How do blind people navigate college campuses?
April 16, 2008 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I hope this question doesn't come off as crass, but I've always been curious when I see blind people on campus.

It took me long enough to find out where the major buildings on campus are plus each semester my classes are generally in a new building I've never been to. How do blind people handle this? Also it generally takes a lot of focus to not get hit by bikes/mopeds/cars. Am I right in considering blind people super heroes for being able to do these things?

Any insight is appreciated. The campus in question is Michigan State, but really any large campus would be similar.
posted by bmalicoat to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Learn more. Or, learn a lot more. Living with blindness is tough but blind people do not just have to roll over and die; there are all kinds of resources and strategies and ingenious adaptations that can be used to lead a normal life.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:32 AM on April 16, 2008

Burhanistan nailed it. I had a blind friend when I was in college who pretty much described the experience the same way -- other senses are heightened. You can sort of get an idea of how it works by sitting on a bench on a busy day, closing your eyes and listening. Along with the cane, the doppler effects and other aural phenomena are what blind people use to know if there is traffic, if they're about to walk into someone, etc.

Most campuses have an accessibility service that will do the guiding around from class-to-class early on. It's the same office that provides signed interpretation for the deaf.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:51 AM on April 16, 2008

There's some functional data showing that in blind people the areas of the parieto-occipital association cortex, which are used to build mental topographic maps of familiar areas, receive their input from auditory areas instead of the primary visual areas. There's also some suggestion that the non-primary visual areas remap, as they are active in blind people during some cognitive tasks (such as "Imagine you are finding your way from your apartment to the nearest bus stop.")

Of course, a neurologist prefers to nominate the remarkable plasticity of the brain as the real superhero.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:53 AM on April 16, 2008

A good friend of mine during graduate school was blind. When he arrived he was given a tour by a campus representative. We, his friends, also walked various routes with him to help him get acclimated -- on campus, in town, etc. He navigated by cane and not a service dog. Within days he was on his own. He explained that he counted his steps, had "mapped" various soundscapes in his mind, could tell his position by echoes, non-echoes and came to know street crossings, stairwells, etc. intuitively. BTW -- an interesting blog that is hosted by a blind couple: Blind Access Journal .
posted by ericb at 9:55 AM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Funnily enough, I was just this morning listening to Buzz Out Loud, which featured a voicemail from a blind woman discussing the problems she faces with the new generation of "quiet" hybrid cars and buses.
posted by mkultra at 10:04 AM on April 16, 2008

From this article, interestingly enough about a blind person making campus maps for other blind students, it seems that they get help in the beginning of the semester. Maybe a good solution in the future will be tactile maps?
posted by HE Amb. T. S. L. DuVal at 10:23 AM on April 16, 2008

There's a blind girl on my campus, and she uses a seeing eye dog (absolutely gorgeous, I must say) and usually has a friend around to help her. I don't actually know her personally, but whenever I've seen her around campus she's had her dog lead in one hand, and a friend on the other arm...
posted by Planet F at 10:36 AM on April 16, 2008

He uses the special cane like an extra sense to judge his terrain.

The cane also says "I'm blind". Which makes people more cautious around you with less assumptions that you'll get out of the way.
posted by smackfu at 10:45 AM on April 16, 2008

Many people who use canes etc. are not totally blind, either. The CNIB had a fun series of ads raising awareness of this fact recently. (news article)
posted by sevenyearlurk at 10:55 AM on April 16, 2008

My uni had tactile fetaures on specific pathways (braille trails) and tactile maps. Also provided guides for the first few weeks, and permanent assistants to students who needed them. We had one deaf-blind guy who had a finger-spelling support worker who translated lectures for him, and a couple of people had guide dogs.

Also agreeing with smackfu - people incorporate the visible markers of blindness into their perception, and adjust their movements accordingly.
posted by goo at 11:04 AM on April 16, 2008

I seem to see a disproportionate number of blind people at Sheppard Station. I often see the same people making their way along, so of course it would be a matter of being familiary with the route. And new people will often ask others for help - or people will see they're in trouble and help them. I've done some escorting a number of times.

