Future Reflections                                                                                                           Fall 2004

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What You “Auto” Know: Blind Teens and the Mechanics of Myth-Busting

by Anna Cheadle

Anna Cheadle
Anna Cheadle

The myth tells us: blind people can’t drive, so they don’t (need to) know about cars. The myth tells us: changing a tire is too dangerous for a person who can’t see. The myth tells us: the driver, not the blind passenger, is responsible for getting from point A to point B.

We at the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) like to point out when the myth is wrong, but it’s not that the myth “is” wrong at all. The myth can be wrong, blind people can be competent, and teenagers can be responsible (really). But we all know that to turn “can be” to “is” takes a lot of time, energy, teaching, and patience. These days, the time to let a blind teen explore a car or change a tire just doesn’t seem to be taken very often; after all, most sighted people, even friends and parents, naturally take it for granted that there are lights on a car ceiling, a speedometer on the dash, or a hidden panel in the trunk covering the spare “doughnut” tire you hope never to use. When the time does come to use it, heightened emotions and frustrations often preclude the possibility of patiently helping your blind teen (or any teen, for that matter) go through the process with you.

So early in 2003, Loretta White, a longtime parent leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland (NFB/MD), teamed up with blind counselors from Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM) and a cadre of family members (two dads, a grandfather, and two mothers) to turn could-be competence into real hands-on knowledge. The two-and-one-half-day weekend retreat, titled “What You ‘Auto’ Know,” drew participation from nineteen blind teens from Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Sponsored jointly by NFB/MD and BISM, the youth retreat incorporated both an “on the road” segment and one “in the garage” of volunteer Stan Griffin, who supplied his own auto garage and rental cars for the weekend. The kids’ newfound knowledge was tested with both “before” and “after” tests (taken, for most effective myth-busting potential, from actual Maryland driver’s license practice exams), as well as a more memorable, and unexpected, real-life test. But one myth at a time.

Nikos Daley and David Venit prepare to locate the spare tire in the trunk of one of Stan Griffin's cars.
Nikos Daley (left) and David Venit prepare to locate the spare tire in the trunk of one of Stan Griffin’s cars.

The BISM retreat leaders knew that students were more likely to take their passenger responsibilities seriously if they first had a chance to get in the driver’s seat. A local driving school, Drive Rite, was kind enough to volunteer a student-driver car and instructor for the morning to let Maryland’s blind teens have a chance to take the wheel, and they relished it. Every single participant learned how to start the ignition, find the mirrors, adjust the seat, hit the gas, apply the brake, and shift gears. They drove in forward and reverse, made 3-point turns, and learned to park. And just because these blind students would not be driving as part of routine life, did they feel that this experience was irrelevant to their lives? You bet not. Sight is not a prerequisite for mechanical savvy or pleasure—just ask NFB President Marc Maurer, a self-professed car buff himself, who rebuilt an 8-cylinder engine on his own at the age of eighteen.

Accordingly, the workshop’s emphasis on the importance of car-competent blind staff and volunteers reflected NFB and BISM philosophies. Okay, so the counselors probably couldn’t overhaul an engine. But their combined experiences figuring out automobiles as blind passengers certainly qualified as “car-competence” to the teens, who reported learning a great deal from the knowledge and anecdotes of their blind role models, mentors, and instructors throughout the weekend.

While half the group experienced the thrill of the open—well—parking lot, the rest got behind the scenes in Stan Griffin’s auto shop (the groups switched later in the day). Stan provided rental cars from his own business and set the teens up in the four car-bays at his garage. Students were encouraged to explore the cars tactilely inside and out, an opportunity many had never been given. With counselors, Stan, and the cadre of family members looking on, the teens tried to figure out how to adjust air conditioning vents; likely places to find a tire jack; how to identify a lug wrench; how to release the hood from inside the car, find the mechanism under the hood itself to release it all the way, and find the metal arm to hold it up; how to open the trunk; and more.

Once they knew the basics of navigating car interiors, the real work began: learning to change a flat. Little did the volunteer tire-changers know that their skills would be put to real use when parent volunteer Barbara Cheadle discovered that she had—you guessed it—an unexpected flat tire! Three of the students, under the direction of Rachel’s dad, Dan Becker, eagerly applied their new knowledge to the emergency, and soon had Cheadle’s Ford Escort road-ready again.

