Producer Dmae Roberts profiles Portland, Oregon teenager Andrew Myer as he explains how blind people navigate urban landscapes.
CURWOOD: Whether you’re a native or a visitor, getting around a major city can often be a hassle. But for the visually impaired, getting around town can be an obstacle course. Producer Dmae Roberts wanted to navigate the streets of Portland, Oregon with her eyes closed. She got this lesson in sight from 19 year old Andrew Meyer.
ROBERTS: Ive worn glasses since I was 10 years old. Each year, I have to get a stronger prescription. As others who are nearsighted probably do, I wonder what it would be like to someday lose my sight.
[SOUND OF WALKING IN HOUSE]
ROBERTS: Sometimes I close my eyes and try walking through my house. I wonder how it would be to walk around the neighborhood, to get to the grocery store, to do, what I consider, simple things.
MEYER: We can hear the difference when we walk through a door, when theres a hallway off to your left, when its just a closed wall. The sound changes.
ROBERTS: I met Andrew Meyer when he was in Portland for a summer program by the Oregon Commission for the Blind. Andrew has been blind since birth. He was abandoned in an alleyway in the Philippines when he was a baby, and was adopted by an American couple with four children.
MEYER: Ive always been someone to use sights as sort of a generic term. Ever since I was little, my foster family tells the story of when I was sitting in the living room, or after dinner, Id go, "Lets go watch TV." And theyd all look at me like, "Youre not going to go watch TV. You cant see." And ever since I was little I always felt that that was correct to use those terms.
ROBERTS: Early on, Andrew learned that he, too, could see, just not with his eyes. He learned to not only walk with a cane, but to run in track meets. I ask Andrew to explain how he finds his way around. He immediately starts physically mapping out the patio at the dormitory where were standing.
MEYER: What I do is basically find one place that I know exactly where I am. And I know exactly where I am right here. If worse comes to worse, I come back here to the door. Thats where Im going to go to. And then, wed trail one wall. We just go around the room. So, Im just going to walk around the patio really quickly, turning you left. See, theres a chair there. A little bit farther, theres a drop-off. Okay, so thats the edge of the patio. So, I learn how wide this patio is. But, how long is it? So, Im just going to turn right and walk the length of the patio. And, I find a few things, like a pole. And, we reach the end of the patio.
ROBERTS: Sound and touch are important to help him see, as Andrew moves through his environment.
MEYER: We always pay attention to whats underneath our feet. So for example, right now, were on cement. Now Im on grass. Room carpet versus, say, like indoor-outdoor carpeting thats not very thick carpeting, or brick. Go from concrete to brick. So we learn how to pick that up.
ROBERTS: How about trees? How do you deal with them?
MEYER: You can tell when you come up to them. Or, if they happen to hit in your face, you learn later, you might want to duck when you get to that point.
ROBERTS: I look around and see the trees with branches close enough to hit my face. It would be hard to get around even a backyard, let alone a forest or woods. But Andrew tells me that it doesnt matter if its a forest path or a city street. Any terrain that isnt predictable is difficult.
MEYER: If you led me in like a field of grass, and tell me, "Find the nearest sidewalk," good luck. If theres a lot of one thing around us, its really hard, and if nothing is straight lines. Blind people like straight lines. Theyre very predictable.
ROBERTS: City streets have a lot of straight lines. But theres a lot of traffic to avoid; cars, trucks, bikes, even skateboards. I want to hear how a trip to the store would sound to someone without site. So I give Andrew a mini-disc and a mike. And he records his trip to the grocery store with two teen friends, Tiane and Sumner, who are also blind.
MEYER: Okay, were on. Okay, Tiane.
TIANE: Yes. Im right here.
[SOUND OF SHOPPING CART]
MEYER: Okay. Were walking to Safeway. And, that rattling in the background which is Tianes little cart so she can carry all of her food that we all buy in the cart. So we dont have to carry it by hand. Because its really annoying to walk from Safeway carrying it by hand. And Sumners to my right. Say, "Hi," Sumner.
