How Do People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Get Around in Unfamiliar Places?

June 30, 2016

Going to new or unfamiliar places can be challenging for everyone, but it might seem even more daunting for someone who is blind or visually impaired. People with sight can easily scope out their surroundings, but those of us who are blind or severely visually impaired often have to do extra planning to get around safely and independently. After all, it would be impractical for us to explore in advance every building or room we will visit. Still, we should not let this stop us from going to new places! The following are a few tips that I have found helpful when out and about on my own.

First, some background on how people with vision loss get around. Traveling in different or unfamiliar places is done by using orientation and mobility (O&M) skills. Orientation is the actual planning of how to get to and from places. We use other senses – like sound, touch and smell – and our memories to orient ourselves to our surroundings. Those with low vision may also use their remaining vision. Mobility is the physical traveling done to get to and from places. This includes walking, taking public transportation or getting a ride from friends or family. Someone who is blind or visually impaired might use a white cane, dog guide or someone else’s assistance.

Helpful Tips

  • Whenever possible, plan in advance! Find out the address, location and helpful nearby landmarks such as restaurants, stores, etc. That way you will know when you are getting close or be able to give directions to a driver or sighted companion. Also, try to find out what facilities are inside buildings. When in places like stores, malls, airports or hotels, it can be helpful to know about nearby information desks, cash registers, restrooms, elevators, escalators, restaurants, shops, ATMs, etc.
  • Familiarize yourself with a building’s layout and neighborhood in advance, particularly if you will be spending a lot of time or going there often. Find out the important locations such as information desks, emergency exits, stairs and elevators, dog relieving areas (for dog guide users), restaurants, shops and other important facilities.
  • Transportation hubs like airports and train stations are always buzzing with activity. By familiarizing yourself with the layout of the terminals, gates and platforms, you will be able to navigate through these spaces with more ease. Following fellow travelers can also help, as this is a good way of knowing you are heading in the right direction. The particular sounds of escalators and baggage claim carousels can also help you stay oriented.
  • Places like restrooms and hotel rooms often have different layouts, so it may take time exploring to find your way around. Generally, bathroom stalls are on one side of the restroom, while sinks, soap, paper towels, etc. are on the opposite side. If other people are in the restrooms, the sounds from sinks, flushing toilets and towel dispensers are great cues. When in a new hotel room, ask the hotel staff as soon as you check in to give you a brief orientation. Of course, it is perfectly okay if you prefer exploring the room on your own!
  • Most people are willing to help, and asking for assistance is perfectly okay. Always let people know the best way they can assist.

The Chicago Lighthouse offers orientation and mobility training for people of all ages in the Chicagoland area (learn more about the program here). What other tips or suggestions do you have for traveling safely and independently as someone with a visual impairment?

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