A Blind Techie in a Big City

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Is New York a good place to be blind? Or do all those cracked sidewalks, rampaging bike messengers, potholes and a populace that is in perpetual, clattering motion make this city even more imposing to the blind than it is for other newcomers?

By the estimate of one group, Visions/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, there are 60,000 blind New Yorkers, and another 363,000 with severe visual impairment. So making generalizations is risky business. But for some of them, at least, there are things about New York that make it a great city for the blind; a few years ago the American Foundation for the Blind even named it one of the country's most livable communities.

And so, perhaps it shouldn't surprise that when Chancey Fleet arrived here from Virginia six years ago, she knew she wanted to stay. There's an extravagant network of mass transit, for one, making jobs and nightlife easy to access. But in a sense, what drew Chancey was what draws so many other people to New York: the chance to blend in while simultaneously charting a new course.

Chancey is 28 and works as an Adaptive Technology Specialist for the Jewish Guild for the Blind on the Upper West Side, instructing others in the latest software and hardware. She thus serves not only as a teacher, but as an example of the possibilities of blind life in the 21st century. Her house, in Sunset Park, is filled with gadgets. One of them intones, in perfect, soothing fembot, the color of any garment she runs it over. Another reads out the latest articles from The Atlantic -- don't expect to understand a word, however, because most of the time Chancey speeds it up to 380 words per minute. Really, who has the time for anything less?

Chancey was an early adopter. Her parents gave her a laptop when she was in kindergarten, overcoming the protests of her skeptical teachers. The Toshiba, she recalled, could do about two things.

"You could word process and you could play Zork, which is a text adventure game," she said. "Like, you're standing in a dark room and there's a lantern lying askew on the floor. And you type 'pick up lantern.'  And then if it's a poison lantern you die!" she laughed.

Her parents were pushy in other ways as well. For one, they made sure she wasn't made to sit on the sidelines during gym class. And although they got her extra braille training to ensure her proficiency, she was also encouraged to go on long tandem bike rides with her mother.

These days, Chancey still goes tandem biking, but now with her fiance, Oscar, who is not blind. They met online, through OK Cupid, and bonded over their mutual love for the Mountain Goats. They also tend garden together and, on warm days, they might project movies onto a backyard wall.

"One of the good things about Oscar is that he can narrate a movie, without overdoing it," she said. "I've dated or been friends with some people that will go ahead and take the opportunity to narrate the movie as a way to say what they think is going to happen, and what they think about the characters, and how pretty that lamp is. And it leads me to not wanting to spend cinematic time with them, ever."

As we set out for the subway with Oscar and her housemate, Craig Eckhardt, Chancey confessed a pet peeve: pedestrians who seem totally thrown off at the sight of a blind person. Thankfully, this is much less common in New York than elsewhere. Her advice?

"It helps if you say 'Good morning,'" she said, "because then I'll know exactly where you are."

Equally bad, said Craig, who is blind and teaches at Visions, are those strangers who seem hellbent on lending a hand.

"So many people think it's appropriate just to go up and grab somebody without asking. They're like, "Here, let me help!'" he said.

Inside the subway station, Craig showed us how he trains blind clients how to navigate the platform, by sensing the yellow bumps along the edges, or finding trash cans or benches that can keep one oriented.

Making one's way around the city is just one obstacle to becoming socially independent, or employable. There's also the unseemly matter of "blindisms," Chancey's term for bad habits, including the "Stevie Wonder headshake."

"Because people feel pity for you or whatever, they don't necessarily stop the behavior and it becomes a habit," said Craig. "Whereas my parents, I used to rock, and one day my dad slammed me against a wall and said "Don't do that ever again!" And that was that!" he said, laughing.

In many ways, the city is more navigable for a blind person than for someone who is, say, wheelchair bound. Think of all those inaccessible subway platforms, or even worse, the rare subway elevator that's out of order. The human density of the city, for all its drawbacks, also serves an advantage to blind residents: it means that finding someone who can point the way to a certain address isn't as hard as it would be in less crowded cities.

At Columbus Circle, Chancey leaves the subway system and surfaces, a few blocks from her office. But just when I thought we were in the clear, we hit a construction zone, and Chancey became completely disoriented. The sound of jackhammers was deafening, and blocked out any normal sound cues that she'd normally use to make her way forward. It didn't help that the sidewalk was blocked off.

