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Tips For Trips: How One Blind Girl Survives and Thrives When Traveling

Reprinted from The Student Slate, Summer 2014

Emily PenningtonFrom the Editor: Emily Pennington is a junior at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is majoring in accounting. She won her second NFB national scholarship in 2014, making her a tenBroek Fellow.

Saturday, June 30th, 2012. I'm standing in the Dallas Airport on my way to my first ever national convention to learn about the NFB, have a great time, and collect my scholarship. All around me, people hurry by, many of whom speak rapid, fluent Spanish. I'm supposed to take the Super Shuttle to the hotel, and I'm trying to appear more confident than I feel.

Fast forward two hours. I have successfully taken the shuttle to my hotel, checked in at the desk, and found my way to my room, despite the challenge of using my cane, pulling my suitcase, and reading the Brailled room numbers all at once. Having just found my restaurant of choice and taken myself out to lunch, I am feeling much more invincible than I did before I successfully maneuvered the new situation of traveling completely independently. If I got through that morning, surely I could get through whatever life's travels throw at me in the future.

I'm now twenty years old and have traveled several times before and after the 2012 National Convention. Whether I have traveled by plane or Greyhound, with or without a friend, I have worked out a system of dos and don'ts that makes my trips go much more smoothly.

Tip 1: Prepare in advance and show up early. I am by nature a detail-oriented planner, so this strategy comes easily to me. As early as possible, I always request a Meet and Assist for when my plane lands. I call and confirm that it is set up several days before I leave. Additionally, I always make sure my boarding pass is printed out and accessible via my iPhone, just in case there is an issue at the airport. To further reduce the chance of any problems, I always show up early--be it to the airport, Greyhound station, or any other departure site. It never bothers me to have extra time on my hands; I'd rather sit in a cramped chair reading a book for an hour than risk an insanely long security line, crazy gate change, or some other last-minute debacle. Besides, arriving early means I am more justified in buying that pre-travel slice of pizza.

Tip 2: Be polite but firm when advocating for yourself. My first experience traveling without an adult was, ironically, on my way to the 2009 NFB Youth Slam in Maryland. I was fifteen years old and traveling with a friend from Cincinnati who was also attending the program. As we stepped off the plane in Chicago for our layover, the airport workers who met us at the gate came with the dreaded wheelchairs. At first, we politely refused them; we could walk just fine, after all, and we didn't want to appear otherwise. However, they kept insisting, saying it would be quicker to transport us that way. They essentially bossed us into the wheelchairs, and we were too young, shy, and polite to say no once and for all. Looking back now, I'm ashamed of how timid and pliable I was that day. Even in my everyday, non-traveling life, I found that I was too polite and not assertive enough. Now I am much less afraid to say no--even if it means a somewhat brusque tone. Still, I try to be friendly with the people who assist me on my travels. I make small talk with them, try to joke with them, and always thank them when we part ways. After all, if these people come away with a positive image of an independent, assertive, and friendly blind person, it might broaden their horizons in the future.

Tip 3: It's okay to ask for help. I understand that everybody's traveling styles are different. Some prefer to navigate new airports, bus stations, and the like completely by themselves, while others always travel with a friend or family member. I would classify myself as someone in the middle group; I have traveled and will continue to travel long distances on my own, but I do ask for help along the way. If I'm flying from home, I usually have one of my parents get permission to go through security with me and stay with me until I'm ready to board. I feel more comfortable and familiar with them, and it gives them peace of mind to know that their first-born daughter--blind or not--is safe. They are always very respectful and let me do my own talking. As I mentioned earlier, I also request a Meet and Assist when I land. I make sure to pay attention to where I am being escorted and to be assertive about my needs--or lack thereof. But I feel no shame using sighted assistance in an airport I've never visited before, let alone one I'll rarely set foot in again. Although I don't take credit for coming up with this line, I always tell people that an important aspect of independence is knowing when to ask for help. In combination with solid communication skills and my much-improved assertiveness, it makes me feel--and come across as--an independent traveler even if I don't know the area by heart.

Tip 4: Have your essentials in your carry-on. Whether you're taking a plane, train, or bus, you will not be able to access your luggage for the duration of the trip. Therefore, it is important that anything you want and need during that time is stowed in your carry-on bag. I always have my purse and Braillenote Apex on hand, which can be put in my backpack when I get tired of carrying them around my neck and shoulder. I happen to be one of those people who get migraines if I don't eat and drink regularly, so I keep some snacks and my medications within easy reach, too. In case my luggage gets lost, I keep anything that is hard to replace--such as my Apex charger--in my backpack so I will have it no matter what. I am also very careful to protect my stuff from pickpockets. When I sit in an airport or bus station with my backpack on the floor, I always face the zipper pockets toward me and rest my hand or leg against the pack so I can feel any disturbances.

Of course, these tips do not necessarily ensure a perfect travel experience. I still encounter occasional last-minute annoyances and obstacles, and I'm sure that will not change. After all, bad weather and flight delays are unavoidable.

I understand that everybody has differing opinions on how to travel. That being said, I hope that my tips--which, I'm sure, will continue to accumulate over the next seventy years--help some new, intimidated travelers. Who knows; perhaps a veteran who reads this will be inspired to nod and say, "Hear, hear!" In short, although I still have a lot to learn, I feel ready to take on more airports, bus stations, states, countries, continents, and--one of my favorites--national conventions with gusto.

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