MEYER: Yeah, see, thats Sumner. Weve got our traffic to our right. As a blind person, wed sometimes key off the traffic. Not right now because were walking on the sidewalk. So, the traffic is off to our right. So, at the moment, Im not keying off of it. I dont really care its there, until we get to a street. And then, I will care if its there. Because thats how well know when to go. Of course, we have really easy crossings here. And, were going to go ahead and cross the street that was off to-- Well, no, I guess not. Yes we are. Were going to cross the street that was right off to our right which is Woodstock.
TIANE: And people are stopping.
MEYER: And people are stopping. And so, were going. And now, were on the other side of the street. So, the sound is coming from the other side of the mike.
TIANE: People on bikes and skateboards.
MEYER: Yeah, there are a bunch of people just riding past us. I barely notice. And I just hit a branch.
TIANE: Sorry, Andrew.
MEYER: And, Im walking with Tiane.
MEYER: And, ow! I guess she just walked into something, too. She found a branch, well, too. And now, were going to go ahead and cross Woodstock, because weve been on the other side where Safeway is.
TIANE: And, its time to cross.
MEYER: And, were going to walk into Safeway. The way this works is were going to go up to the counter. And were going to get a, what, everybody?
TIANE: Personal shopper.
MEYER: Were going to get a personal shopper. And were going to tell them what we want. And they drag us around the store. So we dont have to know the store, because every single Safeway is different, and they change all the time, as you guys probably know.
ROBERTS: After walking nearly half an hour to get to the store, Andrew and his friends go inside. An employee, who helps the visually impaired to shop, greets them.
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Hello.
MEYER, TIANE, SUMNER: Hi.
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Do we need a basket?
TIANE: Yes, we do.
MEYER: How about--just a basket, I think, is going--
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Thats what I meant. Yeah, like a hand basket?
MEYER: Or a cart. Lets grab a cart.
SAFEWAY EMPLOYEE: Well, you have a lot of shopping to do.
MEYER: Well, to be on the safe side.
MEYER: I dont know. I might find some items I suddenly take a liking to, while were on the way.
ROBERTS: As they go about their shopping, Andrew turns off the tape deck. Later, he told me how disorienting it was to record with headphones while trying to listen for street sounds.
I cant imagine crossing the street without my sight. And, I marvel at his ability to navigate the world around him. Andrews walk to the store inspires me to step outside to my own backyard and try moving around with my eyes closed.
I cross my own patio, and walk on the soft grass, then try to cross to the plum tree in the back. It feels like a long walk. But eventually, I-- Oh, I found it. For Living on Earth, this is Dmae Roberts in Portland, Oregon.
[MUSIC: Velvet Underground & Nico, "I’m Sticking With You," NICO]
CURWOOD: Our profile of Andrew Meyer was made possible with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its part of the Hearing Voice Series. And for this week, thats Living on Earth. Next week, its the mysteries, the markets, and the savory morsels of that snakelike fish, the eel.
MAN: They are quite tasty, like a slightly grainy pasta, with a tiny crunch from the backbone, and a faint aftertaste of fish and garlic.
CURWOOD: We consider the eel next time on Living on Earth.
[SOUND OF BABY, SIRENS, BIRDS]
CURWOOD: Before we go, a quick trip to the soundscapes of three cities. Recordings from Vancouver, Madrid and Lisbon are the basis for Hans Ulrich Werner and Michael Rusenberg’s collaboration, "Dreams and Memories."
[Hans Ulrich Werner, "Dreams and Memories," THE DREAMS OF GAIA (EarthEar – 2002)]
CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. You can find us at www.loe.org. Our staff includes Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, Jennifer Chu, Cynthia Graber, Jessica Penney, and Al Avery, along with Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Susan Shepherd, Carly Ferguson and Milisa Muniz.
Special thanks to Ernie Silver. We had help this week from Rachel Girshick and Jessie Fenn. Allison Dean composed our themes. Environmental sound art courtesy of EarthEar.
Our technical director is Dennis Foley. Diane Toomey is our science editor, Eileen Bolinsky is our senior editor. And Chris Ballman is the senior producer of Living on Earth.
Im Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
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