Travel Talk

Thanks to the end of Daylight Savings Time, my campus is covered in uneven splotches of afternoon sunlight—encouraging shade in one moment, debilitating glare in the next. I emerge from the elevator and thread my way through the oncoming dark shapes of students ambling to class or chatting with friends. I switch the relaxed sweep of my cane to quick tapping, and the students part before me, stumbling out of my way. In two places, the sunlight poses particular issues. Between Starbucks and the large sign for brown rice sushi, the sidewalk widens and sun spills over and around the library. In midmorning and mid-afternoon, this small stretch is a blazing valley for me; I step slowly, enlarging the arc of my cane and avoiding the indiscernible concrete columns that flank the narrowed walkways.The second difficulty lies on the sidewalk past the library. Again, the area opens up, with a line of columns in front of the library’s entrance. My cane catches in the sidewalk’s decorative bricks. Afternoon sunlight floods the path, washing out all its distinctive features. The columns, the bus stop, the walking students, the benches and bushes, all fade into the unpleasant brightness.

Because it’s hard to judge distances in this open space, I listen for the metallic hiss of the library doors. The automatic glass doors are prefaced by a small metal platform that clangs as people exit and enter the building. When I hear the sound of feet on metal, I know I’m heading in the right direction. This is a good place for me to move from the right side of the path to the left, passing between the last two columns. In a few steps, I’ll approach a diagonal left turn, like a triangle stenciled in cement. Once I’m on the short leg of the triangle, I’m only a few quick turns away from my waiting vehicle.

But getting to the triangle is tough. If I veer too early on the large path, I’ll catch my cane in the slender columns near the edge of the library building. If I complete my hard left too soon, I’ll find my cane deep in the bushes beside the library. If I pass beyond my piece of the triangle, I’ll meet a stretch of grass.

Today I find my cane tangled in the bushes. I know I’m in the wrong place, so I extricate myself and move forward. After a few steps, I check my progress and find grass: I’ve overcompensated. I turn back, using my cane to survey the space. I blink—I think I can see the sidewalk I want, but I still have to get to it. I feel grass under my feet, and I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“A little to your left.”

I call a thank-you and shift my feet, landing on the sidewalk I want. Sure of my place, I begin to  move more quickly.

“You’re welcome,” she continues, following me. “You’re very brave.”

“I don’t know about that.” I laugh. “My problem is the sun. On an overcast day, I wouldn’t have any trouble.”

She laughs with me, walks past me. “You’re braver than I am. And it’s supposed to be overcast tomorrow.”

“Perfect!”

I hear her chuckling as her footsteps fade. And I think to myself, here’s another social interaction on this sun-bleached spot. First it was the young student who stopped to ask me how I learned to travel, only to explain that his grandmother had lost her vision and was in deep denial. Then it was the man who told me, “You do that pretty well,” obviously convinced that walking and blindness are mutually exclusive. Once, it was the man handing out pocket Bibles: assuming his text was much too small for my use, he gave me a hearty, “Good afternoon” instead. Most of my interactions on the triangle have been pleasant—inquisitive strangers asking me how I do what I do.

For me, mobility seems to include an inescapable social component. Doors swing open, people approach, someone stops to give me a piece of advice—”Just so you know, there’s a golf cart parked ahead!”—and I feel compelled to make these small moments sociable and pleasant. I came to this realization after today’s mysterious helper was much farther down the sidewalk. I realize that I needed to make her laugh, wanted to say more than “Thank you.” I wanted to give her a piece of my story.

Contemporary culture and education put a premium on the ability to tell a story, to chat freely with strangers, to work cooperatively with others. In classrooms where participation is measured by how often a student speaks, extroverts have an undeniable advantage, backed by scientists who argue that humans are designed to be social. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain collects the research that establishes the value of introversion. Cain argues against the stereotype of introverts as socially inept or defective, instead calling the reader’s attention to their thoughtfulness, desire for less stimulation, and creative problem-solving. As I read, I can’t help but notice the various ways in which my blindness has encouraged me to think like an introvert and talk like an extrovert.*

I’m the most extroverted in academic settings. As a student, I spoke readily in class. To help professors remember my accommodations, I learned to be vocal: my professors were liable to forget me if I was a quiet blind girl, sitting in the back of the room and rarely venturing comments.

But I find that my extroversion doesn’t stop at the classroom. In most scenarios where I need assistance, I use my voice—not with the soft inflections preferred by some introverts but with a tone that defies others to ignore me. I don’t know where I learned to be loud, but I don’t ever remember being quiet.

If I had to choose a situation for quiet thought, it would be my travel time. I often find it challenging to maintain deep personal conversations when I’m walking. The friends who call to me while I’m traveling can attest that I take a minute to realize who wants my attention: I’m concentrating on the world around me, attuned to the feel of my cane on the ground, the intensity of the air, the sounds of passersby, the smells of the weather and the surrounding buildings. It’s a lot to think about, and it’s time I’d rather spend as an introvert.

In his TED Talk, “Design with the Blind in Mind,” architect Chris Downey presents a different perspective of this social mobility. As a newly blind man, Downey acknowledges the increase in social attention he receives from strangers on his walks through different cities. But Downey doesn’t think of this attention as pitying or intrusive; he sees the well wishes, the blessings, and the sometimes-erroneous advice from strangers as proof of our common humanity. Downey admits that he never received such positive attention as a sighted person.

So while I want to be an introvert on the move, undisturbed by the questions and comments of strangers, I have to respect the force that motivates people to approach me. I acknowledge that the kindness of strangers has often helped me correct a misstep, and I admire the courage that helps strangers reach out to those living beyond their own experiences.

* According to Cain’s book, I’d technically be an “ambivert”—somewhere in the middle. For a brief and engaging summary of Cain’s work, watch her TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.”
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