Aiming to live and travel 'unimpeded' with a visual impairment

Posted on November 20, 2019 by Ron Brooks - Also by this author

Getty Images-1062530284/ Dafinchi

I have always been a fan of Steve Martin movies, and one of my favorites is his 1988 comedy “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” It’s a movie about everything that can possibly go wrong with transportation, and, with the late great John Candy as co-star, this movie, unlike the transportation scene it portrayed, was guaranteed to be a winner.

Fast-forward 31 years. I work in the public transit industry. Yep, I’m one of the people whose job it is to make sure everyone else gets where they need to go safely, on time, and in comfort. Public transit is a big stage, and I’ve been playing bit parts for the last 25 years. I have worked for public transit agencies and private companies, helping the industry I love develop and deliver services that people with disabilities and seniors will like and that can help them get to the places they need and want to go. I’ve worked on rail projects, bus accessibility, paratransit, and alternative-transportation programs, and I’ve attended more meetings, made more presentations, and written more memos than I can count. I have a good track record, and I’m proud of my efforts. Best of all, I’m still excited to do more, and hopefully better things in the future.

But long before all of that, I was just your average kid growing up in Central Indiana. Or, maybe not.

I was born 51 years ago in the small city of Marion, Ind. I was born with very poor eyesight, and by the time I turned 14, I traded in my poor eyesight for a long white cane and lessons in Braille, and, in the same year that Steve Martin and John Candy were trying to figure out how to get home for Christmas in the middle of a Midwestern snowstorm, I got my first guide dog.

Being blind and unable to drive, I learned early and often about the difficulties of getting around in a small town with no sidewalks and no way to drive.

Being blind and unable to drive, I learned early and often about the difficulties of getting around in a small town with no sidewalks and no way to drive. I experienced the sheer joy of trying to find a particular street, store, or bus stop when there were no signs I could read, and this was long before I could use the GPS apps on my iPhone to get close. I remember falling over cars that were parked across the crosswalks, getting my cane run over and broken in the middle of an intersection because someone just had to make that turn — and over my dead body if necessary, and worst of all, I remember reading about other blind people who weren’t so lucky and wondering when my unfortunate moment would come. All of these things taught me one thing — streets are for cars, and pedestrians have no rights.

But wait! In the words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a-changin.’" Today, it’s cool to ride public transit, and there are more and more "cool" people doing it every day. Here in Phoenix where I live, train service is expanding, and buses are running in more places, more often, and during more hours of the day, nights, and weekends. Cities and towns are redesigning their downtowns to be more pedestrian-oriented, safer, and more interesting. People are moving back to the cities and demanding walkable, bikeable neighborhoods, and we are all trying to drive less, walk more, and regain the communities we lost in the mid 20th Century, when gas was cheap and the car was king.

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“I use a lot of sound cues when I travel,” she says. “It’s a bit of a hard concept if you haven’t experienced it, but it’s called echolocation — the sound and the movement of air between your ear and your next obstacle.”

Meanwhile, paratransit services, which were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s and then expanded to meet the requirements of the newly adopted Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1990s, are also changing. In the past, it was advanced reservations and shared rides, but more and more cities and towns are beginning to talk about better ways of serving people with disabilities. Mobile apps and ride-share services are changing the transportation and paratransit landscapes, and people with disabilities along with everyone else are beginning to expect more and better transportation from the communities where they live.

Of course, everything isn’t coming up roses, because if it were, I wouldn’t be writing. Even as we are remaking our communities and revolutionizing our transportation services, we are getting older, more disabled, and more vulnerable to inadequate public transit, paratransit, and pedestrian access than ever. Thus, having highly accessible, flexible, and affordable transit and paratransit services is critically important. And, since I have spent so much time living in this industry, both as a customer and as a provider, I jumped at the chance to share my occasional thoughts on the related topics of accessible transit, paratransit, and the accessibility of both.

...to create a mobility ecosystem that empowers every person, regardless of ability, to travel and live unimpeded.

My goal for transportation is the ability of all people to go when and where they need and want to go without limit or impediment. In this I will share thoughts about some aspect of the accessible transit and/or paratransit space. I would like to promote conversation where we can all better understand the realities that people with disabilities and other transportation-disadvantaged people face when they need or want to travel; a venue where we can explore new ideas, business practices, and technologies that may offer the potential for improving everyone’s mobility; and a safe space where we can collectively challenge ourselves to create a mobility ecosystem that empowers every person, regardless of ability, to travel and live unimpeded.

Ron Brooks is VP of Transit Market Development for American Logistics, a national passenger transportation logistics company.

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