The Science and Design of Navigating Blind

For those of us who can see, it’s hard to imagine the skill and courage it must take to navigate through the world without sight. Crossing busy streets. Avoiding obstacles. On today's Colorado Matters, we’ll meet a blind graduate student at CU Denver who’s working with RTD to create more accessible light rail stops. Her research is also adding to our understanding of how blind people figure out where they’re going. First, to get an idea of what it takes to navigate without sight, Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee spent an afternoon with a travel class at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report:

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: When Jackie Owellet woke up from eye surgery two years ago to discover that a hemorrhage had destroyed her sight, her own home became a foreign country.

JACKIE OWELLET, STUDENT: "Just the simplest tasks, just finding the bathroom or the kitchen was just so overwhelming and I couldn’t even imagine wandering outside to go somewhere. It was just so scary."

REPORTER: In her late twenties, Owellet had to learn a whole new way to navigate the world, so she enrolled at the Colorado Center for the Blind. On this afternoon, she’s part of travel class, practicing a short excursion from the Center into nearby downtown Littleton. Instructor Steve Patten starts with a quick quiz.

STEVE PATTEN, TEACHER: "So Rolando has our address and it’s 2560 W Main. And what does that tell us?”

ROLANDO TERRAZAS, STUDENT: That we’re going to walk north on Prince. We’re going to cross Alamo...”

REPORTER: Owellet and fellow student Rolando Terrazas start out ahead of us, sweeping their canes in an arc across the sidewalk with each step. Patten, who’s a friend of mine, hangs back a bit to explain some of the techniques they’re using to find their way. As we’re talking he makes a smooth right turn into a driveway, apparently a familiar shortcut.

PATTEN: "I don’t know if you can even hear the texture difference that we just made. This blacktop is a bit rougher than say, this cement over here.”

VERLEE: “So that’s how you knew this corner was there?”

PATTEN: “Well, that, and like, the grass line ended and the building ended so the sunlight was apparent again. A bunch of things like that.”

REPORTER: I’d always assumed that navigating without sight was a task of supreme memorization, but the way Patten talks about it, it’s more a toolkit of problem-solving skills. Like how to stay on course when there isn’t a guiding feature, say a curb, to rely on. We reach an intersection and Owellet stops to listen to the opposing traffic.

OWELLET: "And we want to make sure when those cars are crossing in front of us, that they’re crossing directly across our collarbones and that’s how we know that we’re lined up properly."

OWELLET: "As a sighted person I always moved very quickly, I was always doing a million things. So all of a sudden having to slow down and listen to my surroundings and sense what my cane was feeling, that was, that was hard."

REPORTER: Some of the people on the street or in nearby cars shout out advice as we walk. But Patten says things the sighted do to help the blind don’t always work out so well. We reach a 'pedestrian friendly” crosswalk. All four directions of traffic stop at the same time to let walkers cross, and on each corner, the light pole emits a string of electronic chirps. It’s supposed to help, but Patten points out that what the designers have actually done is remove all his audio landmarks.

PATTEN: 'I am not a fan; it’s just a chirping bird with no traffic whatsoever. So you have nothing to keep you straight as you cross the street."

REPORTER: The Colorado Center is one of only a few places in the US devoted to helping blind people become fully independent and employable. And navigation is a big piece of that. CCB Director Julie Dedon says students spend a lot of time on adventurous activities, such as assisted skiing and rock climbing, to build up their confidence to tackle more mundane challenges, like crossing streets.

DEDON: "And confidence is key, because you can imagine, as a blind person, if you were blind, it’s natural you’re going to be very fearful, at the beginning about crossing very large intersections when you can’t see anything. You can see cars, you can’t see the lights."

REPORTER: And they’re not playing around. The navigation curriculum culminates in a final that’s ominously called The Drop. Teacher Steve Patten explains.

PATTEN: "A student is dropped off in an unknown area and has to use their problem solving skills to get back here to the Center. We haven’t lost anybody yet."

REPORTER: Student Owellet has a ways to go before her drop, but Patten says she’s already learned a lot, and that includes asking questions when necessary. On this trip it takes a few to find the cafe they’re aiming for.

OWELLET: “Hello, is this the Chocolate Therapist?”

SHOPPER: “It sure is, how do you know?”

OWELLET: “Oh, I know everything.”

PATTEN: “She just asked you!”

REPORTER: Gourmet hot chocolate is a pretty good reward for making the walk over here. It’s taken us about twenty minutes to cover a half a mile. Owellet says it’s still not easy for her to navigate on her own, but it’s better than not doing it.

OWELLET: "I still have a little bit of anxiety every time I walk out of my door. It’s stressful. Just the simple task of walking down the street can be extremely stressful. You know, I push through it."


HOST RYAN WARNER: So, people who are blind rely on all sorts of clues to navigate, a task that’s helped, or hindered, by how city planners and transportation engineers do their jobs. Claudia Folksa is a Ph.D student at CU-Denver. She’s studying the intersection of urban planning and cognitive science. Folska, who’s blind, has a message: smart design doesn’t just benefit people who can’t see. Consider those of us who walking around town-- glued to our smartphones.

[photo credit: Claudia Folska, MVerlee/CPR]