by Syed Yousufuddin
From the Editor: Syed is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois who commutes daily to work. In these commutes he meets more people than many of us who have limited our transportation to personal vehicles, hired cars, taxicabs, or paratransit. In this article he explores the attitudes of those he meets and wrestles with how to deal constructively with them. Here is his article:
One of the great advantages of a big city like Chicago is the public transportation. People can get virtually anywhere by using the services of the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority). As a blind person I don't drive, so I rely entirely on public transportation for getting from one place to another.
Surprisingly, I didn't use public transportation to get to and from work during the first ten years of my employment. My first job was within walking distance of where I lived. When my office moved to the suburb of Lincolnwood, my boss arranged a ride for me. Apart from business-related travel out of state, I worked remotely much of the time. All of that changed recently when I took a job as a customer care representative for the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Hospital.
Now that I have become a regular on the CTA buses and trains (and since I am working I gladly pay full fare), I am trying to get the most out of my travel experiences. I take two buses and two trains, requiring three transfers, in order to get to and from work. It's a long and adventurous commute.
By now I am so used to being blind that I often forget all about it. I take public transportation to and from work like thousands of other commuters. What is the big deal? I think I possess good travel skills, and most of the people who know me agree. The people who travel with me and watch me every day—my fellow bus-mates and train-mates—should recognize this, too. They see me every day, and they ought to realize that I do not need any assistance. But unfortunately a lot of people seem to lack common sense.
Why does one man (I call him Uncle Joe out of respect) consider it his responsibility to grab my arm and guide me from the bus to the Brown Line Station on Western Avenue every morning? Uncle Joe and I ride the same bus every day. He has been watching me get on the bus independently for the past two months. Nonetheless, he refuses to realize that I do not need his assistance. I don't know how to tell Uncle Joe that I am fine. I politely refused his assistance in the beginning, but he religiously insisted on helping me. If it makes you happy, Uncle Joe, I am not going to protest.
Uncle Joe sends me off at the entrance to the train station, and from there I begin my solo journey. After seeing me for just two days, the CTA employee on duty was smart enough to realize that he didn't need to grab me and drag me from the turnstile to the platform. Now he greets me every morning with, "Hey Buddy, how are you?" I like him. I like smart people.
After I climb the stairs or take the escalator, I walk a few meters along the platform to reach the spot where I need to stand in order to get on the second car. But I don't walk the platform without some shouts of, "You're too close to the edge!" and "Stay to your right!" Again, these are people who watch me every day. Every day they see me use my cane to locate the edge of the platform and make sure I am safe. Come on, people! I understand your concern, but stop thinking I'm a misguided missile! I appreciated their concerns—rather, their shouts—with a smile in the beginning, but I don't pay attention to them anymore.
Like everybody else, I board the train with ease and find an empty seat. I have to admit here that it is tricky to find a seat once the train starts to move. It is hard for me to keep my balance with a cane in one hand while I'm searching with the other hand for a bar to hold onto. The key here is to move fast and settle down before the train picks up speed; otherwise you will end up hugging a stranger or sitting on someone's lap.
I would like to share one incident with you all. One day as I was riding the Brown Line, the train stopped at a station in the Loop. Some people got off, and some got on, and the train started to move. What happened next knocked the living daylights out of me. Out of nowhere, a beautiful young woman (yes, I have a beauty detector!) crash-landed on my lap. It was a shock and awe moment! Honey, I know I am irresistible, and I know you love me, but there is an empty seat right next to me! The whole mishap lasted only a few seconds, but it was an embarrassing situation for her—she apologized multiple times. Definitely it was not her fault; she simply lost her balance, and the people who witnessed the mishap realized that.
Now reverse the situation. Imagine for a minute that she was in my place, and I landed on her lap. The reaction would have been totally different. If a blind person loses his balance, it will become a blindness issue. "Oh, poor blind guy," people whisper. The whole car sympathizes with me, though losing balance has nothing to do with blindness.
Okay, let's move on. Let's take the Roosevelt bus. Did you know that there is a pre-recorded announcement on route twelve? "Blind person coming!" This announcement starts as soon as I board the bus. The bus operator makes this announcement, and the front end of the bus echoes it, amen. I am greeted as a superhuman being. People want to give up their seats for me. They inquire about my destination. They try to hold my arm even when I am seated, and they perform all sorts of other antics.
The story continues as I get off the bus and walk toward the Red Line train at the corner of State and Roosevelt. As I write this article, a construction project is underway on Roosevelt Road. Construction barriers stand along the street. It becomes a bit challenging for me to navigate the barricaded, narrow sidewalks and deal with the arm grabbers at the same time.
One fine evening, as I was cruising along toward the intersection of Roosevelt and State, I heard someone call, "Sir, you are running into a barrier! Come on, hold onto my arm."
I respectfully declined by saying, "Thanks, ma'am, I am fine."
I started walking a little faster, but she was determined to grab me. I could almost hear the words in my head: “Say what you will, baby, I'm coming for you!” She literally started running in order to get her hands on me. "Sir, sir!" she yelled. "Hold on!"
I managed to outrun her by using my cane to good effect and walking really fast, but she didn't give up. She caught up with me as I was waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street. "Don't put your life at risk!" she scolded. "That was dangerous. You almost ran into that fence."
I smiled and responded, "I told you I will be fine."
One day on that same block, I heard a little boy ask his mother, "Mom, what is that?"
"It's an aid that helps him to see," his mother responded. I figured by her response that the little boy was pointing at my cane. Apparently this woman was educated, and she showed that she had common sense. She was teaching that common sense to her son.
One evening I decided to take a different route on my way home. I walked an extra two blocks and boarded the Pink Line train. I found an empty seat and was trying to get situated, when someone remarked, "You look very confident with your cane."
I turned my head and thanked the woman who was standing next to my seat. She extended her hand and introduced herself to me. "I am Jackie," she said.
Interestingly, it turned out that Jackie also works for the UIC Hospital. She told me that she knows some other blind people, but they lack confidence. She was floored to see me so confident in my cane technique. I explained to her that, with proper training and opportunities, blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance.
As we talked another woman chimed in, "You are brave."
I couldn't agree with her more! Do I sound conceited? "Yes, ma'am," I replied, "and fortune favors the brave." They both concurred as I disembarked from the train.
We are indeed changing what it means to be blind, especially when it comes to training. I am fortunate that I went to BLIND Inc., the NFB training center in Minneapolis, where I gained my blindness skills. I stayed there for only six months, but those six months changed my life. We are changing, but a vast majority of the blind community is not. One example of a person without skills and confidence becomes the norm for the public and tarnishes the image of what blind people really can do. I feel bad whenever a paratransit driver drags a blind person into his car. I want to go and liberate that helpless blind individual. I am willing to liberate him, but first he needs to stand up for himself.
I see an urgent need for us to undertake more educational/awareness projects. We in the NFB have been on the frontline when it comes to educating sighted people, but I believe it is equally important for us to educate our fellow blind. We need to help them understand that blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future, and that blindness should not hold you back. You can live the life you want.
Oh, did I tell you that I got a speeding ticket for walking fast at my workplace? And I had a cup of coffee in one hand! No way!