Posts Tagged 'CTA'

Art beyond sight?

An organization called Art Beyond Sight is working with the Chicago History Museum to learn more about ways people who are blind manage in museums, and I’ve been invited to head over there this Thursday morning to offer suggestions.

Confession: I’m always ambivalent about these things. I credit the institutions for trying. I really do. And some special accommodations–like the advance tour before plays at Steppenwolf — truly enriched my experience. But when it comes to static, visual art, I must confess I’ve been to several accessible exhibits and none have been particularly satisfying or enlightening.

Mind you, I’m not speaking for all visually impaired people. And I’m never one to turn down special privileges, like the ability to touch artifacts that the general public cannot. But for me, touching artifacts does not allow me to appreciate the entire exhibition. It only provides some of the pieces, and hey, I already spend too much time putting mental puzzles together every day.

As for audio tours, well, they can be quite entertaining and educational, yes, but paying to get into a museum just to walk around with headphones on doesn’t make sense to me. I’d rather download the monologue and listen to it at home, lying comfortably on my couch!

I do like living in a big city with lots of museums. I get a lot out of it without being able to see. I attend lectures and read books to learn about exhibitions in town, about the artists and their lives and their significance. I enjoy discussing the exhibitions with sighted friends who go see them, but as for the special tactile things, I confess that they:

  • Expect too much. Touch is too particular — I can only take in parts of the artwork that are one fingertip wide
  • Make the sighted people feel better about the Braille signs and tactile exhibits than I do
  • Leave me feeling obligated to be grateful

But, again–I applaud the effort, and because I’ve been wrong more than once in the past, I figure they asked, so I’ll answer. And in the process, I’ll be forced to climb back on the horse, er, bus…It was colder out the last time I waited for a busOne of the many, many things I’ve had to avoid since my unexpected emergency open-heart surgery is riding a bus alone with my Seeing eye dog. Surgeons were afraid the bus would take off before we found a seat and I’d fall. Not good for my healing sternum.

This Thursday marks 12 weeks since my April miracle. My sternum is healed now, and the #22 bus is an easy ride from our place to the Chicago History Museum. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious about the bus trip, and a post my writer friend Jeff Flodin just published called Every trip an adventure is not boosting my confidence, either (it’s about trying to find a seat on CTA buses with his Seeing Eye dog Randy). And so, rather than think about bus rides and well-meaning accessible exhibits, I’m focusing on my reward instead: I’m meeting friends at the museum afterwards for lunch. No special accomodations necessary for that: my four remaining senses are enough to feel the air-conditioning, smell the coffee, taste the food and hear lively conversation.


Some el stops in Chicago make it easy to cross busy streets. I regularly use the underground blue line stop near our apartment this way — Whitney guides me down the steps on the south side, we walk underneath Congress to get to the exit that feeds out on the north side, and, bingo! We’ve safely crossed a four-lane highway!

Whit and I often use Subway stops to cross under busy streets.

When Seeing Eye trainer Chris Mattoon was here last month helping me with Whitney, I used the underground red line el stop to cross State Street. He found my subway street-crossing idea so slick that he asked if he could videotape us. “I’ve gotta show this to the apprentices!” he laughed, explaining that new trainers might regard my trick as cheating — they might insist the dogs keep their street crossings, ahem, above ground. “But really, an important part of the job is learning to trust the blind person you match with the dog. Each person is different, and you’ve gotta let them do what works best for them,” Chris told me, then started to chuckle again. “And this seems to work for you, Beth!”

The only thing that kinda doesn’t work about my underground crossings is this: the spot where we emerge from the blue line is also the spot where a gaggle of homeless men like to hang out. The men are no trouble, it’s just that Whitney needs to work us around them to get us to the next corner. We make this trip so often that one of the men recognizes us now and has decided to take us under his wing. “Three o’clock!” his baritone sandpaper voice rings out when he sees us come up the stairs. “Twelve o’clock!” he shouts as we head down the sidewalk.

I have never found the face-of-the-clock method very helpful, but I’ve come across a number of sighted people who think it’s pretty clever. Maybe they’ve all seen the movie See No Evil, Hear No Evil? That’s the one where Gene Wilder plays a deaf man who uses clock-face directions to tell his blind buddy (played by Richard Pryor) how to beat up some guy they meet in a bar.

“Nine o’clock! “Twelve o’clock!” The shouts from my Tom-Waits-sound-alike can be disconcerting. And distracting. I do my best to hide my annoyance and just smile his way as we pass. He’s only trying to help.

