Future Reflections         Winter 2011

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Where the Sidewalk Ends

by Steve Hastalis

Travel instructor Steve Hastalis walks behind his student as she confidently strides down a paved park trail.From the Editor: Steve Hastalis is a charter member of the Chicago Chapter of the NFB of Illinois. Public transportation is his lifelong passion. In May 2010 he retired after working for thirty-five years with the Chicago Transit Authority.

I was fourteen years old in the summer of 1966, between my freshman and sophomore years of high school. My parents took me to music camp at Michigan State University in Lansing. Toward the end of the session, my mother wrote me a Braille letter. She told me that we would move from the Beverly area on the south side of Chicago to a western suburb. I distinctly remember her writing, "The public transportation won't be what it is in the city, but we'll make it work."

Shortly after we moved to Western Springs, my mother came to me on a Sunday night and suggested, "Let's go for a walk."

First we walked along the curving streets of our subdivision. These streets had no sidewalks. We then walked out to 55th Street, a main road with dirt shoulders and, again, no sidewalks. Cars and trucks passed within a few feet of us, going about 55 miles per hour. Large trucks created compression in front and suction behind, pushing and pulling as they passed. Their diesel engines produced considerable noise and fumes. We walked east to Wolf Road, past the parking lot of a grocery store and a gas station. We walked through turning lanes as we crossed an intersection.

"I don't like this," I commented, but my mother did not reply. We both knew that I had to learn to walk through this terrain. I had to go to the grocery store, to the stop for the transit bus which still ran then, to the bus stop for the school bus I used when I stayed after school for extracurricular activities, and ultimately to the train station about a mile and a half north.

Shortly after we moved, my mother arranged for a mobility instructor to show me more of the area. We walked and drove around the neighborhood, but the instructor did not show me anything new. I finally disclosed my big goal to her, "I want to walk to the train station."

She immediately divorced herself from that endeavor, saying, "It isn't safe, but you can do it if you want."

I was taught to respect my parents and teachers. I did not say anything for fear of being considered a rebellious teenager who did not respect adults. I certainly had thoughts to this effect: "Isn't it the job of the mobility instructor to make it as safe as possible? What's the point of this mobility lesson?"

Steve Hastalis and student passing pond.I contemplated the striking contrast between my mother's positive attitude and this instructor's negative approach. My mother insisted that I overcome less than ideal circumstances and succeed, while the mobility instructor sadly lacked creativity and belief in blind people. This instructor and I obviously had only one lesson. I have no recollection of her name or organization. My mother did not imply, even slightly, that I have further lessons with her. My mother and I had a clear yet unspoken understanding that we would not let this instructor's negative attitude stop me from reaching my ultimate goal.

Some time later, my mother took me to the train station. As we drove north on Wolf Road, she explained in a very matter-of-fact way, "The sidewalks stop at 49th; after that, the drainage ditch runs three feet from the road."

"Okay," I thought to myself, as I contemplated the seriousness of her directions and admonition. I returned from the city that afternoon, got off the train, and walked south along the west side of Wolf Road. After I crossed 49th Street, I stepped onto the grassy road shoulder. I stopped and explored carefully with my cane, finding the drainage ditch. These conditions confirmed my mother's directions exactly.

I safely walked the rest of the way home on the road shoulder between the pavement and the drainage ditch. I continued through the intersection with the turning lanes at 55th Street, along the dirt road shoulders, and through the curving streets of the subdivision.

Later I figured out a route involving parallel side streets a block or two west of Wolf Road. The residential streets gave me a much more pleasant walk away from the heavy, fast traffic and drainage ditch on the main road. However, my new route had a significant drawback--there were no stoplights when I crossed 47th Street and 55th Street. I listened carefully to the traffic and crossed quickly during quiet moments.

After that day I felt liberated, having gained greater independence in a very tangible way. Family members still drove me to and from the station frequently, because they offered, not because I required assistance. Occasionally I also took a taxi.

A large metropolitan area such as Chicagoland runs the gamut in terms of travel conditions. It has downtown office buildings, city streets, rail terminals, and elevated and subway train stations. It has suburbs with curving streets in subdivisions and main roads with dirt shoulders, drainage ditches, and no sidewalks. A commuter train takes people between outlying suburbs with rural travel and downtown big-city travel conditions, usually in less than an hour. A blind person who wishes to partake of all that a large metropolitan area has to offer should acquire enough experience and confidence to handle this wide variety of travel conditions on a moment's notice.

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