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Getting There - Past and Present

Editor's Note: Valentina Gal is Secretary of AEBC's Toronto Chapter. She spends her time doing consulting work, looking for employment, writing a novel and attending continuing education courses at Ryerson University.

As a blind child, I realized very quickly that, if I wanted independence, I'd have to LEARN to get around. My friends and siblings took me from point A to point B. When I travelled to school, my brother would put me onto a bus and the driver would hand me over to a taxi driver who would drop me off at school. I was not expected to be responsible for the transportation part of my life; most blind people weren't. I still remember the shock in my mother's voice when I came home to Hamilton, unannounced, from my school in Brantford all by myself. Since then, my travels have taken me from the grid patterned streets of central Hamilton and the crescent streets of its suburbs to road trips with a sighted husband, to airplanes which took me to a number of different cities, and finally to the dreaded Toronto subway, which I now couldn't live without. Each style of "getting there" has its own challenges, as well as good points, and while there are some changes, the blind and partially sighted face pretty much the same difficulties they always have.

I'll never forget how excited I was when, after two mobility lessons from the CNIB rehabilitation teacher, I sported my first white cane and stumbled up the steps of the city bus. I could still see a little and, though I liked the newly found independence, I hated the white cane. It took ten years of inner struggle and getting hit by a bus for me to come to terms with the cane's enormous importance. During those ten years, the educators of the blind changed too. They discovered that giving blind children white canes at an early age and teaching them how to use these tools properly improved blind people's mobility and confidence at a much greater level than the previous practice of waiting till a person was in his late teens. Also, in the eighties, Mohawk College began training mobility instructors of the blind so they were easier to come by. Personal mobility is the most important aspect of being able to negotiate any mode of transportation. It is imperative for blind people to understand how the cane gives them information about where they are and what's around them. The same can be said for those who choose to travel with a guide dog. We haven't yet fully seen how far people with GPS (Global Positioning System) devices will go on their own. The confidence that personal mobility offers is the platform on which GOOD transportation coping skills ARE BUILT.

While bus entrances were lowered and street crossing signals were installed, along with elevators for the disabled, the public attitude also changed. The two-for-one fares that were won by our veteran predecessors, as charitable ways of helping the blind, were challenged. Today, only those who need personal attendance in-flight may have the two-for-one ticket on an airplane. Their guide dogs, however, have to be accommodated. On the other hand, bus and train fares have stayed the same. The front seats of busses that were voluntarily given to us as a kindness became a matter of policies that promoted our rights. Sensitivity training is a part of bus and taxi driver training--whether it is always followed is another matter. Preboarding the disabled is a standard practice, unless you get stuck in a backlog and have to fight your way through. Society moved from a charitable attitude of "looking after the blind" to one that treats them more equally.

Are we better off now than we were then? It depends on the day. When I sit on the subway in Toronto, or on a bus in Hamilton or London, and hear the stops called out, I'm grateful to David Lepofsky--a blind lawyer in Toronto who advocated for audible announcements on public transit--for his court battles. I learn where all of the streets are and know where I am. Certainly, I appreciate the notion of free public transit for the blind. For the seventy percent or so of us who aren't working, this privilege is the lifeline to an active lifestyle. However, when someone ignores me when I'm lost and only want to get home, I'm as frustrated as I always have been. In a small town or suburb where there is limited or no bus or train service, I'm as dependent as I ever was.

So what's my point? Transportation issues for the blind and partially sighted are very complex and have as many solutions as the number of disabled people who want to get around. As we move forward in this new decade, we need to tread carefully as we advocate so that we don't lose some of the basic things we take for granted, whether they come from a charitable source or not.

Photo: Valentina Gal