Blind Walk Dmae Roberts
A blind teen navigates by sound.
April 26, 2002
STEVE CURWOOD, host: Whether you're a native or a visitor, getting around a major city can often be a hassle. But for the visually impaired, getting around town can be an obstacle course. Producer Dmae Roberts wanted to navigate the streets of Portland, Oregon with her eyes closed. She got this lesson in sight from 19 year old Andrew Meyer.
ROBERTS: IÕve worn glasses since I was 10 years old. Each year, I have to get a stronger prescription. As others who are nearsighted probably do, I wonder what it would be like to someday lose my sight.
[SOUND OF WALKING IN HOUSE]
ROBERTS: Sometimes I close my eyes and try walking through my house. I wonder how it would be to walk around the neighborhood, to get to the grocery store, to do, what I consider, simple things.
MEYER: We can hear the difference when we walk through a door, when thereÕs a hallway off to your left, when itÕs just a closed wall. The sound changes.
ROBERTS: I met Andrew Meyer when he was in Portland for a summer program by the Oregon Commission for the Blind. Andrew has been blind since birth. He was abandoned in an alleyway in the Philippines when he was a baby, and was adopted by an American couple with four children.
MEYER: IÕve always been someone to use sights as sort of a generic term. Ever since I was little, my foster family tells the story of when I was sitting in the living room, or after dinner, IÕd go, "LetÕs go watch TV." And theyÕd all look at me like, "YouÕre not going to go watch TV. You canÕt see." And ever since I was little I always felt that that was correct to use those terms.
ROBERTS: Early on, Andrew learned that he, too, could see, just not with his eyes. He learned to not only walk with a cane, but to run in track meets. I ask Andrew to explain how he finds his way around. He immediately starts physically mapping out the patio at the dormitory where weÕre standing.
MEYER: What I do is basically find one place that I know exactly where I am. And I know exactly where I am right here. If worse comes to worse, I come back here to the door. ThatÕs where IÕm going to go to. And then, weÕd trail one wall. We just go around the room. So, IÕm just going to walk around the patio really quickly, turning you left. See, thereÕs a chair there. A little bit farther, thereÕs a drop-off. Okay, so thatÕs the edge of the patio. So, I learn how wide this patio is. But, how long is it? So, IÕm just going to turn right and walk the length of the patio. And, I find a few things, like a pole. And, we reach the end of the patio.
ROBERTS: Sound and touch are important to help him see, as Andrew moves through his environment.
MEYER: We always pay attention to whatÕs underneath our feet. So for example, right now, weÕre on cement. Now IÕm on grass. Room carpet versus, say, like indoor-outdoor carpeting thatÕs not very thick carpeting, or brick. Go from concrete to brick. So we learn how to pick that up.
ROBERTS: How about trees? How do you deal with them?
MEYER: You can tell when you come up to them. Or, if they happen to hit in your face, you learn later, you might want to duck when you get to that point.
ROBERTS: I look around and see the trees with branches close enough to hit my face. It would be hard to get around even a backyard, let alone a forest or woods. But Andrew tells me that it doesnÕt matter if itÕs a forest path or a city street. Any terrain that isnÕt predictable is difficult.
MEYER: If you led me in like a field of grass, and tell me, "Find the nearest sidewalk," good luck. If thereÕs a lot of one thing around us, itÕs really hard, and if nothing is straight lines. Blind people like straight lines. TheyÕre very predictable.
ROBERTS: City streets have a lot of straight lines. But thereÕs a lot of traffic to avoid; cars, trucks, bikes, even skateboards. I want to hear how a trip to the store would sound to someone without site. So I give Andrew a mini-disc and a mike. And he records his trip to the grocery store with two teen friends, Tiane and Sumner, who are also blind.
MEYER: Okay, weÕre on. Okay, Tiane.
TIANE: Yes. IÕm right here.
[SOUND OF SHOPPING CART]
MEYER: Okay. WeÕre walking to Safeway. And, that rattling in the background which is TianeÕs little cart so she can carry all of her food that we all buy in the cart. So we donÕt have to carry it by hand. Because itÕs really annoying to walk from Safeway carrying it by hand. And SumnerÕs to my right. Say, "Hi," Sumner.
MEYER: Yeah, see, thatÕs Sumner. WeÕve got our traffic to our right. As a blind person, weÕd sometimes key off the traffic. Not right now because weÕre walking on the sidewalk. So, the traffic is off to our right. So, at the moment, IÕm not keying off of it. I donÕt really care itÕs there, until we get to a street. And then, I will care if itÕs there. Because thatÕs how weÕll know when to go. Of course, we have really easy crossings here. And, weÕre going to go ahead and cross the street that was off to-- Well, no, I guess not. Yes we are. WeÕre going to cross the street that was right off to our right which is Woodstock.
TIANE: And people are stopping.
MEYER: And people are stopping. And so, weÕre going. And now, weÕre on the other side of the street. So, the sound is coming from the other side of the mike.
TIANE: People on bikes and skateboards.
MEYER: Yeah, there are a bunch of people just riding past us. I barely notice. And I just hit a branch.
TIANE: Sorry, Andrew.
MEYER: And, IÕm walking with Tiane.
MEYER: And, ow! I guess she just walked into something, too. She found a branch, well, too. And now, weÕre going to go ahead and cross Woodstock, because weÕve been on the other side where Safeway is.
TIANE: And, itÕs time to cross.
MEYER: And, weÕre going to walk into Safeway. The way this works is weÕre going to go up to the counter. And weÕre going to get a, what, everybody?
TIANE: Personal shopper.
MEYER: WeÕre going to get a personal shopper. And weÕre going to tell them what we want. And they drag us around the store. So we donÕt have to know the store, because every single Safeway is different, and they change all the time, as you guys probably know.
ROBERTS: After walking nearly half an hour to get to the store, Andrew and his friends go inside. An employee, who helps the visually impaired to shop, greets them.
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Hello.
MEYER, TIANE, SUMNER: Hi.
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Do we need a basket?
TIANE: Yes, we do.
MEYER: How about--just a basket, I think, is going--
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: ThatÕs what I meant. Yeah, like a hand basket?
MEYER: Or a cart. LetÕs grab a cart.
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Well, you have a lot of shopping to do.
MEYER: Well, to be on the safe side.
MEYER: I donÕt know. I might find some items I suddenly take a liking to, while weÕre on the way.
ROBERTS: As they go about their shopping, Andrew turns off the tape deck. Later, he told me how disorienting it was to record with headphones while trying to listen for street sounds. I canÕt imagine crossing the street without my sight. And, I marvel at his ability to navigate the world around him. AndrewÕs walk to the store inspires me to step outside to my own backyard and try moving around with my eyes closed.
I cross my own patio, and walk on the soft grass, then try to cross to the plum tree in the back. It feels like a long walk. But eventually, I-- Oh, I found it. For Living on Earth, this is Dmae Roberts in Portland, Oregon.
[MUSIC: Velvet Underground & Nico, "I'm Sticking With You," NICO]
CURWOOD: Our profile of Andrew Meyer was made possible with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. ItÕs part of the Hearing Voice Series. And for this week, thatÕs Living on Earth.