By the way, public service warning — don't grab a blind person's arm. When offering to help, I say, "If you'll take my arm..." and lightly graze my arm against theirs so they know where it is.
posted by orange swan at 11:08 AM on April 16, 2008

Best answer: IANA Blind Person.

But I did a sort of research project at one point where I tried to "go blind" for a week. I had a friend who was blind who actually suggested it when I was asking about what it was like.

He supplied me with a cane, and I MacGyvered up a pair of sunglasses with foam pads glued to the inside of the lenses that rested comfortably on my closed eyelids. At night, I'd switch from the glasses to one of those sleeping eye patch things (do they have a name?). Other than that I just had to try real hard to keep them shut in the shower. I pretty much had my eyes shut for a week.

What grabbed me instantly was the incredible amount of things I could not do. I could not swim laps anymore, play with my IM basketball or ultimate teams, no raquetball, I avoided the gym for fear of hurting myself, and certainly no running. The one physical activity I felt comfortable doing was push-ups / sit-ups and my martial arts routines, but then only in a big corner of the gym. I could not get food without help from a friend or the cafeteria / restaurant staff. I couldn't go anywhere without asking someone for directions - I went to a small uni and knew the important buildings pretty much by heart, and that didn't help me much at all early on - I'd start out leaving my room, envisioning each turn, each step, and sooner or later a multitude of small calculations and I was in the wrong room, or halfway into the parking lot looking for a building. And forget about trying to cut across the quad, or any other expanse of land without significant cues on the ground.

Eventually, it was the cues that really helped. There were 22 evenly spaced crevasses in the sidewalk between my dorm and the nearest classroom building, and one spot that need a fresh patch of concrete. My mailbox was on the 16th column in and the third one from the top on the long mail hall - I was damn lucky it was so near one end, it was a pain in the ass enough trying to find it each day (and then I had to have someone read it too me anyway - you need someone you really trust to read a letter from an ex to you, or you need to wait til you're not blind anymore to read it yourself). The water tap was the 2nd one from the left on the soda fountains in the one cafeteria, but the little white lever on the far right side of the ones in the other cafeteria. Do not fool around with pouring your own tea and coffee, dimwit.

There were a lot of things I never figured out, too. Food on the plate was impossible - you're always poking at it with your fork but not sure what's there - separate dishes helps but is cumbersome. I basically lost a week of studying because the idea of "listening" to someone else's notes as a way of preparing for a test was lost on me - and I couldn't see anything that I'd try to write or type. So my computer was fairly useless as well. As was the television, books, and video games (granted, I didn't try to learn braille in this short time). This lead, of course, to a lot of boredom, but I did play a lot of piano and guitar that week (Ray Charles and all those talented blind guys started to make a lot more sense - you don't really have anything else to do I guess).

Getting into town, let alone crossing the streets to do so, freaking TERRIFIED me. I tried on the first day and didn't get halfway there. By the end of the week I had made it down and back (5-6 blocks away) on my own twice, and both times took multiple hours. I did start to notice my tendency to rely more immediately on sounds and touch, but I'm convinced it takes a lifetime of doing this to get to that level that people above alluded to - I certainly didn't notice any epic changes in one week.

I was late a lot, and didn't get much pity for it. I think maybe at first I kind of expected some (in a vicarious, pandering sort of way) but that wore off quick. You learn that when you literally can't look out for yourself, the rest of society isn't quick to step up and do it for you, and a world you can't see is a scary place - I once wasn't paying much attention to the cane and came very close to taking a tumble down some stairs - a friend grabbed me, but had he not, I would have been in trouble.

I wrote a paper on it but don't have it on this computer. Suffice to say - yes, blind people are freaking heroes in my book. Consider volunteering to work with them, most of the ones I've met are really fascinating people to be around.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:15 AM on April 16, 2008 [76 favorites]

From this article, interestingly enough about a blind person making campus maps for other blind students, it seems that they get help in the beginning of the semester. Maybe a good solution in the future will be tactile maps?

