by Sheri Wells-Jensen
From the Editor: Sheri Wells-Jensen is an associate professor at Bowling Green State University in the College of Arts and Sciences. She specializes in linguistics, where she does teaching and research. In this piece she observes that traveling as a blind person is much more than route travel. It is an ongoing exploration. Sheri shows that what we do doesn’t have to be or look perfect; the important thing is that it gets done. Here is what she says:
Like just about everybody who doesn’t drive but needs to get places, I have a lot of interactions with cab drivers. I mean … a lot. Mostly, these involve the basics: exchange of greetings, exchange of information, exchange of cash, and mission accomplished. But there are always those extra exchanges that stick with a person.
“How do you get around?” This particular driver wanted to know, asking just as I was opening the door to exit the cab.
After sitting in companionable silence all the way across town, I was startled by the question. With the door open and one foot on the curb, I didn’t have time to say much. Even by that minimal standard, though, my answer felt inadequate.
“I just … go around,” I said vaguely, distracted. “Like anybody. I take cabs, like this one … or I sometimes walk … you know.”
This piece of brilliant elocution accomplished, I finished extricating myself from his cab, closed the door on his answer, and headed on my inarticulate way across the parking lot and up to my office.
I don’t consider it my job to educate every abled person about blindness or any other disability, but when people aren’t overtly rude, I do at least try to be reasonably congenial and moderately informative most of the time. The poor fellow had probably deserved a little more of my attention, but his question, I realized, juggling phone and keys and cane and computer bag in the elevator, was hard to respond to. He’d wanted there to be a simple answer: the one magic thing that disabled people do to solve the problem. The one “right” way we all pour water, or match our clothes, or pick cat hair off a jacket—the silver bullet that “makes it all possible.” What could I have told him that both would have been true and would have fit into the approximately five seconds I’d been given?
As an experiment, I put the question to the next student who stopped by my office: “How do you get around?” I asked her, pretending this was a normal question one human being might ask another.
I was secretly pleased when her answer was about as inarticulate as mine had been. “What do you mean?” she wanted to know. “Like … on campus? I just … walk mostly, or I take the shuttle sometimes.”
“But what if you don’t really know where you’re going?” I pressed. “What if you had to go to …” I searched for a moderately obscure building I’d had to find, “… Eppler South?”
She hesitated. “That’s by the Union, isn’t it? I’d just like, go over there and look around until I found it, I guess.”
Fair enough. Neither of us was being very clear. She “goes over there” and “looks around.” And she doesn’t think about it.
Despite my inarticulate interaction that morning, I do think about it. And while as a sighted person she has just one primary, half-conscious way of finding a building she needs, I have a basket full of interconnected strategies ready to employ whenever I want to go somewhere—especially somewhere new to me.
Let’s take that example of Eppler South—a building that is, I agree, somewhere over by the Student Union. It is vaguely northwest from my office. I confess that I still don’t know where exactly it is, but the English department faculty, for some reason, had decided to hold a mid-morning meeting over there just a few weeks back.
If I were sighted, I suppose I, too, would wander in that direction and look around until I saw the sign, and then go on in and check room numbers and find the meeting, and that’d be that. You could call that Plan A if you like.
Plan A doesn’t work in the same way for me. So that morning, knowing I had to find this new building, I started with Plan B. It went something like this: About two hours before the meeting, I text a pal of mine who I know is probably going to the same meeting: “hey kimberly u going 2 the department mtg?”
I don’t ask her to go out of her way. If she’s going, I’ll meet up with her somewhere. There’s time. She’s going to use Plan A, and I could follow along.
She replies in under a minute. “mtg? nooooo! going 2 b late!”
We text back and forth for a bit, griping about faculty meetings, and I say finally: “c u there”
Plan C: I try another contact. “Hey [NAME-REDACTED] r u going 2 the mtg?”
[NAME-REDACTED] takes over ten minutes to answer, during which I become a little more alert to the passage of time.
My phone buzzes. “r u kidding? no freaking way!” He adds a few pertinent emoji, including my favorite, the “smiling pile of poo.”
