leading the blind

I parked my bike near the library this morning, masking my inability to make it up the hill by my need to return some books. As I walked across the brick and concrete landing to the main entrance, I passed two students on a bench commenting on a blind man making his way by fits and starts to the door. “Oops, there he goes,” giggled one. “He’ll make it in ok,” commented the other.

I made my way to the entrance and found the blind guy trying to find the open side of the double doors. I recognized him from a bus I had taken — an Indian guy with some greying hair, perhaps 28 or so. “A little to the right,” I offered, but that made him turn perpendicular to the entrance, so I offered him my arm. “Can you help me to the place where you return the books?” he asked. I guided him through the main entrance and down the public terminal room to the main circulation. It was a new experience for me, leading a blind person. I miscalculated the width on the second door and he ran into it.

“Are you Indian?” he asked. He had a distinct Indian accent, clearly tempered by several years in the States, and spoke hesitantly.

“Yes.”

“I figured a white guy would never help me out,” he said with a sad chuckle. “I could tell by your physique.”

“Oh really,” I murmured. Was he hitting on me?

“When I was 23 I weighed about a hundred and ten pounds too.” Only off by a year and 5-10 pounds. Impressive for a guy who can only feel your bicep.

“Are you a graduate student?”

“No, I’m in law. And you?”

“I’m a grad student in electrical engineering.”

“Oh cool!” That was the first time I’ve ever gotten that reaction.

His name was Vinay, as it turned out. I got him to the circulation desk and then went to return my books to interlibrary borrowing. In retrospect, perhaps I should have stayed with him, but it’s been my experience that some disabled people don’t want to feel like they need help. On the other hand, his comment on white guys made me wonder about the purported racial harmony of UC Berkeley. As I left the library I began to wonder how I would get in contact with him again. Would he read his email often, or does the Braille interface slow things down? Would I call the law school and ask for the phone number of the blind Indian student?

I can count the number of blind people I’ve talked to on one hand — one was a postdoc in my apartment in Cambridge, and I used to talk to her on the Saferide home. We talked mostly about textbooks, since she was interested in music signal processing. Another is Paul Parravano at MIT, who is a pretty amazing guy. And one was a Sloanie who I met on the bus in Berkeley and recognized him by his Brass Rat. But I don’t really know what it’s like to get around places, do simple errands like grocery shopping or the laundry, or go on dates. I’m very ignorant. In some sense I’m blind at leading the blind.

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0 thoughts on “leading the blind

  1. When I was working as a science writer for the school of engineering at Arizona State, I attended a presentation about iCARE, a system for the blind being developed by the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing. The ultimate goal is to create a pair of glasses containing a camera that will send images to a PDA-size computer on the wearer’s belt. The computer will translate the images into words (using sophisticated facial recognition/scene analysis software) that the user will hear through an earpiece. The center designed the system after conducting focus groups with blind individuals, and two blind computer science students are helping them build it. Hearing these students talk was an eye-opener. It’s frustrating for them to go into a cafe and require someone to read them the menu on the wall, yes. But even more frustrating were the problems with initiating social interactions. The female student described being at a reception that included several people she knew and a few she knew she wanted to meet. But, not knowing where any of them were in the room, she had to wait until one approached her. An article about the male student that appeared in the local paper a couple months later quoted him as saying that he wanted to be able to walk into a bar and know where the pretty girls were. It’s difficult for me to imagine being without the information provided by others’ body language and facial expressions. I hope that the center is able to realize their goals with the iCARE project. http://cubic.asu.edu, if you’re interested in learning more.

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