A blind former housemate of mine dealt with the mapping problem by using his computer for trip planning (Google Maps + a screen reader) and carrying a "talking" GPS unit while he was out and about.

I still got the impression that going unfamiliar places alone was a pretty serious pain in the ass for him.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:57 PM on April 16, 2008

Something closely related I was wondering:

I'm rather used to seeing all sorts of little signs with Braille as well as text. Now, for something like an elevator one might expect the Braille to be in a standardized location, but for just a sign in some random spot on the wall, how are blind people supposed to know where the Braille is?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 1:26 PM on April 16, 2008

I was late a lot, and didn't get much pity for it. I think maybe at first I kind of expected some (in a vicarious, pandering sort of way)

Or maybe because you chose to do what you were doing and in theory, could've been on time otherwise. It's not pity or pandering to change expectations for someone with a disability, or at least aid them in meeting those expectations. Disclaimer: I have a mother with several disabilities and a brother who used to have a serious learning disability.
posted by artifarce at 2:52 PM on April 16, 2008

I'm of the impression (could be wrong) that a fair number of the blind people one sees (e.g., wearing sunglasses, carrying cane, etc) in fact have some very limited sight. While not very useful for many tasks, being able to distinguish light and dark, or major fields of colour, could be quite an assistance to navigation.

Also, at our campus, every door has a small braille identifying sticker, which is almost colourless. These have been there since at least 1980 or so, you might want to look closely at the doors at your campus to see if they follow the same practice.
posted by Rumple at 3:02 PM on April 16, 2008

allkindsoftime's comment, particularly about the food issues, reminded me to tell you all: if you have an opportunity to go to a blind restaurant, do it. It's quite the experience! I believe BlindeKüh in Zurich is the the first, but they're now available in many places.

You see a menu outside and then are led into the completely dark restaurant by the waitstaff (who are blind, themselves), and seated at a dark table where you wait for the food you can't see so you can dig in with the forks you can't find to... you get the picture. Definitely an experience.
posted by whatzit at 3:38 PM on April 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I knew a blind gal at UT Austin who navigated with a cane. She got around pretty well, and her very forceful personality helped. She would bark at people if they did something stupid, like the jerk on a mountain bike who ran over her cane and snapped it in half when she was in the middle of campus.

She lived with two other blind women in an apartment, and over their couch was an upside-down seascape. I didn't have the heart to ask if they'd done it as a joke, or if someone was messing with them.
posted by popechunk at 6:55 PM on April 16, 2008

It's not that blind people hear better, but they dedicate a larger portion of their brains to processing what they do hear, hence the superhero-ish abilities.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:22 PM on April 16, 2008

Allkindsoftime - that was a fascinating read. Are you able to post the paper somewhere? What was it like transitioning back to sight?
posted by tomble at 12:33 AM on April 17, 2008

The paper is on a computer in a storage unit on another continent at the moment, so not quite yet. At least, I hope its still on that computer. My taxes are also on there and I have to do them the moment I get back to the states this month, so if it is on there, I'll try to get it up then.

I think one thing I perhaps better communicated in the original paper than in the post above was the fear that always kind of nags you when you have no vision. Its somewhat like being in a pitch black room, but even then your eyes adjust sooner or later. It was like being in a pitch black room and your eyes never adjust. Everywhere you go.

It broke my heart for blind people - I hope most of them move past it at some point, but I don't remember a second of that week that I didn't have that fear kind of weighing on my shoulders somewhat - even in my own room - what if my roommate moved the chair and I stub my toe?

What if a dog comes after me? Slim chance, yeah, but you can't run or kick the dog when you're blind.

When can I cross this street? If its windy out or traffic's loud, how the hell do you tell when its safe? I had to wait 10 minutes (it felt like 10 minutes but how the hell would I know, I couldn't tell time) once for someone to finally come along at an intersection and help me.

Is there ice on this sidewalk? Yes. Ouch.

