For many people, the challenge of walking along a crowded train platform is intensified by the fear of falling off the edge onto the tracks. A person could be hurt by the fall, hit by an oncoming train or zapped to death by the electric third rail. To avoid taking the ‘L’ is to miss out on one of the most efficient and extensive public transit options for independent travel in the Chicago area.
Angela has been traveling to work and using public transit for many years. Recently she had the terrifying experience of falling off the edge of the platform onto the tracks. However, she has not let her experience stop her travels. I spoke with Angela about her fall and its impact on her confidence. Here’s what she had to say, along with her advice for others who are traveling with vision loss.
Polly: Angela, tell us a little about you.
Angela: At age nine, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. By age twenty, I had been declared “legally blind.” It has become definitely more challenging to navigate with very limited night vision and persistent photopsia. But, I am grateful at fifty-two to still have some lingering fields of central and peripheral vision.
I came to the Chicago area decades ago to attend college. I still remember that first ‘L’ train ride and experiencing the freedom to travel independently in ways I could not have done in my hometown. The family ophthalmologist advised my parents against teaching me to drive, primarily to spare me the anguish of having to give up driving as the vision loss progressed.
I just knew dealing with vision loss in the later years would be a struggle for me. (Oh boy, was I right!!!) I took my first orientation & mobility (O&M) lesson in my mid-twenties. Over the span of twenty-five years, I worked with six different O&M instructors. It wasn’t until age forty-two that I could no longer avoid using my cane while traveling independently at night. About eight years ago, I switched employers. That “new start” finally made it seem mentally easier to transition into becoming a constant cane user.
Polly: Please share with us what happened that day.
Angela: Sunday, February 18, 2018 is a date that I will never forget. I was taking the Red line at Roosevelt & State to return home after spending time with my brother and his girlfriend. I went through the turnstile and walked down the stairs to the subway platform. Multiple groups of people were standing bunched together and were blocking my path to travel farther down the northbound side. I strategically board towards the front or rear of the train according to where exits are located at my destination.
After standing still for a moment, I decided to navigate around the crowd. The flashes of gold light that I regularly see intensified in brightness with every step I took. Suddenly, I heard a woman gasp. I said inwardly to myself, “It’s you!” I felt the detectable warning tile underneath my feet and my cane move over the edge of the platform and thought, “it’s over – what have I done?”
It felt as if I was suspended in mid-air until I hit the bottom and landed on a rail. “I’m okay,” I called out in disbelief to the crowd as I began to stand. “Careful!” someone yelled. Two men jumped down into the track cavern to help. I heard the southbound train pull into the station and my eyes widened. Someone said calmly, “Six minutes until the northbound train is here. We have plenty of time.” One man lifted me onto the platform while the other retrieved my cane.
Once I was on the platform, a small group huddled around and escorted me to a bench. A tourist asked, “Are you in shock? We’re not from here. I’m not sure what to do.” Ashamed, I replied, “Everyone, I’m so sorry and thank you so much.” Next I heard, “I’m CTA. Sorry, someone should have alerted me. Let me brush the dirt off of you.” I thanked the compassionate group of strangers again and walked away with the assistance of CTA.
Polly: Did you ever worry about falling off the platform before this happened?
Angela: Yes, years ago during the period when I hesitated to use my cane. I feel safer and more at ease for sure traveling on the train independently as a cane user. In my everyday travels, I use the detectable warning tiles along the platform as a shoreline to keep my distance from the edge.
I spent hours rehearsing how the accident could have happened. I just couldn’t believe that I missed sensing the tile with my cane and feet.
Polly: Why do you think you fell?
Angela: This was “a wake-up fall” because it opened me to the degree at which I had been traveling preoccupied and unfocused on safe cane techniques. Over the past year, my vision has decreased causing feelings of uncertainty about work and my overall financial stability. One of the last things we discussed at lunch that day was how work was going for me.
I was stunned to realize the severity of my distraction.
Polly: How did you feel the next time you had to take the ‘L’? What made you get back on the platform and take the train?
Angela: That day of the fall, my brother and his girlfriend gave me a ride home. Luckily, I had no serious injuries – just some bad swelling /bruises and a few minor cuts. The next day I was back on the train. I was slightly over cautious and really focused on my cane technique. A month later I returned to the scene of the accident – the Roosevelt & State station to meet my brother. I felt anxious but knew I needed to push through the fear. It was survival mode that got me back on the platform, not courage.
Polly: Have you changed anything about your travel habits?
Angela: More often now while traveling, I find myself doing a mental checklist of my cane techniques: 1) cane grasp, 2) arc width and 3) walking in step. This helps me keep focused on my travel.
Polly: What advice would you give to help others face fears of independent travel on public transit?
Angela: The best advice that I could offer is to get orientation & mobility training! Don’t hesitate to go back for a few lessons to refresh your skills when faced with new visual or environmental changes.
Angela tells us she has made a promise to herself to not let vision loss keep her from living her best life. She has found the staff and programs at Second Sense to be an invaluable resource, always making her feel hopeful and capable. Angela continues to work full time for a community bank handling quality control functions for the Operations Division. She also serves on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) ADA Advisory committee.
If you are interested in orientation and mobility training — whether for the first time or to refresh your skills — contact Rachael Eschbach, COMS at Second Sense.
Polly is the Director of Rehabilitation Services at Second Sense
Polly is the Director of Rehabilitation Services at Second Sense