to stay and read through the results until I find a suitable hotel or hostel in my budget range.
But as a blind individual who has never visited that place, how can I navigate an unknown city/town? Well, I would ask the staff at my accommodation directions to the museum or attraction I wish to visit, saying, “I exit the hotel and go which way, left or right?” They give me the directions and I ask, “How many blocks to walk, and how many streets do I have to cross?” If the attraction is too far to walk, or deemed too complicated, I might take a taxi or ask about getting there by bus, tram or subway.
When taking a first trip, why not go with a friend or a family member? Experiencing a strange place for the first time can be daunting, so sharing it with someone you know might make it easier. If you enjoy that first experience, the next journey could be for a longer stay or to a further destination.
But the main tip is to research the destination in great detail, make notes you can refer back to, and take a spare cane or any other equipment you might need: spare phone/tablet charger, raincoat, gloves if it’s cold, hat, sunscreen if heading to warmer climes, towel, etc., and be prepared for things to occasionally go wrong.
I always get an address card of the accommodation I’m staying at, so if I get lost, I can simply shout “taxi” in any country or city and show the address and go back to my accommodation. Planning is the key to a successful trip.
Probably the biggest challenge when traveling as a blind/visually impaired person is money. In the UK and the USA, it’s possible to plug headphones into an ATM machine and access the information and withdraw money independently. Many UK ATMs have speech software and issue simple commands, allowing me and other sight-impaired individuals to access money and check their bank balance. However, this is not available in most countries around the world. Therefore, I have to rely on a trusted individual I find in the hostel or hotel where I’m staying. I might also enter a bank and ask staff to assist me. Asking strangers on the street to help is not a good idea because it’s often hard to know whether they are trustworthy. Although I’ve never been robbed when asking for help to use an ATM abroad.
My first experience in a foreign city by myself was when I visited New Orleans in 2000 when studying in the USA as part of an American Studies degree. Friends helped me book a flight and accommodation, and once I landed in New Orleans, I simply took a taxi to my hostel. I asked hostel staff for directions to Bourbon Street, the main area of nightlife and music. I was instructed to descend the hostel’s steps, turn left, walk 4 blocks and take a tram to Bourbon Street. Fine, I thought, easy enough. So with my cane in my hand, I exited the hostel, descended the steps and once on the sidewalk, suddenly froze.
Then it hit me – fear, as I had never experienced before. The idea of going alone, blind, to find an unknown landmark in an unfamiliar, dangerous city made me panic. I took a deep breath and said to myself, “This is what it is all about; this is the challenge you wanted; you have the ability, now get on with it or go home!” So I turned left and walked up the street to find the tram stop. With a little help, I found the tram stop and made it to Bourbon Street.
This is how I’ve been traveling ever since: by asking people on the streets, in various countries, to help me when I need it. This is how other blind and visually impaired people can travel if they want to. It is about engaging with the public and trusting people to a certain extent. It is about going out of your comfort zone and having a go. Fighting the fear of failure and taking a step and doing something that could turn out to be amazing and exhilarating!
For me, downtown Manhattan, NYC is one of the easiest to explore. Like several U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and Seattle, most of Manhattan is on a grid system, and it is simply a case of walking the blocks in a straight line and asking pedestrians what streets I am at when I reach a corner. I might be told I’m at the junction of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. If the next cross street is 43rd, I know I’m going uptown. Likewise, when riding the New York subway, I can listen to the announcements and know if I’m traveling “uptown” or “downtown,” making Manhattan one of the easiest areas of NYC to explore.
I’m not suggesting traveling blind is easy. Some days it can be very challenging, especially if journeying in a country where English isn’t the first language. But with modern technology, like smartphones and tablets and instant Internet to access Google Translate, communicating and traveling blind has become a lot easier.
I visited Tokyo, Japan in 2017 and discovered there are tactile lines in the subway stations and on the main streets for blind people to follow to help guide them more safely. Subway staff helped me on and off subway trains and escorted me to my next train or to the exit. I was in a Japanese restaurant one evening and tried to order food. The waitress didn’t speak any English and I figured it might be problematic. Suddenly, a mobile phone was placed in my hand and a lady spoke to me in English. I told her my order. She relayed my request to the waitress and told me the price. The food arrived, I had a delicious meal, paid and left. So traveling blind, despite many challenges, is possible.
I travel alone because I enjoy the challenge and like my independence, but there’s nothing wrong journeying with a friend or companion. Traveling with a guide dog in the U.S., the UK and in Europe seems easy enough. It would be much more difficult in Africa, South America and Asia. But I’ve never traveled with a guide dog, so I don’t know as much about that.
Like I say, it’s about research and planning, but traveling blind/visually impaired to a destination of choice for a day, weekend or longer is most definitely possible and can be great fun.