American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2016 TRAVEL
An Interview with Ryan Strunk
From the Editor: What is it like to travel overseas as a blind person? In this article, Ryan Strunk talks with Liz Wisecarver of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University about his recent trip to India and France. Ryan currently works as an accessibility analyst for Target in Minneapolis, where he helps to ensure that the online and mobile platforms are accessible and efficient for blind screen reader users. In this interview he refers to a classic article by Dr. Kenneth Jernigan entitled "Don't Throw the Nickel," which appears elsewhere in this issue.
This interview was first published on the blog of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University: <www.pdribdd.com>. The Institute offers master's degrees for those interested in teaching blind children and adults the skills of Braille, cane travel, and independent living. If you would like a rewarding career through which you can help students change their lives forever, call the Institute at (318) 257-4554.
Liz Wisecarver: Why did you go to Bangladore, India?
Ryan Strunk: Target wanted us to put some projects and processes in place for our new web experience. I went partly to work with people who were building that experience, and partly to work with the accessibility team over there to make sure they had a good idea of the new things we are putting in place to streamline accessibility. I was there about two weeks, and then I decided to play tourist in France for a few days.
LW: What travel experiences did you have while you were in India? Were you able to travel through the city much?
RS: We traveled out in the city a little. I found there to be a certain amount of tourism that you can be a part of and places visitors like to go, but most trips are escorted by locals. From the moment you land in Bangladore as a Target employee--and I imagine many Western companies are this way--you are assigned a driver. When you get out of customs, that driver is waiting on the other end with a sign. The driver becomes your guide to India. Even if you want to, say, go on an excursion on the weekend or go shopping for an evening, your driver takes you as a personal guide for however long you are there. We spent most of our time with our driver, but on a couple of brief occasions we went out with other people or alone.
One of the things that made it interesting to me as a blind person is that the traffic in India is crazy. Traffic laws are only suggestions. When you are traveling and want to cross the street, whether you're blind or sighted, you have three options.
1. Cross when you think you can, and hope you make it to the other side safely. It really is like playing Frogger.
2. Cross with a big group of people, and hope you create enough of an obstacle that drivers will stop for you.
3. Wait for a traffic jam, and run through it to the other side of the street.
One day a sighted coworker and I went on our own to walk through a park, and she was not comfortable crossing the street. She waited for more people to come along so we could run across together.
The first time I crossed, I was shocked. We live in a culture that respects red lights and traffic rules. As a blind person in America, I can find the street corner and listen for traffic. When the parallel traffic goes, I go. If the light hasn't changed, the people on the sidewalk aren't going anywhere. In India, as soon as they pass an idling car on the street, people take off. You can feel the wind on your back! They don't start up slowly; they accelerate intensely! I kept thinking, "This is terrifying for a blind person!"
Even though it's a crazy thing to do as a blind person, I found it is just as crazy for a sighted person to cross streets there. It's definitely a piece of culture that doesn't exist here.
Cows are everywhere. We went to do some shopping, and there were cows. They're a big part of the culture in India. People take a cow to the market first thing in the morning, or take one in the evening to sell the milk. The rest of the time, cows wander around on the side of the road. I often wondered what would happen if a blind person was walking along. Would he hear the cows? What would happen if you tapped a cow with a cane?
As my friend and I were shopping, our driver pointed out a fighting goat chained up right outside a storefront. Again I wondered what would happen if a blind person walked up to it. What would a fighting goat do if you walked up to it with a long white cane? I'm glad I didn't have to find out myself!
LW: How did people in India, locals or your team, react to you as a blind person? Did you experience culture shock?
RS: There are blind people out and about in India, and there is even a National Federation of the Blind of India. But we also heard stories about the Mother Teresa Orphanage, which takes in babies with obvious disabilities who have been abandoned on the streets. There is a stigma attached to disabilities in some circles, much more than there is here.
In India there is a different expectation about blindness. We have the Americans with Disabilities Act, but India does not have anything similar. There aren't a lot of positive examples of blindness that the public sees in India. When they see you, they may make assumptions about you that are worse than the assumptions made in the United States.
