Traveling: More than a Sensory Experience

Although people who are blind experience life the same way as everyone else, we often have techniques and gadgets that help us do things more efficiently. This blog entry will focus on just one aspect of life, travel, and some tips, techniques, and devices that make it easier for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. Whether it is appreciating the sensory aspects of a city, or using the latest accessible GPS app, the blind find ways to enjoy traveling as much as people who are sighted.

People who are blind can take advantage of their traveling experience by locating activities featuring sensory aspects. Consider a variety of restaurants with foods you like or wish to try; you can even find establishments that specialize in local cuisine to enhance your voyage. Another option would be to visit botanical gardens or any other site which involves the sense of smell. If you are interested in something more tactile, call well in advance of your trip to reserve a tour of local touch collections at museums.

Technology can play an essential role in your trip if you are blind. While this element is not required to travel, using technology has many advantages. Nowadays people who are blind or visually impaired can use technology to navigate which provides a sense of independence and tranquility by knowing exactly where you are at all times.

Here are some handy devices which you might try out for your next trip:

Sendero GPS is software found in many blindness specific products, but they also make applications for some mainstream mobile devices. It is important to remember that, while having a specialized device offers more features specific to the needs of blind and low vision users, the cost of such devices are typically much more than that of mainstream products. Keep this in mind when deciding what product and/or software is best for you.

Although it is very expensive for what it does, especially for people on a fixed income, the Trekker Breeze is a great handheld GPS option for the visually impaired. Not only will you be able to save battery life on your smartphone, it should work in other countries, even if cellular service is unavailable or too expensive.

Already have an iOS or Android based smartphone? There are some great applications to choose from that should save you a great deal of money, even those that are subscription-based.

Although it isn’t as feature-rich as other GPS applications, Blindsquare is a great, inexpensive GPS option for the iPhone. This app uses location information from foursquare to help point you in the right direction, so the data may not be entirely correct. However, it is good enough to get you in the general vicinity of what you’re looking for. A plus to the information being provided by foursquare data is that the chances of what your looking for not being in the database is very low compared to other GPS services.

Ariadne GPS is another inexpensive GPS app for the iPhone. It doesn’t do some of the things a subscription based service would do, but it is great if you need to create your own routes or monitor where and how fast you are going.
Yet another inexpensive GPS app, which also means it is light on features, is Sendero GPS Look Around. The purpose of this app is to simply give you information about nearby points of interest, which makes it a great option if that’s all you need.

Sendero also has a full-featured GPS app that is relatively new. It is a subscription based app, but it is a great option if you need all the features a, more expensive, standalone GPS unit would provide. This app is Sendero’s Seeing-Eye GPS app.

A great, and free, mainstream GPS application for the iPhone is MapQuest. It features everything you’d find in a more expensive application or standalone unit, and it is completely free! You don’t have to pay for the application and there is no subscription fee. This means, however, that things may be a little more difficult to figure out at times, because this app was not developed specifically for blind people. If you pair this app with one of the cheaper alternatives for the iPhone, you’ll have a fantastic GPS solution.

Lastly, let’s not forget about Maps on the iPhone itself. If your device has Siri, you can simply say “Take me to [address], and it will enter all the information for you, as well as provide spoken turn-by-turn navigation. However, MapQuest may be a better alternative if you don’t have Siri, but that’s for you to decide!

If you’re using an Android device, you have far fewer options than iPhone users, but you can check out Google Maps, but honestly, we aren’t sure how accessible, if at all, Google Maps is for blind and low vision users.

However, we have heard a lot of great things about Nearby Explorer, so we definitely think you should check it out!

In addition to a GPS app, we also recommend using a money recognizer. Chances are, you’ll have to use cash while your traveling, and it is extremely important that you be able to manage your money independently. For this purpose, we really like Looktel Money Reader.

Other apps such as 4Square and Yelp are useful to locate restaurants, shops, museums or any venues in a town that you are visiting.

