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How Technology Has Increased My Transportation Options as a Blind Person

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Self-driving cars, science fiction not so long ago, are here. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in May that New York will join 13 states and the District of Columbia enacting regulations regarding autonomous vehicles. A driverless car may provide me with autonomy that has eluded me in my life as well. Autonomy to live in any location, to choose a profession, to navigate the world and “fit in.”

I was born with a condition called optic atrophy, in plain speak an underdeveloped optic nerve. On a good day, my vision is 80/20 with contact lenses. Without, everything beyond 10 feet or so is a furry mess. My eyes cannot focus normally and my eyes seem to shake in their sockets, one eye staring at something irrelevant while the other focuses. I am self-conscious about this and wonder whether I need to explain when I encounter someone for the first time.

Growing up, I developed coping mechanisms to deal with the day to day struggles of a person with low vision. I learned to memorize oral instructions quickly, plotted with my teachers to get me closer to the board and used large type materials when they were available. I knew the number of stops on the subway before I took a train journey as I struggled with signs at a distance. Baseball and tennis were out, soccer and basketball were in.

I was fortunate to be under the care of an ophthalmologist who was militant that I should not be treated any differently than other children. “This is the world you have to inhabit,” he told me often. “And this is the world you have to learn to navigate.” I would have to advocate for myself and not be afraid to do and try anything.

In spite of my impairment, I mostly succeeded in school, social, and work life. There were things I could never do though: fly a plane, apply for certain types of jobs, and get a driver’s license. I mostly lived in large metropolitan areas where public transportation was available, and I was fortunate enough to work in a field where employment was plentiful and easily reached without a car.

In our world, though, driving and owning a car is an integral part of growing up. Picking up a date on your bike does not have the same cache as pulling up in a Mustang. Traveling home after an evening out often meant long waits at subway or bus stops without any idea of when my chariot would arrive. When I met the woman who would later become my wife, she lived in Jackson Heights and I lived in Coney Island, opposite ends of New York City’s F line. Returning home late at night was a two-hour haul versus a 30 minute drive.

Having to explain to employers and acquaintances that you can’t just drive someplace to meet them involves embarrassing conversations. Despite the availability of mass transit in larger cities, it is frustrating to have to limit choices because of that. I share the complaint of many physically disabled people; the non-disabled just don’t get it and it is tiring to always have to explain.

In my mid-30’s, as a new father with a greater need to move greater quantities of diapers, stuffed animals and snacks, I discovered through an optometrist friend a program offered by New York State to provide driver’s licenses to low vision drivers. If this does not frighten you, it should. The idea of the Low Vision Driver Program was that using an adaptive device called a bioptic telescope, people with limited distance vision could qualify for a license. The device, a pair of glasses with a four power telescope mounted at the top of the right lens, would allow the wearer to focus on distant signs and objects and see them with the same acuity as someone who was not visually impaired. This seemed like a wish fulfilled and I eagerly got the device, completed a six-week training, and took my road test which I passed on the first go-through.

Despite the fact that I was a mature individual and now armed with a device that should even the playing field, I was concerned. Certainly I could read the signs and operate the vehicle, but was that enough? This apprehension was soon tested. I was driving on a country road that paralleled the twisting Delaware River on a lovely summer day. The sun was brilliant and the air was was warm and fragrant. I was tooling along alone on a road I was familiar with, having ridden it on my bicycle countless times and been a passenger more times than that, coasting down a hill where I would need to make a right hand turn at the bottom. I knew all this, yet started braking for the turn too late. The car went into a spin with squealing tires and trees flashing by my window. When I finally came to a stop, turned around and shaken, I said a prayer of thanks that I had come out unscathed. I took a deep breath and drove home, but I’ve never gotten behind the wheel again.

Perhaps this was an overreaction and I had just made a rookie mistake. I didn’t think so then and I don’t think so now. A responsible adult needs to weigh the consequences of their actions and where their convenience could affect the public good. I certainly wouldn’t drive intoxicated nor let anyone else. I began thinking of all of the things I could have missed and would continue to miss if I continued driving. It simply was not worth the risk.

It has been almost 25 years since that incident. In many ways, the world is a much easier place to navigate. There are a multitude of phone apps to erase the indignities I once felt. I no longer have to wait at bus stops wondering if the bus would ever come — Moovit lets me know exactly and I can schedule accordingly, Lyft is a much cheaper substitute for owning a car and probably more convenient. Google Maps ensures that I am (mostly) never lost and I don’t have to struggle to read street signs that always seem too small.

And then there are self-driving vehicles. The promise is just so tantalizing. Road fatalities will be drastically reduced as vehicles perform more predictably. A computer never experiences “road rage,” so traveling by car will be less stressful. Vehicles will use less fuel since they will be calibrated to accelerate and decelerate optimally. More parking spaces will be available since self-parking cars will use less space.

Ten years ago I might have thought this was the answer I had always been waiting for. Today, I am not so sure. I’ve learned to successfully navigate the world in so many clever ways that sometimes I pity those who are dependent on their cars. When I was a boy, frustrated by my inability to play baseball with my friends and making excuses to duck the game, my mother would say that she believed doctors would be able to fix my eyes in my lifetime. While that hasn’t happened, clever minds have conspired to sidestep the problem and provide a universal workaround to allow every ability to “fit in.”

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Thinkstock photo by Fodera72.

Originally published: July 3, 2017
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