DWB – Driving While Blind

 

I left my sight behind at 55 MPH.

One minute I was driving along, chasing down a potential training contract. The next – nothing. Lights out. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see a thing.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. Despite what a lot of people envision when they hear me say I’m blind, I don’t live in total darkness. Blind is simply easier to say. Like many ‘blind’ people, I’m actually visually impaired (VI). My light perception is a little diminished, but I can still tell light from dark, see the color blue, and large objects within about a three foot range of vision are fuzzy but mostly recognizable.

But my range of vision is severely compromised. So I couldn’t see a thing beyond the hood of my Mazda 626 except hazy, rapidly moving shapes. And even the familiar things I did recognize inside the car were hella blurry.

So it was a real problem. I mean think about it. What would you do if you found yourself on a fairly busy road, going about ten miles over the speed limit, and all of a sudden you couldn’t see where you were going? Pull over to the side? Stop the car? Try to get help?

But my biggest challenge is navigating areas I’m unfamiliar with. I frequently find myself in the same position I ended up in when I could see; making my way to the general area I’m looking for but then circling the block unable to find the exact destination. But what’s simply irritating when you are safely in your car can feel threatening when you’re wandering around a parking lot or an unknown part of town on foot.

When that happens, I generally do what I’ve always done – power up my GPS. The same basic iPhone navigation app I relied on when I drove has an option for both walking directions and directing you on public transit, so that works out for me. But there are certainly other options out there. These links all point to different navigation technologies specifically designed to help blind/visually impaired people better navigate the world.

For less high-tech solutions, this post from the American Foundation for the Blind list quick tips and techniques for people living with sight impairments who are looking for advice on how to get around independently.

While I don’t mind walking far, I don’t walk very fast. So walking is only practical for about a five-mile perimeter. Which isn’t a big problem because

I can take public transportation

Fourteen years after I moved to my adopted city of Charlotte, NC, I had to learn to navigate around the city using public transportation.

The Charlotte Area Transit System has come a long way since I moved here in 2000. We are currently in the midst of city-wide road renovations to accommodate a light rail system under construction since 2007. Charlotte is a growing city, so it may seem a bit behind the times if you happen to be from a part of the country with a well-established public transit infrastructure. But our relative youth also means our public transit buses, trains and facilities are brand new and state of the art. Thus far, I have yet to approach a facility to board a bus or train that didn’t provide:

Large-print, high-contrast, and non-glare informational signs in terminals, at bus stops, and on transit vehicles.

Braille and tactile information regarding available service at consistent locations near the entrances to and within transit stations.

Tactile domed high-contrast plastic warning strips along platform edges to ensure people don’t walk off the platform.

Stop announcements inside transit vehicles at main points along a bus or train route.

External speakers that announce vehicle identification information.

Ticket vending machines with braille and large-print markings, or audible output devices.

Source AFB website

This list and other important information on using mass transit if you happen to be sight impaired can be found here on the American Foundation for the Blind’s website. All of the features listed above plus a few additional guidelines from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which can be researched here, are required in order for mass transit systems to be fully in compliance with ADA policies.

Enforcement of these policies is the responsibility of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). If your mass transit service fails to provide legally mandated accessibility requirements, you can click here to find out how to make a complaint or contact the FTA’s Office of Civil Rights at 1-888-446-4511 or via email at FTA.ADAAssistance@dot.gov (link sends e-mail).

Also thanks to the ADA ruling, “complementary paratransit” services must be made available wherever public transit agencies provide traditional, fixed-route bus service. Access to this service is considered a civil right under the terms of the ADA. The regulations clearly define the following minimum service characteristics that must be met for this service to be considered equivalent to the fixed-route service.

Complementary paratransit service must be provided within 3/4 of a mile of a bus route or rail station.

Paratransit vehicles should be available at the same hours and days as fixed-route vehicles.

Fares to use paratransit can be no more than twice the regular fixed route fare.

Paratransit eligible customers who are outside the service area are still eligible to apply to use the service, but are responsible for getting themselves to a pickup/drop-off location within the service area.

Paratransit rides must be provided with only one day’s notice to all eligible riders. In the event that the schedule is overbooked, providers are allowed to negotiate trip times with the customer, but no more than an hour before or an hour after the initial requested time.

It’s up to each transit authority and the local community to come up with a process to determine who qualifies to take advantage of this service. But the process typically involves submission of an application, usually with specified supporting documentation of the applicant’s disability. This is generally followed by an in-person interview where applicants are assessed to determine their ability to use the traditional bus service.

Some transit systems have more rigorous processes than others, but it’s important to remember that access to this resource is a CIVIL RIGHT for qualified applicants. The ADA qualification guidelines provide 3 general categories to qualify people to use this service.

Category 1:  People who can’t travel on the bus or train, even if it’s accessible, because of a disability. This category includes people who are unable to board, ride, or disembark from an accessible bus or train without assistance due to a mental or physical impairment.

