Braille Monitor                                                                November 2006

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A Segway to Independence

by William Ackel

From the Editor: The NFB promotes access to independence for blind people in every way. Traditionally our organization is best known for espousing the value of mastering nonvisual techniques so that blind people, no matter what their degree of remaining vision, can competitively function--totally blind people relying exclusively on nonvisual methods and those with limited sight using nonvisual techniques to supplement their existing vision efficiently. Put another way, the underlying principle we advocate is that blind people should be as independent as possible using whatever means will safely and efficiently let us achieve this goal. Contrary to the beliefs of some, a mature understanding of Federation philosophy does not preclude the use of one's remaining vision when it can be helpful.

William Ackel on his Segway

William Ackel, a fifty-year-old computer programmer and property manager living in Lodi, California, with a visual acuity of 20/200, offers an enthusiastic endorsement of the Segway Human Transporter as a tool for realizing independence. Obviously this transportation alternative will not work for totally blind people, and it is prudent to caution that blind people with some residual vision should carefully consider whether they are appropriate candidates to use the Segway safely, but it appears to be a successful and empowering strategy for William. His account follows:

I have been legally blind since birth, but through experience I have learned to make effective use of my remaining vision. I got my first bike in my college days when I moved from the dorm to an apartment that was about two miles off campus, and for the next twelve years I only used the bike for short trips. One day I saw a pamphlet for a one-hundred-fifty-mile charity bike ride. Since it was just unsolicited junk mail, I tossed it in the trash. The distance noted on the pamphlet though kept nagging at me. One hundred and fifty miles on a bike? In one day? Could I do that? Finally I dug the flyer out of the trash, and that was the beginning of cycling as a serious hobby for me.

The next eight years were something of a golden age. As trips of twenty or thirty miles became routine, I found that I could get just about anyplace on my bike that a car could go and that I could do it in less time than it would have taken on a bus. I was in the best physical condition of my life and getting around more efficiently than ever before.

People would sometimes ask me if it wasn't scary riding in traffic, but cars weren't really the problem for me. Vehicles were always big enough that I could clearly see them. The problem was always small hazards: pot holes, rocks, sand, oil slicks, scraps of wire, pieces of wood, and other debris. As my vision deteriorated (and after a couple of crashes), I finally decided that my cycling days were over.
Fast-forward to December 2001 and the debut of the Segway. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Segway Human Transporter is a personal electric transportation vehicle. It consists of a small riding platform with large wheels on the left and right and a control shaft extending upward to a handlebar. Inside it's quite complicated, with several computers, five gyroscopes, two tilt sensors, and two two-and-a-half horsepower servomotors. Operating it, however, is the picture of simplicity. To go forward, you lean forward. To go backward, you lean back. To turn, you twist the left hand grip. That's basically all there is to it. I like to tell people that the Segway doesn't know it's a transportation device; it's just trying to stay upright.

As a technophile, I was naturally smitten. My first opportunity to get on a Segway was at the Innoventions Pavilion at Disneyland. My friends and I all agreed that we felt that with just a few hours practice we could master the thing. I wasn't sure, however, how useful it would be in practice, and I was put off by the $5,000 price tag. I decided to wait a few years to see if the price would come down. Well, a few years passed, and the price did not fall. A few extra-cost options, such as wheel inserts, splashguards, and higher performance lithium-ion batteries, are now standard.

I had come to the point where I simply had to find a better way of getting around, so I took the plunge. The first thing that I noticed is that, as cool as the concept is, the execution is even better. Although it's still a relatively new product, the design is highly evolved. Many safety features distinguish the Segway from a mere motor scooter. The operation is nearly silent, and the range is sufficient (at least twenty-five miles) to get me anywhere in Lodi and back on a single charge. The top speed is around twelve miles per hour--about three-times walking speed--but what is perhaps more significant is that it essentially has no minimum speed. You can easily travel at much less than normal walking speed. It's so maneuverable that it can turn in place, and in fact I routinely ride it into the supermarket or drugstore without any objection from the management. The engineering is meticulous, and the construction impeccable. The main thing I was looking for was less sensitivity to road debris, and I got it. I've run over small potholes, rocks, pinecones, and seedpods, all without incident.

When riding in certain places, you have to be prepared to turn some heads. I have had many interesting comments from onlookers like "That looks like fun," "Cool," "Everyone should have one of those," or just "Wow." My favorite was from a teenage boy who said, "Those are real? I thought that was just something on TV."

For those who can handle one, a bike may still be a better choice. One perennial problem with riding a bike is that you are invisible to motorists. It's not that they can't see you; it's just that they aren't looking for bikes. The experience on the Segway is just the opposite. You are quite conspicuous, and I find that drivers are more inclined to treat me as an equal. Another traditional problem with bicycles is that you sweat, so, if you wear a suit to work, you may find that a Segway fits your lifestyle better. It's also not as fast as a bicycle, and for me that's a good thing. It increases the likelihood that I will see an obstacle in time to avoid it. If at any time I can't see what's going on, I can just step off and become a pedestrian. Safety is always uppermost in my mind. The Segway's responsive architecture allows me to react quickly to any situation, and I make it a policy never to pass pedestrians. Generally I ride in a bike lane when it's available, on the side of the road as a second choice, or on the sidewalk if traffic dictates.

While I am raving about the Segway, it's important to remember that it can be dangerous. It's not impossible to crash, though I haven't managed it yet, and in any collision with a motor vehicle, you would be at a serious disadvantage. Three states require the company to advise riders to wear knee guards, elbow guards, and wrist guards. While it might be unnecessary for most people, I have been wearing knee guards and elbow guards. You should also know that the Segway is not good at carrying a lot of cargo. I have not, for example, found a way to get a cake home from the bakery without turning it on its side, and in a full rain you get soaked.

My spouse Leslie and I are both busy professionals. Relying on the Segway, I am able to attend to emergency calls to visit properties across town that I manage or to bring home several gallons of water in my backpack without having Leslie drive me to perform these routine tasks. I recently hopped on my midnight blue Segway to go to a local sausage and wine festival, an event that was of no interest to Leslie. In short, my Segway is one convenient and efficient tool that allows me to preserve my independence within my community.
Despite its limitations, I have found Segway's Human Transporter to be solid, practical transportation that perfectly matches my needs and abilities. The Segway gives me added flexibility in my life and is just one more means of remaining self-sufficient. I enjoy it so much that I actually find myself looking for excuses to run errands. A big spike in gas prices could cause a run on Segways, so I figure that having it is a kind of insurance. My only regret is that I waited so long to buy one. And did I mention that it's incredibly fun to ride?

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