Did I get the right change? This was the primary goal of my first trip to town, to get a sandwich at Subway and see if I got screwed - US currency is one of the few in the world where the bills are all the same size, a disadvantage to the blind.

Which seat in this classroom is open? And how the hell do I figure that out without sitting on someone?

Think about almost everything you do every day. Take half of it (driving, checking email, ordering from a menu, styling your hair, watching TV, etc.) and throw it out the window. Now take the remaining half of what you can still do, but imagine having to stop and carefully ask yourself or someone else a question (or in most cases a set of questions) about how you are going to do it. So you slow down the half of the things that you can do to about half the speed you would have otherwise been able to do them at. That is what being blind was like, at least for me.

Re: Transitioning back to sight, I was kind of worried about hurting my eyes with too much exposure, so after the week was over I wore normal sunglasses indoors and out for a couple days, but after about the first day I'm pretty sure I was adjusted. It was kind of funny, since I still had the glasses on I'd still have people offering to help me find a seat or pick out my food, so there was a lot of "thank you but I'm not blind anymore"s that led to some interesting conversations about what it was like.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:08 AM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

For those of you in NYC, there's a semi-relevant video in the Whitney Biennial. The rest of the show is pretty bland, but Javier Téllez's video "Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See" is absolutely fantastic. It records the interactions of six different blind people touching an elephant (presumably, for the first time ever), filmed at McCarren Pool in Brooklyn. Anyone in the area should consider stopping by - that, Omar Fast's "Casting", and Spike Lee's documentary on Katrina all make it well worth the admission price.
posted by TheRoach at 9:08 PM on April 17, 2008

Had a blind neighbor in the dorms when I was a freshman. He'd been there for several years; understandably, he was averse to moving house if he didn't have to. He knew his way around and had a dog, but he still preferred to have someone's arm if he was ranging far across the campus.

But really, the trouble with physical navigation paled in comparison to the intellectual navigation (studying). I'd rather be deaf than blind any day, because Braille is no kind of substitute for reading. I read in the Book of Mormon with him one day: Half-inch-thick duodecimo paperback for me, two shelf-feet of three-ring binders for him. Looked up our starting reference: Two seconds of riffling the pages and watching the running heads for me, thirty seconds of turning big stiff sheets and feeling around for in-text navigation for him. And never mind scanning for a word or phrase and "oh, looks like he comes back to that later in the chapter." (Don't think you rely much on scanning? Read in a foreign language and you'll realize how much you do.)

And then there's the third important part of university life: Star Trek. My neighbor loved to listen to TNG in the common room, but if there was no dialogue for a while he'd have to ask what was on screen. Dunno how you make it through school with diluted Star Trek.
posted by eritain at 9:56 AM on April 19, 2008

When I visited UMass in Amherst, dmd and I found the tactile map of the campus (I think this was in the library). Just a little diorama-type thing, with braille labels for the various buildings.

I live in the same neighborhood as the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. There are quite a few blind people who live in the area. Some of the nearby intersections have buzzers in addition to the little flashing-hand or person-walking visual indicators about whether it is safe to cross or not. The buzzers for east-west sound different than the ones for north-south.

Sometimes you can see them training blind school volunteers on how to walk with a cane. They are pretty conspicuous - a very nervous-looking person holding a cane while wearing a big black eyeshield, with an assistant nearby.

When I was in 9th grade, I taught myself braille. This was sparked by getting ahold of a braille copy of Reader's Digest, during a day where my church group did fundraising by working at a recycling place (Eco-Cycle in Boulder, CO). I thought it was cool so I kept it, then I got my grandmother's regular copy of the same issue of Reader's Digest, and sat to decode it. It was a fun process, but somewhat bewildering, since there are many abbreviations. I memorized the alphabet and a few abbreviations. I'd write that I had a crush on a certain boy on my school folders with braille-style dots, lest the boy himself see it and mortify me.

I never became adept with reading with my fingers, though. I could do a little, with a lot of (wrong) guessing, but that was all.
posted by marble at 5:14 PM on April 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

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