By Jule Ann Lieberman, Certified Low Vision Therapist and Assistive Technology Professional
This article is the second of a series on making the most of your remaining vision in combination with strategies that make the most of other senses. I offer these suggestions as a result of having lived with limited vision from an early age and professional work with persons with a spectrum of vision from decreased acuity and tunnel vision to those with light perception or less. I have learned many tips that I wish to share with our readers. My interest in this area led me to pursue a Master of Science in Low Vision Therapy from Salus University to better understand why some modifications or strategies work and how to meet the individual needs of clients in my work. These articles are not meant as a replacement for seeking rehabilitation training, but rather, to give you a basic outline on simple changes that can improve your confidence and independence.
Some of my scariest nightmares seem to come from the fear of getting lost or injured while out on my own. I wake up with my heart pounding and then after taking a few deep breaths I realize that I can travel independently if I take advantage of some tools and strategies that keep me safe. The following are some suggestions I have learned over the years from my friends who are orientation and mobility specialists and others like you, my peers in PCB.
First, as the Girl Scout motto says, “Be Prepared”. If I know I will be traveling in an unfamiliar area I try and do a little pre-planning of routes. If I am traveling for example to a doctor’s office I will ask at the time I make the appointment for the exact address and local landmarks nearby. Whether you have enough remaining vision to see the landmarks or not it is useful information for a driver or when you need to ask a fellow passenger or pedestrian to assist you. These landmarks should be as permanent as possible such as a highway exit sign or building such as a bank branch or post office. I try to learn about the surrounding area beforehand to help me recognize when I am nearing my destination.
Of course, as a computer operator I have used great tools such as Google Maps or MapQuest to get directions, yet I find it helpful to get a verbal description from a real person as well. Personally, I like a list of intersections I will need to cross from a given point to my destination. While my tech tools can use GPS to identify my current location; getting at least the number of crossings and the name of intersections is very helpful too. When I give directions to others, I like to mention if they reach X name intersection, they may have traveled past the destination. No matter the method, planning ahead is always a good idea.
Now that you have your route planned, let’s talk about the walk. In a presentation at our most recent conference, Miguel Reyes, a certified orientation and mobility specialist described some travel skills that can make the most use of remaining functional vision. I believe incorporating additional senses into the process will aid in accomplishing the task. Miguel described tracing, such as following a grass line along a suburban sidewalk or country road. If you can detect the color contrast with remaining vision, the tracing technique allows you to follow a straight line. Consider though, if you were also making use of a white cane, tracing the grass line with your cane sliding a little longer on the shoreline of the grass would enable you to feel the difference between the paving and the grass line. Tracking is another skill; if you have motion detection you may be able to visually identify the direction of traffic. With this technique, if you incorporate the alternative sense of hearing you can listen to parallel traffic or the sound of vehicles moving across your path to confirm the input from your vision. I know when I am about to reach the next intersection because I hear traffic ahead of me getting louder. Then, when my ears detect that I am a few feet away from the intersection, I can start visually tracking. Scanning is another skill to consider. This can be in the form of starting at the base of a sign post and moving your focus up the poll to find the sign. Using a monocular you may be able to read the sign by taking advantage of scanning. I scan the environment looking for those big landmarks from my planned route and this may also include taking note of the environmental sounds (machinery or the echoes heard from the sound of my white cane tapping). If I have been told that there is a donut shop or bakery along my route my sense of smell can serve as a landmark. Or is this my belly talking to me? Sometimes following my nose truly is the best technique as I near my destination.
It is sometimes necessary to ask for assistance. The best tip here I can share is to be specific with your request for information. Ask specific questions such as, “Am I facing 13th street?” or “How many streets do I need to cross until I reach Chester road?” I do find it humorous when a car will pull up and ask me for directions as I am walking with my dog guide or white cane. If I have planned my route well and have a good idea of where the driver is heading, frequently I can get them on their way. Perhaps because I am moving about my own travel with confidence, I look capable of assisting others despite my vision level. When possible, you should become familiar with the general layout of streets and traffic patterns in your frequently traveled areas. The City of Philadelphia for example has a recognizable pattern. All traffic on even-number streets can only move south (with the exception of 14th which is Broad Street which goes both ways). Starting with Chestnut, which travels east-bound, as you head toward center city, the streets alternate between east-bound and west-bound.
I hope some of these tips bolster your courage to explore and feel safe and confident as you leave home. In our next newsletter, look for tips on organizing your home, work and time!