Foundations of Independent Travel

Hey! You’re back! I’m chuffed. This time I thought I would explore the basics of travelling as someone who is blind. Some of these things you may already know, some you may have always wondered, and some you may never have thought about before. Regardless, I hope you find it interesting. I’ll try not to overload you with information, but I thought it was important to cover all of this before I delve into any of the topics more deeply in future blogs.

Cass walks towards the camera using a white cane with red tip to follow the directional tactiles. She has long, straight, dark blonde hair and wears a mid-calf length dark green sleeveless dress and white sneakers. In the background are several tall buildings and other pedestrians. Photo by Lee Anderson.

First and foremost… senses. Many people believe that when you are down a sense (namely sight in this case) then the remaining four senses are heightened. I don’t think that’s true. Instead, I think it is just a matter of paying more attention or being more tuned in to those other senses. I often rely on what I can hear or smell around me or what I can feel under my feet to provide information.

Let me share a couple of examples. In Melbourne, there are older trams that have a couple of steps to climb up when boarding. There are also newer low-floor trams with no steps. These two styles of tram sound different (the trams themselves sound different as they move but also the bells sound different). Knowing whether a tram has steps or not isn’t going to change my life, but at least I know what to expect before I board. One of my local pubs is on a busy corner. One street has tram tracks, and the other doesn’t. I know that I am getting close to the intersection (and therefore the door inside) when I can hear car tires crossing the tram tracks up ahead. My favourite sushi shop in the city has a metal grate outside which I can feel under my feet and sometimes hear if someone steps on it, so I know when I have arrived. Plus, sushi shops have a recognisable smell too. These are usually things that I notice subconsciously as I navigate, but they may not be something that a person with full vision has noticed before.

Speaking of feeling things under my feet… sometimes these are simply parts of the environment (such as the metal grate outside the sushi shop) and other times it is specific infrastructure deliberately placed there for that purpose. I’m sure you have seen the dots and lines on the ground around the place. Many people think these are for grip, but they represent a couple of different things to blind travellers. They are called Tactile Ground Surface Indicators, but we usually call them tactiles for short.

The round dots are called hazard or warning tactiles because they are telling you that something is changing or that there is a danger. You will see these at the top and bottom of stairs/escalators/ramps, at road crossings, along the edges of train platforms, etc. The other type are the long straight lines. These are called directional tactiles because they point you towards something. It may be a lift, the ticket barriers, or simply to help you navigate through open spaces (such as a train station). Sometimes, but not always, directional tactiles will lead you to hazard tactiles. For example, this may be because the directional tactiles are leading you to the stairs and the hazard tactiles are saying “stop here, here’s the stairs”. Tactiles are arguably more important to people who travel with a white cane, but guide dog handlers will often find them useful too.

Canes and guide dogs. These are referred to as primary mobility aids. Most people who are blind would not leave the house without one of these aids because they are essential for getting around safely. On the other hand, a secondary mobility aid is something like a Mini Guide or BindiMaps. These should never be solely relied upon. You would always use a secondary mobility aid in conjunction with your primary aid of choice.

A landmark is different to a clue. A landmark is something permanent you can rely upon to be there. The metal grate outside the sushi shop is an example of a landmark. A clue is something that cannot be relied on because it may not always be there. The smell of the sushi is an example of a clue. The shop may be closed, there could be another smell that disguises the sushi, or it may be windy… there are several reasons why that particular clue may not help me find my lunch every time.

How do we learn all this stuff? When I first started venturing out independently, I relied on Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training. This is formal training provided by a specialist who is trained in the best way to teach someone who is blind how to get around. This may involve learning a specific route from A to B, receiving training on how to use a cane, or getting general orientation around an environment (such as your new workplace for example). An O&M instructor will help you find the safest way to get around even if it means walking an extra couple of hundred metres to avoid a particularly dodgy road crossing. Eventually, I felt that I had developed good O&M skills and had enough confidence and experience to tackle things myself. These days, I very rarely use formal O&M training, even when exploring new places for the first time.

I am going to leave you with a challenge. Next time you are out and about, I want you to take note of how the following shops all have very distinctive smells: Subway, a news agency, an ice-cream parlour, a shoe shop, a supermarket, a hairdresser, a chemist, a pub, 7-Eleven, and a $2 shop.

This story was written by Cassandra Embling, Customer Success Representative at BindiMaps.

What is BindiMaps?
Everyone loves navigation apps.
You know, like the one on your phone that rhymes with ‘frugal chaps’.
They’re brilliant, until you go indoors and everything just…shuts down.
That’s where BindiMaps comes in.
We help you find your way around the indoor spaces that other navigation apps can’t reach.
Once you open the app, the technology finds you and then uses common-sense, everyday language to guide you to wherever you’re going:
Parent’s room in the mega-mall? Walk this way.
Neo-natal ward in the new hospital? 9 metres on your left.
For many people this will be hugely helpful.
For people with a vision impairment, it’s a complete game-changer.
Whatever you’re looking for, BindiMaps will help you get there.

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