Future Reflections Summer 1990, Vol. 9 No. 2

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by Chip Johnson

[PICTURE] Chip Johnson, Illinois.

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from The Braille Examiner, a publication of the NFB of Illinois.

In these days of ever more complex technology, consumers are continually bombarded with "new" and "better" ways of doing things, and we the blind are no exception. In recent years, we have seen the advent of the Kurzweil reader, computer speech technology and a myriad of other such "breakthroughs". We cannot deny that some of this equipment truly does make our lives easier. This article is in fact being written on an IBM PC clone with speech technology which allows me to produce, edit, and print a document without the help of a reader. We must, however, remember that such technology is not the panacea that many of the sighted (and for that matter, the blind) think it to be. In most cases, the tried-and-true alternative techniques that the blind have used for years work just as well.

Last Fall, I got a call from Jan Floyd, director of the "Services for Sensory Impaired" office at the University of Illinois --for those of you "unenlightened souls" out there who aren't fluent in rehabese, that's the office which deals with the blind and deaf--asking me to participate in a graduate research project involving travel aids for the blind (pause for collective groan). My first reaction was to dismiss this project as just another attempt to throw technology at a nonexistent problem. However after careful consideration, I decided that my participation in such a project might afford me an opportunity to educate the graduate student and to remove some of the mystery and fear from his perception of blindness.

On the appointed day, I was asked to travel a prescribed route and later discuss the trip with the researcher. I naturally had no difficulty traveling the route using only my long white cane.

After the walk the grad student questioned me about the trip. "Did I have any difficulty with the route?" I told him that I did not. He then explained the project, which involved the use of satellite tracking technology to aid the blind traveler. A system had been designed whereby the blind person would carry a "compact" (about the size of a large backpack) satellite receiver which would pick up coordinates from an orbiting satellite and convert them to standard measurements of distance from a particular destination. The traveler would decide where he/she wanted to go and program the coordinates of that location into the machine. He would then begin walking in a random direction, checking his coordinates periodically until he reached the desired location (and you thought all you needed to travel competently was a white cane and common sense).

One's first reaction is to laugh off such a project as just another misguided effort to "help the blind." However, if we strip away the space-age veneer, we find the same destructive attitudes which have kept the blind from achieving full first class status since the beginning of time. Obviously, this researcher believes (probably unconsciously) that the blind traveler's world is a dark and mysterious place in which the blind person picks his way along unsure of every step with little if any idea where he is going.We in the National Federation of the Blind know that with proper training in the use of the long white cane, a blind person can travel as competently as his sighted neighbors.

Upon learning that I had no difficulty traveling the route given me, the researcher took another old familiar tack: implying that I was an especially good traveler and that other travelers who are not so adept might put his machine to good use. I politely told him that I am not a particularly outstanding traveler and that his invention would actually encourage blind people to become dependent on the very machine designed to give them independence. I also noted that the device does not give the same useful information about landmarks that a long, white cane provides. Thus, the only way a blind person would know he had arrived at his destination is according to the coordinates from the machine. He then speculated that the device might be useful in unfamiliar areas, but I noted that without precise coordinates for a particular location, the machine would be useless. He seemed less than thrilled with these remarks, and the interview soon ended, but not before I suggested that he apply his inventiveness in the design of a more practical idea like a compact campus map similar to those which newly arriving sighted students carry. I'm sure that if this idea is considered at all, it will probably be shelved in favor of a more complex (if less useful) project.

After some reflection on my participation in the study, I know that my input probably didn't make much difference in the overall scheme of things, but if I changed (even slightly) that graduate student's attitude toward blindness, it was well worth the effort.

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