December 6, 2010

An ear-opener: Teaching the blind to navigate streets

Maine at Work: A coach for the visually impaired finds satisfaction in delivering tools that foster independence.

By Ray Routhier
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Using a cane to guide himself, Wayne Lawson walked along the sidewalk on Lancaster Street toward the busy intersection with Elm Street.

click image to enlarge

Reporter Ray Routhier, center, shadows Caitlyn Blodget as she instructs Wayne Lawson of Portland, who is visually impaired, how to get around outdoors using a cane.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Reporter Ray Routhier, right, waits at a street corner with Wayne Lawson of Portland, who is learning how to navigate sidewalks and streets with the help of a cane. Lawson, whose visual impairment can vary, is wearing a sleep mask to simulate blindness.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer


TITLE: Orientation and mobility instructor, Maine Department of Labor -- Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

WORKER: Caitlyn Blodget, 43, of Portland.

HOURS: 32 hours a week, flexible, dependent on clients' schedules.

SALARY: $35,000 to $48,000 a year (based on 40 hours).

DUTIES: Helping people with varying degrees of vision problems, including blindness, learn how to get around on their own; specific duties include teaching clients how to use a cane and how to navigate streets and sidewalks, including learning how to listen to cars, pedestrians and other noise to figure out traffic and traffic light patterns and determine the best time to cross.

SURPRISING FACTS: One of the best times for a visually impaired person to cross a busy intersection is when he hears a surge of traffic going parallel to them; when driving, it's not helpful to yell to a blind person that it's OK to cross a street, because you can't see all the various factors that may affect his or her crossing.

PERKS: Working with people from all walks of life and helping them gain mobility, freedom and a new perspective on life.


MAINE AT WORK takes an interactive look at iconic, visible or just plain interesting jobs done by folks in Maine. Reporter Ray Routhier shadows a worker or workers, reports what he sees and tries his hand at some of the job's duties.

IF YOU'D LIKE to suggest a job to be explored in this feature, e-mail or call 791-6454.

I walked a good five feet behind him, as I had been instructed to do by Caitlyn Blodget, an orientation and mobility instructor with the Maine Department of Labor's Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

Blodget has been working with Lawson for months, teaching him the strategies and methods he needs to navigate sidewalks, streets and intersections on his own. For the moment, she wanted to give Lawson some space and see how well he was learning to use the cane as a navigational tool.

Once Lawson found his way to the corner -- by the slope of the sidewalk cut and the sound of traffic he knew he was at the corner -- he positioned himself to cross Lancaster. But before he could do that, Blodget asked him a series of questions to help him analyze his situation.

"What do you hear?" Blodget asked.

"I don't hear any traffic right now, it's quiet," Lawson replied.

"What about masking noises, do you hear any of those?" Blodget asked.

"I hear the rope of a flagpole flapping. I hear some noise coming from (a nearby manufacturer)," said Lawson, 43, of Portland.

"So if you're at a quiet spot, with masking noise, is that the best place to cross?" Blodget asked.

Lawson knew the answer. So we all waited for the noise of traffic.

Blodget explained that when crossing parallel to a busy street, one of the safest ways to cross is to wait until you can hear a surge of traffic on that street. Specifically, listen to make sure cars sound like they have enough momentum to go past you, that they aren't turning into the street you're crossing.

Lawson was curious about drivers slowing down to turn right on a red light. What is the best way to prepare for that?

"You get your cane out there, you get where they can see you, and if everything else is right, you go. It's a leap of faith. Crossing any street is a leap of faith," said Blodget.

Lawson didn't feel confident about crossing at most of the street corners we came to, so Blodget guided him across. Part of the reason, she said, was that using his cane as a guide hadn't yet become second nature to Lawson.

Lawson is not totally blind. He experiences ocular migraines, which trigger long periods of blindness and make it nearly impossible for him to see at night, or in bright light. His condition is getting worse, but there are times when his sight is good, so he doesn't use his cane all the time.

As he practiced with Blodget, he wore a sleep shade to make sure he could not see.

Blodget decided that for most of her hourlong session with Lawson on this day, she would guide him across intersections and have him focus on analyzing sounds and traffic patterns while at corners. Lawson, while not completely trusting his hearing, appeared adept at identifying pedestrians, bicyclists and other noises that would affect a crossing.

As we walked around downtown Portland, Blodget let me guide Lawson for a while. She said it is important not to physically pull or push a visually impaired person along. The best way is let them hang on to you, then tell them whatever they need to know to walk with you safely.

So I held my left elbow close to my side and let Lawson grab it. Then I began to walk slowly down Preble Street. I quickly noticed there was a valve head of some kind sticking up from the sidewalk in Lawson's path. I moved to my right so he could avoid it, but had to duck my head to avoid being bonked by a no-parking sign.

(Continued on page 2)

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