Do your research ahead of time! This includes planning your trip, finding accessible destinations, and calling ahead for reservations at restaurants. Think about investigating interesting libraries, buildings, parks, and museums offering Braille, touch tours, or audio guides. The importance of internet research before traveling can not be underestimated. Whether it is accessibility, finding locations with Braille, or just reading about other’s experiences, the internet can offer a plethora of information.

There is an art to navigating airports and train stations. Remember to always call ahead to register as a passenger who needs extra assistance, and never be afraid to ask questions. Consider leaving extra time when traveling. A recent trip to Penn Station in New York City illuminated the various problems for someone who is blind: complicated layout, many people didn’t stop to answer questions, and the whole system felt like a maze. Overall, if you do your research and ask for services, traveling through airports and train stations might be frustrating, but it will be no different than the experience of someone who is sighted.

Another great option for traveling is Traveleyes. If you have never heard of them, think about the following: Traveleyes is one of the world’s first companies specializing in opening access to independent world travel for blind and partially sighted people. They were founded by a visually impaired person, and most tours are also lead by visually impaired people! Traveleyes offers a broad range of unique multi-sensory holiday vacations to suit all tastes. Their objective is to provide passengers who have a visual impairment with the same freedom of choice and ease of booking that sighted travelers have always enjoyed. Every Traveleyes holiday vacation features equal numbers of blind and sighted participants, some travelling solo, some with a partner, and some as groups of friends. Whichever of these describes you, they offer the ultimate group travel experience where sociability, flexibility and choice.

If you take one thing away from this article, it is that traveling independently can be very empowering and people who are blind can have the same great experience as their sighted peers. Whether you take advantage of sensory aspects, accessibility, technological advances, or a company such as Traveleyes, the sky really is the limit!

The Story of Ashley and Landon

Hello everyone! The following blog post was written by Ashley about her experience training for a guide dog at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and how getting him changed her life. If you have any questions, feel free to comment or chat with Ashley on Twitter. You may contact her via our Twitter account: @BlinkieChicks, or via her personal account: @AshleyColeman51.

Photo of Ashley, and her guide dog Landon

My name is Ashley Coleman, and I’d like to tell you about my experiences applying for, training with, and then working with my guide dog.

I applied to Guiding Eyes in February of 2010, determined that they would have my paperwork as soon as I could possibly get it to them. In the middle of March, I completed all of my paperwork, and the admissions office had it in my file. I was contacted by a field rep, and we scheduled my home interview in early April. We met at my house on a day I did not have classes; I was asked many questions about my lifestyle, and about what I wanted to do in the future. After the field rep had asked me some of these questions, we went to my community college where I was videotaped walking a route through a normal day of classes for me. I was taken on a Juno walk where the field rep found out how fast I walked, what kind of pull I would like to have in a dog, and how I gave corrections.

After the home interview, the field rep gave the admissions committee my information, which included the video of my walks.

In late April/early May, I received a call from someone in admissions; she told me that I had been accepted. I called them several times between my home interview and finding out about being accepted.

When I was asked to attend the June or July classes that summer, I was surprised. I decided to go to the June class, and I gave the person at admissions the information about my nearest airport. A few days later, I received my E-ticket, and started shopping for the things that I would need while at Guiding Eyes; one of the things on my list was a second pair of good walking shoes. (They were difficult for me to find).

On June 7, 2010, I boarded my first plane. It took me to New York where I was met by Guiding Eyes staff. Several students were coming in at the same time I was, so I was able to talk to them on the car ride to Guiding Eyes. Once at Guiding Eyes, I was Oriented to the building and was left to unpack. Later that day, all of the students that were there–which were most of us–had a meeting with many of the Guiding Eyes staff, and we were warmly welcomed.

After supper we had our first lecture with our trainers, and they introduced us to the equipment we would be using to train with our dogs. Harness, collars, and leashes were passed around for all of us to see, and we learned how they were to be used. We were allowed to keep our leashes; this made all of us very happy.