A few weeks ago Mike walked with Whitney and me to Union Station to catch a train to a suburban grade school. It’s been an unseasonably warm winter in Chicago — the sun was out, sidewalks were clear, and Mike escorted Whitney and me sighted-guide across the four-lane highway. I gotta admit, It was a relief to avoid the shouts from the Tom Waits soundalike at the el stop.

I kissed Mike goodbye at Union Station, assuring him he didn’t have to come and fetch us there later that afternoon — Whitney could guide me home on her own. Only problem: I hadn’t anticipated a blizzard.

The snow started falling when Whitney and I were talking to second-graders in the gymnasium at Kipling Elementary School, and it was still coming down when we got off the commuter train in Chicago. The American Federation of the Blind devotes a section on its web site to traveling in winter weather:

Winter-weather is often more time consuming, more physically and mentally tiring, and possibly more fraught with danger than traveling in good weather. The cold often brings personal discomfort, making it difficult to concentrate and learn during travel or mobility lessons. Your toes, fingers, and ears are particularly at risk. To protect your extremities, it is necessary to plan one’s clothing and equipment well beforehand.

When I was a kid, I thought it was magical, the way snowfall muffled the sound around you. I still do. But on my walk home with Whitney that afternoon, it just wasn’t the magic I was looking for. By the time we left the train station, enough snow had fallen to mask the audible cues I use to navigate the city. Commuters trudging towards the station kept their heads down to avoid the snow pelting their faces. This would have been fine if they all had dogs like mine to guide them, but they didn’t. Whitney was on her own, weaving me around the blinded commuters in our path.

Snow had accumulated between the raised, circular bumps I’ve come to rely on to tell me we’re at the edge of a curb ramp, so I wasn’t always exactly sure where we were. The further we got away from the train station, the fewer pedestrians crossed our path. And then suddenly I realized: we were alone. I stopped. Listened. No footsteps in the snow, no sounds of shovels, nobody there. Panic. Where were we? My iPhone was in my bag, and I knew I could call Mike. But what would I say? How would I tell him where to find us?

And that’s when I heard it. A voice like an angel. “Twelve o’clock!” my subway sentry shouted.

I picked up Whitney’s harness, squared my shoulders towards the foghorn, commanded, “Whitney, forward!” and Wonderdog Whitney pulled me towards the voice in the wilderness. “Twelve o’clock!” he called out. “Twelve o’clock! Twelve o’clock!” When we got close enough, Tom Waits reached out. He put his gloved hand in mine, and led Whitney and me to the subway stairs. Once there, he placed my palm ever so gently onto the banister and walked away. We got home fine from there.

And now, when my pal by the subway entrance croaks out a clock direction, I don’t just smile his way. I thank him.

Fear of Subways

Hanni and me at Chicago bus stop -- on solid ground.Last week I read an essay written by a reporter whose notebook fell into the New York City subway tracks.

Since one train had just left, it would probably be about seven minutes before the next one arrived. At the very least, it would be five minutes. Jumping down to the tracks and picking up the notebook would take no more than a few seconds. So that would leave four minutes to climb back.

The essay was written by Jim Dwyer, and it grabbed my attention. I live in Chicago and am proud (you could even say haughty) of how efficiently I get around the city with my Seeing Eye dog. Hanni and I walk long distances, jump into cabs, ride CTA buses…but we NEVER take the el by ourselves.

During the 1990’s, when I was working with my first Seeing Eye dog Dora, a number of blind people using guide dogs died after falling into subway tracks in Boston and new York City. They fell in, but couldn’t see to find the ladder to get out. This 1993 NY Times story explains how one woman perished:

A blind woman led by a guide dog was killed yesterday when she fell from a midtown subway platform and was struck by a train as she frantically tried to climb back over the platform edge, the transit police said.

“We don’t know how or why, but she apparently slipped over the edge, leaving her dog on the platform,” said Albert W. O’Leary, a transit police spokesman…

Ms. Schneider was killed at 9:18 A.M. after she fell onto the southbound express tracks along the Broadway line. Witnesses said Ms. Schneider got up and tried to find the edge of the platform with her hands as a southbound No. 3 express train roared into the station with its horn blasting.

I am not afraid of much. I am, however, afraid of the el. Plenty of people who use guide dogs take the subway safely back and forth to work every day. I, however, am not one of those courageous blind people.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) now requires subways to mark platforms with bumpy material to warn blind people away from the edge. But the image of those people stuck in the track still haunts me. Bumps on the platform edges aren’t enough. When it comes to getting around Chicago, Hanni and I keep our feet –and paws – on ground level.

PS: The New York Times reporter who dropped his notebook? He did not climb down to the tracks to retrieve it – he let subway officials do that for him. His essay is very appropriately titled, Celebrating Prudence and a Trip Not Taken.

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January 2017
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