I sympathize. But I do have to go.
An hour and a half later, I take my usual cab to campus, which drops me off near my own office. Things are getting tighter.
Plan D: I stop on the curb and text another pal. “hey chad? r u walking over 2 the mtg?”
Chad replies almost instantly. “already here! 26 minutes early! where r u????”
I choose a sarcastic emoji or two in response and proceed with plan E. I walk over to my building, reasoning that other colleagues will be coming out of there, and I could follow somebody over.
No luck. Either they’ve already left, or like Kimberly they are planning to be late … or maybe they’re on the [NAME-REDACTED] plan—lucky dogs.
The time comes when I can’t wait any longer or I won’t have time for plan F, which I start inventing fast!
So … Plan F: I turn around and head northwest. It’s worth mentioning at this point that it’s raining … that dreary, uncompromising, insistent kind of Midwest rain that likes to last all day just to make you miserable. I get what I figure is about halfway there and pull out my phone again.
I have several GPS apps, some of which work well on campus and some of which don’t. My favorite is Over There by Dmitrijs Prohorenkovs, which grew out of Smith-Kettlewell’s virtual talking signs project. You hold the phone flat like a remote control and point it around, and it identifies landmarks. Trying to keep the rainwater off the screen as best I can, I scan for the building. But it isn’t there. I mean, it literally isn’t there. It’s as if the rain had washed it completely off the map. Fail.
Plan G. It’s time to stop a passerby and get information the old-fashioned way. But the rain has apparently washed all the people off the map too, and I hear nobody near me.
Plan H: Are we really on plan H already? I have just under ten minutes now. Returning to Over There, I do find an entry on the map for “BGSU Something-Something Gymnastics” (I can’t hear well through the increasingly heavy rain), and I remember that the building I’m looking for was a gym once, or still is maybe? If anything near me had anything to do with gymnastics, Eppler South might be it. And it’s kind of in the right direction.
I re-adjust course, choose a sidewalk that seems to trend that way, and step up the pace, sploshing through some pretty impressive puddles I don’t have time to avoid.
The wind is picking up, and I don’t think I’m that close. Plans I through L form in my mind. I could just keep going, which will probably eventually work if I’m right about the gymnastics thing. I could go inside whatever classroom building is nearest (I hear one looming off to my left) and find somebody to ask, or I could re-text one of my pals and ask them to come out to meet me, or I could turn around—which is sounding pretty nice right about now—and take my soggy self back to my office. Maybe [NAME-REDACTED] is there, and we could commiserate.
Plan M presents itself in the form of a colleague of mine walking up behind me with an umbrella and asking if I’m going to the meeting … and if I’d like to go with him because I’m looking a little drowned. And off we go.
Now, if the meeting had been a particularly important one, I would have arranged things more securely ahead of time. Working through my possibilities, I would have come up with three or four totally different plans, each of which could have served as a backup for the others. I could have learned the route ahead of time, or made arrangements to help set up the meeting and accompany someone there, found out if a cab could go directly to Eppler South instead of to my usual drop-off place, or asked around until I found someone else who was definitely going and met up ahead of time, maybe for coffee—making it a win-win situation, especially considering the rain. I would not have been relying on chance or the casual good will of strangers.
And that’s just the thing … my ability to “get around” is much more a set of contingencies than a single, easily articulated method. It grew out of years of cane practice and persistent trial-and-error. It grew from countless times when I got lost, re-found my way, got lost again, and realized that getting lost is neither permanent nor disgraceful. And, most of all, it grew out of the realization that there is no one right way to do anything—that all success is a patchwork of tactics we employ when they are needed.
We start out, reappraise, continue, evaluate, adjust, invent alternatives, actively strategize, and make endless micro-decisions as information flows in. We are improvisational artists, juggling options like plates spinning high above our heads, deftly selecting this strategy or that as we proceed. I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult, but it can be intricate. In any case, it’s definitely too much to describe in five seconds with one foot on the curb and the other still inside a taxi, no matter how articulate you believe yourself to be.