One day I left my hotel and went to a bakery in the mall by myself. I got what I was looking for, and I went back. When I got to the top of the escalators, I forgot how far I was supposed to go. I stepped into a store to ask for directions.
The storekeeper didn't speak much English, but he understood that I was looking for the hotel. Instead of telling me which way to go, he proceeded to latch onto my arm with both hands and propel me down the hallway. As soon as I heard the music outside the hotel, I told him that I was okay.
"No!" he insisted. "I help. I help." I was channeling my inner "Don't Throw the Nickel." This is a great speech, if you have time to read it. The crux of the story is this: carefully choose those times to prove you're capable of doing something independently as a blind person.
Finally we got to the hotel. A guy from the hotel came out and grabbed my other arm with both hands, marching me into the lobby. The first guy finally let go as the second guy dragged me along.
There were a lot of stories like that. A blind co-worker said that someone tried to feed him. My wife, who is also blind, once had no fewer than three people escort her to the table--one to steer her by the shoulders, one to carry her plate, and one to clear the path. You experience crazy situations where people are overly helpful here in the US, but I saw more of it in India than I ever do here.
By the end of a week and a half, at the hotel, a lot of people got it. Thankfully, fewer people insisted on dragging me around if I said, "No, thank you." Everyone was very kind; they weren't trying to be weird. They were just too helpful.
LW: Did you interact with any blind people from India while you were there?
RS: We had two people who were blind on the accessibility team in India. One talked to me a bit about his experience there. Both guys had some remaining vision, and they did not carry canes. I asked one of them about this, and he said that part of it was that he didn't always feel safe carrying a cane. He sometimes used one in his home neighborhood and at work. He said he didn't like to use a cane in new places, because he felt it made him a target. The income gap is a problem in India, and he believed that, as a blind guy out in the community, someone might try to take advantage of him.
I asked my traveling companion about this. She said that her family, who live south of Bangladore, saw blind people frequently. It may have been just this one guy who had this attitude about the cane, but that's the explanation he gave me.
LW: What did you notice about the accessibility there? Do you think India is beginning to make things more accessible?
RS: I don't really know. There is no Braille on hotel rooms, meeting rooms, elevators, or restrooms. That's one of the things we take for granted here. I don't know if it's because there is so little education in Braille, or if it's due to a lack of knowledge about accessibility. That said, India has fourteen different languages, so if you were to write a restroom sign, would you write it in Kannea, Hindi, or English? Language could be one of the challenges.
LW: How was France different from India and the United States?
RS: We had a layover in Paris. Since I'd never had the opportunity to go to France before, we decided to stay there for a few days. That was a night and day experience from India! In France they take disability very, very seriously. The escalators and stairs have truncated domes [tactile indicators] at the top and bottom, even in the older hotel where I stayed. All the things you didn't see in India were present in France to excess. We went to the Louvre one day, and there was a whole display of statues that could be touched, with Braille plaques on each one.
But the accessibility extended on past that. At museums there was always a special express line for disability access. We got in the general admission line with everyone else, and a guard tried to wave us through the priority entrance. We said, "No, we are okay," and another guard came over. We said again, "We are okay," and a third guard came. I thought of "Don't Throw the Nickel" again.
They told us, "We are letting you and your group in for free."
I asked to donate the price of the tickets, and they said, "Oh no, we can't take money from your kind."
Between the two countries, you go from no accommodations to excessive accommodations. It is kind of creepy to see what it is like when they take care of you. The help was always very well meant, but the two countries were sort of at opposite ends of the spectrum. People were either unaware about blindness so they tried to take care of you, or they were super aware and took care of you to an even higher degree.
I love the middle ground that exists here the United States. Here most people will leave you alone if you explain that you don't need help.
LW: Do you think you will do more traveling?
RS: I will eventually, but at this point I'm in no hurry. It's not cheap for the company to send us to India, so they don't fly us out there on a regular basis. For the time being there is no reason for me to go again, but I would like to someday. I would be very interested to look up the NFB of India.