I have been blind for over 24 years now and in the span of these many years, I have met several people who wondered how I walk especially when they saw me walking alone. It’s a general misconception that many sighted people believe we navigate our way by counting our footsteps. A few people have even asked me how many footsteps are there between my office and home. My flat response to such a question would be, “Do you also count your footsteps to navigate within your house at night when there is no light?”
My brother-in-law, Santabir Rai, who is also a visually impaired, was once walking alone to his office when one of his colleagues called him from a distance. My brother-in-law answered back while walking but it seems he heard another person telling his colleague not to disturb him because he might lose the count of his footsteps. I know it sounds funny but even if I were a sighted person, I too might have had the same notion when I see a visually impaired person walking independently and that too, without a white cane. Until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t using a white cane which I am using now. When I was in school, nobody used the cane and we all walked to Khaling high school and back to Muenselling Institute everyday independently. So, in this article, I shall try to explain how we the visually impaired persons normally navigate our way within the familiar environment.
The first thing we should remember is that the physical environment we live in does not have to be perceived only through eyes. The other four senses can also help one get a sense of the physical surroundings once you are in that particular environment for sometime. I know, even sighted people can grope their way to the right directions within their house at night when the lights suddenly go off. This is possible because the environment is familiar and everybody knows where the right things are. The same concept is applicable to us. That’s why, we always advise people living with us not to change the positions of things within the house and office frequently because that will affect our cognitive map. Once we get familiar with a particular environment, we form a mental representation of the environment and as long as it remains the same, we can comfortably navigate around using the mental map. We don’t even have to concentrate on what we are doing because life becomes as normal as it is for sighted people. No matter what, we never count our footsteps as many people think. But at least we can get some idea about the distance when people say “e.g., the milk shop is about 100 footsteps away from my house.”
Going out of the house and walking a longer distance requires a few more techniques. Before I went for further studies in 2012, I used to walk to and from office on my own but after narrowly escaping getting hit by sppeding cars twice, I had to stop to walk alone. But except for the traffic at the Swimming Pool junction, I had no other problems walking independently. Most people wondered how was I able to find my way. There are certain landmarks and clues we should remember while walking outdoors. The landmarks hardly change because they are more or less permanent structures on the way and they help us identify exactly where we are and which direction to turn to after that. For instance, when I was walking to office from my house which is beside Kelki High School, I used to walk up to the Swimming Pool highway from the left-hand side of my house and take the footpath that runs just above Kelki High School. The electric poles on the side of the sidewalk were my landmarks. After the third pole, I would cross the road, up to the divider and continued forward to cross over to the sidewalk on the other side of the highway. Then the small stream of drainwater at the Swimming Pool Junction was a clue that indicated that I have reached the road that leads to my office. The clues can change but they can always indicate important signals such as the sound of drainwater flowing, roaring engines of the approaching cars, etc. So the first thing a person should remember while orienting a visually impaired person is to identify such important landmarks and clues at crucial points so that he or she can navigate easily. And Nature has been so kind that I haven’t yet found any place without any identifiable landmark or clue. On my way from my apartment to my university in Australia, I had to cross a large car park where at first, I could not find any significant landmark or clue that could guide me straight to the other side of the parking lot to continue to the narrow path that followed. But after a few re-orientation, I discovered a slightly elevated line at certain points across the parking lot, following which, could lead me to the other side, to the right direction. I didn’t have any problem navigating in and around my university. Now even my wife and some friends know how to provide mobility orientation to visually impaired people. In fact, it was my wife who identified important landmarks between my house and my office. So, landmarks and clues are everywhere, which means there is hardly any place where a blind person cannot go. We can certainly see through our ears, nose and touch, but the white cane, a mobility stick for the blind is the lifeline.