December 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 8

Independent Travel Issues

Frequently Asked Questions about Independent Travel from the Desk of AFB's Information and Referral Specialist

Editor's Note: Tara Annis is an information and referral specialist for AFB. In the July 2010 issue of AccessWorld (Educational Resources and Tips), she provided answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) regarding higher education. This month, she turns her attention to questions related to independent travel. Below are some FAQ that Tara receives on this subject and their corresponding answers. -- Lee Huffman

Orientation and mobility (O&M) encompasses a wide array of topics, some of which are quite controversial within the visually impaired community. This is one reason why I enjoy this subject--I think it can spur some interesting discussions and debates. Over the years, there have been a myriad of advances in this area, so this will always be a dynamic field of study.

The AFB website contains a wealth of information about travel. Of particular interest might be our guide to getting around, which will take you to the section that explains how to use white canes, dog guides, and public transportation, to name a few topics covered here.

In this article, I have covered topics that may be common knowledge to persons with vision loss who are intermediate to advanced travelers, but that may not known to those who have recently lost vision. For those who are more experienced, I have also included topics that are not widely known about travel.

Question: Where can I receive O&M training?

Answer: Agencies for the visually impaired, located in every state, provide O&M services to registered clients. These services are for persons with vision loss from a variety of backgrounds and cover basic to advanced skills. Our website has an online directory of services that provides contact information for these agencies. You can search by state, and even specify "orientation and mobility" services in your search criteria.

The Hadley School for the Blind offers distance education courses on a myriad of topics, including travel. The "Going Places" courses discuss using public transportation, taxi cabs, and other ways of getting around. The "Guide Dog" course provides a wealth of information on this topic, from making the decision to use a guide dog, discussing the application process, and talking about the training a dog receives.

These courses are free of charge to visually impaired persons, and the course materials, textbooks, and supplementary handouts are provided in accessible formats. Upon registration, you will be assigned your course instructor, who will answer questions you have during your studies, and will provide feedback on course assignments that you must submit in order to finish these two courses.

One of the dog guide schools, Leader Dog, offers two types of travel programs besides their actual dog guide training. These programs are available to persons with vision loss from across the country, and you do not need to own a Leader Dog guide to participate.

Leader Dog's Accelerated Mobility program is a week-long course that assists students in learning basic O&M skills with a white cane. It is taught by certified O&M instructors on a one-on-one basis. The Trekker program is a week-long residential program that teaches students to use the Trekker GPS device. (To learn more about Trekker, see the question about GPS in this article.) Students must already own a Trekker GPS to participate.

Question: Where can I get a white cane?

Answer: White canes come in a variety of heights and materials, and they can be used with a variety of tips, so choosing one can be more confusing than you might think.

When deciding the proper height of the cane, it used to be standard protocol for the cane's height to reach to the top of the person's sternum or to their shoulder blade, when the cane was standing straight up. Some O&M professionals feel that a taller height is needed for some persons, such as to the top of one's chin or to the tip of their nose. This is especially true for fast walkers or those persons who would like a little more warning of approaching obstacles. You may need to experiment to find the appropriate height, and you may want to speak with O&M instructors for assistance.

Canes can be aluminum, carbon fiber, or fiberglass, among other materials. Variations in material came about due to individual preferences. Some persons want a lighter-weight cane, so their hands and arms do not tire out as easily. Others want a sturdier cane, one they can lean on for balance.

Cane tips vary according to personal preference as well. Some tips, like the marshmallow tip, are used for gliding across the sidewalk, instead of using the standard tapping motion. Metal tips may pick up echoes more easily, and allow one to use more sound cues while traveling.

Lastly, canes can be straight, folding, or telescoping. Many people who are visually impaired own two or more canes; for example, a straight one for walking long distances and a folding one for going to places where it will not be in much use, such as when going to a movie or eating at a restaurant.

Many state agencies will provide a cane to their clients. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) will give a white cane to any blind person in the United States. You can get one every six months. Be aware that the canes are only the straight variety and have a metal tip. You can learn more, and fill out the application form, by visiting the NFB's "request a free white cane" webpage.

There are a large number of companies that sell adaptive products for persons with vision loss, including a variety of white canes. You can ask staff from your local agencies for the blind to assist you in locating these companies, or use a search engine to locate vendors.

Question: I have been thinking about using a guide dog, any advice?

Answer: There are many myths about using a guide dog, such as believing one has to be totally blind to use one. Be aware that many dog handlers have some vision. Also, the phrase "seeing eye dog" only applies to dogs from the Seeing Eye school, but dogs are available from a variety of schools. The general term for all such dogs is "guide dogs" or "dog guides."

Admission criteria vary from school to school, but most will require that you fill out an application, have a physical examination ensuring you are in good health, submit a reference from an O&M instructor, and provide documentation about your visual impairment.

