American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Fall 2015 TRAVEL
by Steve Hastalis
From the Editor: Steve Hastalis is a charter member of the NFB of Illinois. For thirty-five years he worked for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). He serves on several local and national transit boards and is deeply committed to promoting the use of public transportation by blind travelers.
I distinctly remember one day when I was four or five years old. I was playing with toy cars while my mother scrubbed the kitchen floor. She took my hands in hers and explained the streets of our neighborhood, as if she were showing me the significant features on a map. I thought to myself, That makes sense.
I realized at a very early age that I would not be able to drive because I am blind. Therefore, I developed a lifelong interest in mass transit, as well as intercity passenger trains and buses. My interest was fueled by the wonderful experiences my parents shared with my brother, sister, and me.
The first time my mother took me on the train in Chicago, I was frightened by the noise of the subway. Then, when we went upstairs and left the station, I heard traffic, construction equipment, and footsteps. I realized that I had arrived somewhere exciting and special--downtown Chicago!
Long car rides with the family to New York, Pittsburgh, and Detroit were also learning opportunities for me. My parents explained the toll roads, bridges, and tunnels we used. Long afterward, in his last year of life, my father reminisced about how I tried to determine the speed of the car, based on how fast the front and then the rear tires hit expansion joints in the pavement.
I have been totally blind in my left eye for as long as I can remember. As a young boy I could see a little with my right eye. In October 1958, about four months before my seventh birthday, I lost my remaining vision and subsequently had only a little bit of light perception. After I lost my sight I had no instruction in the use of the long white cane. In those days most blindness professionals believed that travel training for young children was neither possible nor necessary. Without a cane, I had great difficulty getting off the schoolbus and going up the walk to the front door of my house. The kids on the bus yelled out the windows, "You're faking!" I didn't know how to explain to them what had happened to me. I may have insisted, "I'm not faking," but they probably didn't believe me.
On a trip to the beach when I was ten years old, my mother took me to explore the rocks of the breakwater. People are not supposed to walk on these rocks, but sometimes they do. The rocks are slanted randomly in various directions with irregular spaces between them. Without a cane to give me information about my surroundings, I grew nervous and hesitant. I could not figure out where I should take my next step. My mother got very frustrated. Regretably, neither of us knew the travel techniques that would have solved this problem. Some thirty years later I walked through similar terrain with another blind person. We navigated safely and confidently, using our canes to find safe passage between the rocks.
When I was twelve years old in the summer of 1964, my parents sent me to a program for blind youth at the Illinois Visually Handicapped Institute (IVHI) in Chicago, now the Illinois Center for Rehabilitation and Education (ICRE). For the first time I received intensive mobility instruction with the long white cane. My travel teacher showed me all kinds of street crossings, including perpendicular and angled intersections. She taught me to wait for the perpendicular traffic (vehicles passing in front of me) to stop, to listen for and line up with parallel traffic, to make sure no cars were turning in front of me, and to proceed across the street.
One day my instructor showed me a railroad grade crossing a few blocks from the training facility. I heard the bells ring, and she explained that the crossing gates had come down to keep pedestrians and vehicles off the tracks while the train passed.
One of my classes at IVHI was called Self Help. The instructor was the first blind adult I ever knew extensively, and he was a wonderful role model. Part of the class involved woodworking, and the instructor had me make a wooden paperweight. He taught me to hammer nails straight without clobbering my thumb. I also learned to use power tools such as an industrial drill press. My instructor gave me some very wise advice. He repeatedly emphasized, "If you respect the tools, the tools will respect you." We also discussed repairing equipment. He observed, "When you take something apart, keep your parts organized so you can put it back together."
My instructor checked to make sure I could read and write Braille effectively, dial a phone, and tie a tie. I discovered that we had a common interest in everything related to railroads and mass transit. We both understood the importance of railroad passenger trains and mass transit for blind people. He told me about streetcars, elevated-train cars with wooden bodies, steam locomotives, and diesel locomotives.
I talked to my instructor about my model trains at home. I explained that my train set had tracks with a center third rail, but that they did not seem to have insulated mountings. "They have to," he said. "Check it out more carefully." When I went home and followed his advice, I found the plastic insulated mounting brackets holding the center third rails in place.
Every afternoon in the IVHI program we did calisthenics in the yard of the facility. The yard was right next to the elevated train line. One day the head mobility instructor asked, "How many cars went by on that train?"
"Nine," I answered, based on what I had heard.
"No," he corrected me. "There were only four."
I thought about the wheel arrangements of the model trains I played with. I realized that I could identify the number of cars on a train by counting how many wheels (and therefore axles) passed a given rail joint. The mobility instructor clearly wanted us to have a strong awareness of our surroundings, even if we did not have a specific need for the information. Later I figured out that I could determine my location relative to the rest of the train--front, middle, or rear--by listening to these sounds.
One afternoon the instructor who directed our exercises invited me to stand on his upraised hands. "Are you sure?" I asked nervously. "I don't want to hurt you."
"No, it will be all right," he and some other staff members assured me.
I climbed up, and they guided my feet. I felt the steadiness and strength of the instructor's hands and arms, holding me in place. I began to relax, and the people on either side of me let go. In that quiet moment I felt the strength, perseverance, competence, and confidence of the blind man who supported me. When I climbed down a few seconds later, I felt much more than words could convey.
Toward the end of the training, the agency arranged several other memorable activities. One day we rode a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus to O'Hare Airport. My mobility instructor asked, "Do you want to do escalators?"
"Yeah!" I replied eagerly. We practiced going up and down until we could step on and off an escalator with confidence.
The group then walked along a concourse. After a while, we went up to a rooftop observation deck and listened to several planes taking off and landing. We went back downstairs and actually boarded a United Airlines Boeing 720. The captain came out of the cockpit to greet us and invited us forward. I felt the ceiling, full of many push-button switches. The captain talked to us about the instruments he used in flying the plane. We went back to the seats and he invited us to ask questions. A fellow student and friend asked which radio frequency they used. I asked if the plane had a nose or tail wheel. With today's airport security, such a visit is hard to imagine! To this day I am glad I had that experience.
Another excellent lesson occurred when an instructor from the CTA brought a bus to IVHI. We boarded, paid a fare, received a transfer, sat down, and exited through the rear door. The head mobility instructor reminded us to "sweep the seat" before sitting down. To reinforce his instructions, he blew up a balloon partway and placed it on the seat. If one of us sat on it, the balloon deflated with a loud "raspberry" sound. That was an instructive reminder!
The people who designed and ran the summer program at IVHI wanted to show us that blind people could use all forms of transportation safely, efficiently, and enjoyably. In a larger sense, they wanted us to believe that we could lead active, productive lives as blind people.
By the end of the summer, many aspects of travel made imminent sense to me. With a cane in my hand, I no longer groped with my feet to feel the line of the sidewalk against the grass, to feel curbs, or to find stairs down. I knew that no one would accuse me of faking when they saw me using my cane. It took six years for me to get the training I needed, but better late than never!
The night my parents brought me home at the end of the training program, I stood at the top of the stairs in our house and was stricken with sadness. "It's over!" I said, and I started to cry.
My parents both gave me love, encouragement, and moral support, but they did so in totally different ways. My father put his arm around my shoulders and comforted me. "I know how you feel," he said. "I cried when I left my army buddies."
My mother heard me from downstairs in the living room. She commented, "It's not over; it's just beginning."
She was right, in a very literal and figurative sense. The next chapter of my journey started that night, and it continues to this day.