But there is more to road safety than the adventure of changing a flat tire. There is the much less glamorous business of checking the fluids. Much of Saturday afternoon was spent poking around under the hood looking for that slim apparatus called the oil stick. Using tactile cues, students learned to find the stick by themselves, rather than relying on the “It’s over there” that is all too often voiced in impatience or even misguided helpfulness to blind youth. Sometimes the most helpful sound is silent patience.

By the time the students were done with the physical part of the day, they’d gained experience that would not only boost their confidence as passengers, but could genuinely improve their safety in a road emergency situation. As they were to learn during the evening wrap-up, conducted by BISM counselor Ellen Ringlein, knowledge of car safety is only one way to be a responsible passenger, and I am talking about more than not poking your driver in the head with a clumsy cane.

That said, not poking your driver in the head with a clumsy cane is rather an important aspect of being a responsible passenger. Though many blind persons believe that a long white cane becomes a hindrance in a car, students in “What You ‘Auto’ Know” learned otherwise. Ellen asked her students to get out their canes and go through the motions with her as she simulated stowing your cane first from a front-seat position, then a back-seat one. Students learned that from the front, you slide the handle of your cane back between the seat and the wall until it fits all the way into the car; similarly, from the back you slide the tip of your cane forward between the seat and the wall. Given some time and a no-pressure environment, students were able to perfect this technique.

They also learned methods for being—or at least seeming like—knowledgeable passengers. Every blind person has their own taxi-driver nightmare story, but hopefully these kids can avoid those situations now that they know to ask the right questions: What streets divide the city into North and South? What about East and West? What are the names of the neighborhoods we’re driving through? What are some important landmarks to know, and how far are they from each other? How does the fare structure work? What’s outside the window now—and should I tell the driver to look for that on the way home? Students also had a chance to feel tactile drawings of road signs so that they could better understand what drivers look for and respond to when they drive.

Anyone who’s “been taken for a ride,” whether intentionally by a wayward taxi driver or innocently by a directionally-challenged friend, knows that blind passengers must learn techniques to take control of getting from A to B on their own terms. The more the teens learned now, counselors reminded them, the better off they would be later down the line when they began to schedule and pay drivers on a regular basis. In an open-table discussion, students and counselors talked about the important topics of how much to pay for gas, offering to help load/ unload the car, treating cars with respect (don’t scrape or bang doors, don’t leave your trash inside, etc.), and offering to pay for parking. They also learned to make backup plans for transportation, such as asking for bus information from phone information services.

When the day was over, students got to practice mobility skills by riding the duck boat in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and later taking a bus to a much-deserved meal out at Friendly’s. If Saturday was a day of action, Sunday was time for reflection. Students discussed the weekend in a laid-back setting and had a picnic with their parents before they departed.

And when the results came in from those Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) driver’s license tests, Loretta and the BISM crew knew for sure their could-be car-competent teens were on their way. On the post-test, three teens, Rachel Becker, Nikki Singh, and Brian Blevins, received what would be passing scores on the real test! Many sighted teens and adults study months to prepare for this test. Now that really “is” competence.

“What You ‘Auto’ Know” reminded participants that any blind person who has ridden, rides, or might conceivably someday ride in a car ought to know something about them. It reminds those who hear about it that lack of knowledge, not lack of vision, is the real danger for blind persons involved in roadside emergency situations (so find ways to tell your sighted friends about it). Hopefully, it will also inspire young blind travelers to take control of where they are going and how they are getting there by learning to be aware of their surroundings and to direct drivers with confidence.

Maurer writes, speaking of stripping and rebuilding that engine as a teenager, that it required “patience and organization,” qualities he carried over to his leadership of the organized blind.1 Like mechanics, myth-busting too must be patient and organized, for it is the stripping and rebuilding of public opinions and the policy regulations that lap at their heels. At the end of the day, it is simply not enough to say to a blind person “It’s over there,” and it is simply not enough to say to a sighted person “the myth is wrong.” Mechanics and myth-busting require a more tactile approach, and consciously or not, students in last year’s car clinic learned a little bit about both. Through their actions and knowledge, they will now be living, tactile cues to the sighted world that the myth is wrong. Though it is tempting to shout it, impatiently, on every corner, sometimes the most helpful Voice of the Blind encourages without sound.


  1. Maurer, Marc. “To Race with Blindness: The Car and the College Student,” from the twenty-fourth volume of the NFB Kernel books series: The Car, the Sled, and the Butch Wax, © 2003, National Federation of the Blind.
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