Some schools will conduct a home interview before admitting you. Once you are accepted, most schools have you stay on campus, learning all aspects of working with a guide dog. The cost for the dog varies according to which school you attend; many are free of charge.

The NFB and the American Council of the Blind (ACB) both have a consumer group devoted to guide dogs that provides the following support: meetings at national conventions; discussions of guidework on e-mail listservs; contact information for all the schools in the United States and other countries; and contact information for persons who own a guide dog, so you can have a mentor to answer questions about being a guide dog team.

To learn more, visit the NFB's National Association of Guide Dog Users or the ACB's Guide Dog Users, Inc.

Question: I have low vision and do not feel I need a cane or dog to get around. What devices can I use that will allow me to use my remaining vision?

Answer: Some persons with low vision use monoculars or binoculars to read road signs, tell the color of stop lights, or see the name of businesses. There are a wide variety of these devices that come in a myriad of magnification levels. Check with a low-vision specialist who can recommend a specific magnification level that will suit your unique needs.

Some persons with low vision are able to drive by using a special magnification device, called bioptics, which are worn over prescription glasses. Regulations for drivers using these devices vary from state to state, so you should check with a low-vision specialist to see if you qualify. This month's AccessWorld features an article about a bioptic driver. The article's subject discusses her daily driving routine, and provides websites that relate to this topic, such as the Bioptic Driving Network.

Question: I want to use a global positioning system (GPS) to expand my travel experience, what should I know about this topic?

Answer: There are numerous GPS hardware and software programs on the market today, some of which were specifically created for persons with vision loss. A GPS program can tell you what intersection you are approaching, provide information about points of interest (restaurants, golf courses, movie theaters, law offices, hospitals), keep track of the distance you travel, and plan a route to your destination. As a blind person, I like to use my GPS while traveling by bus so I know when my stop is and do not have to rely on the driver, who might forget my destination. Please see Bradley Hodges' article (GPS on Your iPhone)in this issue of AccessWorld as well as past issues for more information on using a GPS program to get around.

HumanWare sells the Trekker and Trekker Breeze GPS devices. Trekker has a myriad of features, such as finding nearby points of interest, a route creator, and intersection announcement. The Trekker Breeze has fewer features than the Trekker, and was designed for the less tech savvy. For more information, read this AccessWorld review of the Trekker Breeze.

Another accessible GPS hardware unit is the Captain, sold by Independent Living Aids. Mobile Geo, made by Sendero, works with Windows Mobile 6.5 Smartphones and Pocket PC phones. (If you decide to purchase this software, be aware that it does not currently work with the new Windows Phone 7 operating system.) Sendero also sells the LookAround GPS application for the iPhone, as well as Sendero Maps software for the PC that allow for virtual exploration of one's surroundings.

Wayfinder, created by Wayfinder Access, works with cell phones, but unlike Mobile Geo, runs on the Symbian network. The company has recently announced it will discontinue the Wayfinder Navigation Service, and will make the software open source; however, it will not provide technical support.

The following articles from AccessWorld provide in-depth information on these two software programs:

Navigating by Phone: A Review of Wayfinder Access and Mobile Geo, Part I

Navigating by Phone: A Review of Wayfinder Access and Mobile Geo Part II

LoadStone GPS software is free, but be aware that it does not currently contain all of the features of GPS programs that you have to purchase. It can be downloaded from the LoadStone website.

There are also GPS programs for electronic notetakers, including the Sense Nav for the Voice and Braille Sense sold by GW Micro; the StreetTalk VIP for the PAC Mate and PAC Mate Omni sold by Freedom Scientific; and the BrailleNote GPS for the BrailleNote line of notetakers sold by HumanWare.

Blind Cool Tech is a website that features podcast reviews of products used by persons with vision loss, among other topics. You can search this site in order to locate reviews of GPS hardware and software.

Question: Do you have information about using public transportation and paratransit?

Answer: Many states have public transportation in the form of buses, subways, and light rail. Your state may have a paratransit system as well, which is public transportation specifically created for persons with disabilities. It usually comprises vans or minibuses, equipped with wheelchair lifts that will pick you up directly at your place of residence. Note that paratransit systems usually follow a strict set of guidelines, usually only traveling to areas near the regular bus routes.

Many transit systems have a telephone number you can call to hear information about their routes, including times of departure and arrival. Be sure to add this to your cell phone contact list, so you will not have to struggle to remember the phone number when you are traveling.

Some transit authorities have implemented audible announcements on their buses, subways, and light rails that let you know what route you are traveling, as well as naming intersections or nearby points of interest. If your public transportation system does not have this type of announcement system, be aware that by law, there is supposed to be spoken information given to visually impaired passengers.

Some stations may offer their route brochures and other literature in an alternate format, such as braille or large print. The Library of Congress does some braille transcription or it can provide contact information for other braille transcription agencies.

Question: I live in an area without public transportation. How can I run errands, like shop for groceries or attend doctor appointments?

