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It’s A Jungle Out There: Navigating Summer Sidewalks with Vision Loss

August 15, 2013 | 1 Comment

by Doug Anzlovar, Guest Blogger

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Doug Anzvolar

From rural communities to bustling cities, pedestrians who are visually impaired or blind often contend with a variety of obstacles as they move through their environment.  Good weather tends to not only bring out the flowers and birds but also shrubbery that over extends onto sidewalks, tree branches that hang down overhead, sprinklers watering everything but the grass, sidewalk cafés that take up more than half of the sidewalk, low placed signage on poles and, my personal favorite, bicycles and skateboards screaming down the sidewalk.  Sometimes it seems that the pedestrian walkway is no longer meant for pedestrians.

I’ve joked with friends when I’ve run into one or more of these obstacles that I am all set to make a midnight run to do some tree trimming around the neighborhood or hide a renegade sprinkler!  As I see it, one can either get mad and stay inside or venture out and get moving!  My advice is to protect yourself from known obstacles and make an effort to be proactive and find a “teachable” moment to enlighten homeowners, businesses and even city government of potential obstacles or hazards in the pedestrian right of way.

Safety is Paramount

Whether you are walking in familiar surroundings or venturing into territories unknown, consider these precautions.

  • Wear a visor or hat to protect your head from low-hanging tree limbs, awnings or patio umbrellas.
  • Wear protective eyewear, such as glasses or sunglasses, to help keep debris out of your eyes.
  • Avoid wearing headphones that impair your ability to hear your surroundings.
  • “Pull over” to the side when taking a phone call so you can concentrate on the call and not inadvertently step in front of an oncoming car speeding down an alley.
  • Remain alert – a white cane may not detect every obstacle.
  • Remember, the white cane is a good identifier to pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders and others who inhabit the sidewalk that you are visually impaired.
  • Consult with a certified Orientation & Mobility specialist to brush-up on travel skills if your vision has changed or if you have recently moved to a new community or neighborhood.

Finding the Teachable Moment

Sidewalk cafe taking up half the sidewalk with flower pots on the ground and a parking meter that limits the space even more

You may have heard the saying “you can catch more flies with honey…”  I believe this to be true when finding that “teachable” moment I spoke of earlier.  Being an advocate does not mean you need to be nasty or aggressive.

  • When speaking to homeowners, businesses, and perhaps even your local town or city government officials, articulate the problem clearly and offer a reasonable solution.
  • Politely discuss with the homeowner how their shrubbery encroaching on the sidewalk can cause injury to someone who may not be able to see it in their path.
  • Let the homeowner know you do not expect them to tear out the shrub but rather ask them to trim it back.
  • Explain how the flowerpot sticking out into the sidewalk at the corner of a sidewalk cafe can be a tripping danger or how a hanging plant from an overhead awning next to an entrance can be a hazard.

If you cordially point out these obstacles to a business owner, he or she might recognize the implications even for fully sighted patrons. You get the idea.

Some communities have ordinances that govern landscaping, outdoor cafés, bikes allowed on sidewalks, etc. It is important to check with your local municipality to learn what the ordinances dictate and who is responsible for maintaining the public right of way. If you live in a large city, you might consider contacting your alderman. For those living in smaller towns, try paying a visit to city hall to speak with someone in the town clerk’s office. In some communities, homeowners must get permission from the town to trim tree limbs. In other cases, the city is responsible for trimming trees. Knowing this information will better assist you in your advocacy efforts.

Remember, life is full of choices. You can choose to get mad and stay inside or get out and get moving!  Please share your tips on making the best use of these “teachable” moments.

Doug Anzlovar is Dean of Educational Programs and Instruction at The Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, IL.

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