On Tuesday, we went to White Planes to go on Juno walks with our trainers. They talk to us about what we looked for in a dog, and they also looked at how fast we gave corrections. They taught us how to give the dogs commands, verbal and leash corrections, and praise.

Later on Tuesday night, we had a lecture on what was going to happen the next day. This happened every night, along with a lecture about how to care for our dogs. Some nights we would have lectures on how to groom our dogs, brush their teeth, leave them by themselves in case of an emergency, or you needed to go to a place that the dog did not need to go.

After breakfast Wednesday morning, we had a little down time while the staff were in a meeting. When we were finished, we went to practice putting on and taking off the dogs equipment on a couple of stuffed dogs. We also practiced heeling Juno, and bringing Juno in and out of all kinds of doors. Those that hadn’t explored their outside door were shown that area because it is the relieving area,.

After lunch, we were all brought into a meeting; several people spoke , and then our Class supervisor read the list of people matched with dogs. After this we went back to our rooms to wait for our dogs. At about 2:15, my trainer came in with my dog. I handed her my leash, and she clipped it to my dogs collar and left us alone until it was time to feed the dogs. Since it would be our first time feeding our dogs, the trainers came around to help us feed them. Once I received my dog, I felt like I had four extra left feet; however, I felt exhilarated, like I could take on the world.

Later, we would heel our dogs to the cafeteria to have supper with our dogs by our sides for the first time. We also attended our first lecture with the dogs that night.
On Thursday, we loaded up the vans and went to White Planes. We took our dogs for our first walks in harness. On my first walk with my dog in harness, I was intimidated in putting trust in my dog, but I did, and we had several awesome walks together.

During the rest of the training, we went to different places like Malls, grocery stores, and such to experience working with our dogs in all kinds of settings. Near the end of training, the trainers took us to Manhattan for a half day to walk around the area, experience their public transportation, and to have lunch in one of the small restaurants there. Here I experienced riding on a train and a subway for the first time in my life. I was scared I would get lost in the big city, but I learned that my dog and I can handle anything that was thrown at us.

On the last Saturday in class was Graduation. Most of the puppy raisers came, and there was a ceremony where the graduates spoke and sang, and the puppy raisers were given a picture of the new team and the person’s contact information.

After the ceremony, the person, the dog, and the raiser had time to sit down and talk for a while. I was very excited to meet my boys puppy raiser. One of the things that I was afraid of was that she would not think that I handled my dog the way she would have expected or wanted.

Class ended on the 2nd of July, and I took a plane home. Shortly after that, I returned to school for my last year of school. My pup and I walked across the stage at my community college in May, 2011.

During this time, I was learning how to handle my dog without the trainers being around to help me. we both were continuing to learn how to trust and work with each other. I was worried that I would mess up my dog’s training or behavior in general, but we managed to keep it together, and to remain a solid team.

We went on to spend a few months at the North Carolina Rehabilitation Center for the Blind, where I brushed up on some of my daily living skills before I moved to college. I was allowed to work with one of the Orientation and Mobility Instructors to work on some college campuses like the one I would be going to the following year. The instructor also taught me routes on the GMS campus where the Rehabilitation Center is located. We also traveled out in the city of Raleigh, where I finally got to use an audible signal.

I have had a guide dog for three years now. since he’s pranced into my life, my dog has improved it so much.

My dog has made me a more independent and safe traveler; I know that with him by my side, we can conquer anything. My dog is my eyes, and I depend on him to tell me what I can’t see. He leads me around obstacles and things in my path. When he sees traffic coming at us, he has been taught to disobey me. He gets me out of the way.

He has been with me everywhere, from hotels, to restaurants, and to ball games all around my college campuses. He has remembered where my room is, and he has learned the way to all of my classes. He has become the light of my life; I am glad I went to get a guide dog.