Answer: This is a common problem for many people with vision loss. You should contact your state agencies, checking to see if they have any type of transportation service for clients. Many offer a few trips, like a monthly visit to the mall.

Some persons choose to walk to destinations if they are near enough. For example, they will walk the seven blocks to the grocery store, purchase their items, and place them in a backpack or suitcase with wheels for easier carrying on the walk back home.

Others use a combination of taxi and walking, or just use the taxi for routes that are impossible to walk. For example, a person might walk the 15 blocks to the grocery store, buy a large number of items that will not fit in a backpack or suitcase, and call a taxi to take him or her home. This split method allows the person to save some money, only having to pay for the trip home.

Some persons with vision loss use a volunteer, or paid driver, allowing them to schedule a variety of trips to a number of destinations, according to their guidelines. You should contact volunteer groups, like the Lions Club, and see what they offer. You could also advertise for a driver by placing fliers at local colleges and universities, in your place of worship's newsletter, or on the bulletin board of your apartment complex.

Question: I have tried to explain how to provide sighted guidance to my family and friends, but they are still somewhat confused. Does AFB have any resources?

Answer: Yes, our website for seniors, AFB SeniorSite, has a wealth of information about sighted guide techniques, including a video demonstration. Although the content was created for senior citizens, it applies to any person. Check out the "Getting Around All Over Town" guide to find all the information related to this topic.

Question: I have heard of echolocation, where blind persons snap their fingers or tap their canes, in order to get around. I heard there were devices created that use this echolocation in the form of ultrasound. Where can I purchase these devices? What research is being conducted in this area?

Answer: This subject is quite controversial to many persons with vision loss, but I wanted to include this topic as my goal is to provide information without any bias toward one travel method over another.

The American Printing House for the Blind is one of the main vendors of electronic travel aids in the United States, selling the Miniguide US and the 'K' Sonar, both of which serve to enhance obstacle detection, among other travel features.

World Access for the Blind is an organization that has delved into the topic of echolocation. Organization members who use this technique have been featured in news articles and television documentaries. In addition, WAB staff conduct research in this area, and teach echolocation techniques to children and adults across the world who are interested in this form of travel.

Question: Can you tell me more about audible pedestrian signals?

Answer: This is another controversial topic among some people with vision loss. Many believe audible pedestrian signals are not necessary, and that persons with vision loss can use their travel skills to cross any type of intersection. Protesters feel they are too costly and offer little value to pedestrians.

Many models of the audible signal have been created, some offering a continuous tone that cannot be turned off, while others require that a button be pressed for the audible feature to be activated.

The May 2009 issue of AccessWorld featured an article about some audible signals placed around San Francisco.

Question: What are some major research projects that are being conducted related to travel?

Answer: Around the world, a fairly large number of people, from college students to university professors to staff at organizations for the blind, are researching travel methods for visually impaired persons. In this article, I wanted to focus on projects that were large scale, already in the advanced phases, perhaps with a prototype, and supported by a large number of researchers and blind persons.

Many of you have probably heard of the Nintendo Wii, one of the most popular video gaming devices on the market today. The Wii is known for featuring games where participants mimic motions using a remote, such as tennis, boxing, and bowling. Researchers from the company Touch Graphics, Inc., decided to expand upon this idea and created a video game that teaches players to use the white cane. Players learn the appropriate tapping motion and how to maintain the proper width on both the left and right sides. The prototype model features a Wii remote that is mounted to a white cane; a camera on the device tracks the position of lights along an overhead strip. It connects to a computer via Bluetooth radio and sends audio and vibratory feedback to the student's headphones and to the motor in the Wii remote. More information, including a video demonstration, can be found on the Touch Graphics homepage.

Another interesting research project has the NFB partnered with Virginia Tech researchers to create the first "car for the blind" prototype. The car uses auditory and tactile feedback built into the seats, steering wheel, and other parts of the vehicle, allowing for a person with vision loss to steer and perform all other aspects of vehicle operation independently. You can learn more about it by visiting the Blind Driver Challenge website.

Question: Do you have any other miscellaneous travel resources?

Answer: Being legally blind myself, I have gathered some resources over the years that may prove useful.

Many of you use Internet sites for GPS information, but be aware that there are also phone hotlines where you can access walking and driving directions. I find these especially handy for those who do not own a GPS device or software.

A popular service is 800-555-TELL, which will provide spoken driving directions, among other topics, such as horoscopes, stock quotes, news, and weather.

The TravelVision website contains some interesting content about O&M, and much of the content is written by professionals in the field. You can find deaf/blind resources, advice on purchasing low-vision aids, and information on sighted guide techniques.

The Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired is an organization that deals with professionals in the visual impairment field, including O&M instructors (part of Division 9). The organization's website provides information on conferences, job postings, and advocacy resources.

The Orientation and Mobility website has some information on travel and features a message board and listing of universities that offer O&M certification.

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