Category 2:  People who need an accessible bus or train.  This category includes wheelchair users and other people with disabilities who can use an accessible vehicle but who want to travel on a route that is still inaccessible because it’s not served by accessible buses, trains or key rail stations.

Category 3:  People who have a specific disability-related condition.  This category includes people who have a specific disability-related condition that prevents them from traveling to a boarding location or from a disembarking location. The basis for eligibility may be environmental (distance, terrain, or weather) as well as  architectural (lack of curb ramps).

Source: Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund

Once approved to use this service, patrons may also take advantage of reciprocal relationships in other municipalities. If you are visiting other cities in the US, contact the transit authority in that area and request use of their paratransit services. It’s a fairly simple process, and allows you a measure of freedom as you visit or work in other parts of the country.

According to the US Government Accountability Office, use of paratransit services has increased steadily since 2007. This increase in ridership definitely impacts the experiences of both drivers and riders who depend on these services. I can personally attest to the fact that this program in my area, while a God send for sure, can be trying at times. Since the service is legally required to honor all eligible requests for service, the bus drivers are often over taxed, with so many trips on their log at any one time that it’s impossible to stay on schedule.

Long waits for late rides is not uncommon, and neither are frequent tours of the city as dispatch is forced to insert passengers onto your vehicle in order to stay compliant. A situation that often forces you to ride along as drivers have to detour to pick up new passengers and sometimes drop them off before they are able to take you to your destination.

As you might imagine, drivers often unfairly take the brunt of rider’s frustration with day-to-day service. I have no idea where the notion that disabled people are all helpless victims who need to be treated with kid gloves came from. Disabled people are people, period. Some, like myself, are little rays of sunshine all the time, but others not so much. Think about it – would losing any of your major senses or abilities improve your mood? Being unable to move or see or do as you please is frustrating as hell, so people do pop off.

I’m taking this opportunity to show some love to all the paratransit bus drivers out there who do what they do. In order to make sure people who use paratransit services can spend time with their loved ones every holiday, this group of people have to leave theirs behind in order to drive them. I know drivers are people too and they get frustrated just like everybody else, but many of them are professional, caring people who deserve way more recognition and much less criticism than they typically receive.

Besides, complaining to the bus driver and expecting any kind of change in service makes about as much sense as cussing out the cashier to get a better shopping experience at Wal-Mart. Change starts at the top. The FTA reports that compliance with the paratransit requirement of the ADA ruling is high. However, these determinations are largely based on mandatory self-reporting from the mass transit services themselves. There is no set method for the FTA to conduct regular, random audits independently. Reviews are largely fueled by exposure and complaints about programs that fall short of the legal services qualified citizens are entitled to.

If you feel the complementary paratransit services in your area fail to meet legally mandated service levels, click here to report your complaint to the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) Office of Civil Rights.

If you feel you were unjustly denied the right to use these services at all, you have the right to appeal. Click here for step-by-step tips on how to appeal an unjust eligibility ruling. And remember, you have the right to contact the FTA as well if you feel you were still denied unjustly.

Of course, paratransit only goes within ¾ of a mile of an active bus route. What do I do when I need to go further than the city limits or simply don’t feel like taking public transportation?

I can hire a ride.

If losing my vision was somehow my destiny, I’m happy it manifested after the invention of ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft.

And to think, when my then college-aged daughter told me about the ride-share concept, I was horrified. I didn’t see how it was any different or safer than hitching rides with strangers. I know better now. As she pointed out, every time you hail a cab you’re essentially hopping in a car with a stranger. Not only is ridesharing much more economical than cabs, you receive identifying information on the driver that you have the option to share and the GPS feature allows you to track your trip so there is less risk of fraud.

Nothing is perfect, and both companies have faced lawsuits stemming from complaints about people with service animals, in particular, being denied rides, which advocacy groups argued is completely illegal under the ADA. And the official policies of both Uber and Lyft demand service for every passenger.

To that end, both entities entered into a partnership with the National Federation of the Blind to test whether or not drivers were in compliance with accessibility policies, especially as they pertain to service animals. The testing program began in May, 2017 and basically consists of volunteers taking the time to complete an online questionnaire about their trip. The program is slated to continue for three to five years, and volunteers are needed to help ensure its success.

Any Uber or Lyft customer who travels with a service animal can click here to download a special tester tool in order to help monitor compliance with the terms of the settlement. If you use a service animal and would like to participate in the test, click here for more details.

And one day, this blind girl will drive again!

Google. Tesla. GM. Honda.

I have no idea who will get there first, but I am soooo ready for the self-driving car to become an affordable, viable option for the average consumer.

I still don’t consider myself an early adopter, but if I have the funds, I might be ready to line up to be a test dummy for this one!

 

 

 

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