At last, we arrived at her office, at the Jewish Guild for the Blind. More gadgets, everywhere. At a few of the computers lining the walls, clients of the Guild sat and slowly learned to become tech-proficient. One of them was Yvonne Whitehurst, who started losing her vision four years ago, from diabetes.

sdfasdfasd "One of my goals is to try and do my own business, because I'm a bookkeeper by trade, and I also know how to prepare taxes," she said, as Chancey coached her in the use of magnification software. "So I need the computer in order to stay in the worksforce."


For all her expertise, Chancey is ambivalent about technology. Will it serve as a liberator for countless blind people, the vast majority of whom are unemployed? Or will it be just one more thing that threatens to leave them behind?

sdfasdfasd "We don't all know how to use it," she said. "You can walk into a New York Public Library if you're sighted, and you at least have the hope that someone there might be able to show you how to use Google, how to use the databases. but if you're blind, and you walk into the average place where you're supposed to get reference and help, or you go to Best Buy to buy a computer, they won't have the expertise to help you."

But in hopes of getting a little closer to some answers, she's enrolled at CUNY, for a graduate degree in disability studies. And in the meantime, she's enjoying the bounty of the city, and the tough, uncompromising locals that come with it.

"When I was in Virginia, I was the only blind person that they knew. And they just thought I was great and amazing, so I thought I was great and amazing," she said. "It doesn't really fly like that in New York, because there are a lot of working blind people and there are a lot of people that are going to school and have two jobs and have families and it’s more of a reality check up here. You’re not going to be lionized just for being able to walk out your door and get to work."


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Comments [11]

Luz Marina Rosenfel from Doral, Florida

Florida, Doral, this city is built for us the blind and visually impaired. I am getting with many people from the city hall of Doral to continue this great project. My life was as normal as a person driving, and my life change with a stroke. Retinal oclusion, and them nerve damage, is was a blow but my life was full of goals, that gave me strengh to continue this wonderful life in the darkness.
In this area I go to College from 9 am to 6 pm, in the morning I am drop in the gym, and them to class. I dedicated my time emailing to company trying to get great donations for the Miami Lighthouse. Is never finish for me my work for this excellent Instutituon. We do Events for Massage Chairs. My life is a big turn of 360 degrees but it was for the better. Now I advocated for the blind and visually impaired, because the expectancy is so little, we have a vision problem that is it.. Please be patient and continue going forward, do not allow no one to step in your feet, fight for your rights.
And I forgot, Guide dogs, service animals, how ignorant people are about this wonderful creatures that help us for nothing in return but love.
I believe god bless me being blind, because I feel bless. As long I am here in this earth my work will be devoted for the blind and visually impaired. Thank you God for giving me this job.

May. 16 2012 06:20 PM
Luz Marina Rosenfeld from Doral, Florida

I live in Doral, Florida, I call this city for the bling. In each conrner their is dots for you to know the end of each block. I can navigated very well, we have install about 4 Talking signals and the rest I am with the knowlege how to cross the streets and navigated my guide dog.

Mar. 11 2012 10:41 PM

This article was interesting. I found it trying to find things to do in NY as a person with blindness. Does anyone have suggestions on good places with lots of tactile and sensory attractions in the Manhattan, Brooklyn, or NJ areas? I will be doing the special tour from at the Met, and would love to get a tactile tour of the bodies exhibit. Thank you greatly for any suggestions!

Mar. 15 2011 04:32 PM
Sara from Wisconsin

Nice article. Interesting, informative, respectful of people who are blind. Then, wham! Like a physical stop, I come up against the phrase "wheelchair bound." People who use wheelchairs are jus that -- people who use wheelchairs, or wheelchair users. They are not "bound." Wheelchairs are liberating for people with mobility impairments. It's the environment that creates the barriers to getting around.

Dec. 20 2010 12:58 PM
Jose from Manhattan

Great story and very accurate - I've been blind for 15 years. "The English Patient" was the first movie I 'saw' after becoming blind. Needless to say, my ex and I almost broke up: I wanted to hear alll the details and he got confused with all the flashbacks, etc. I later learned a better way to watch TV/movies. Now I enjoy "Dancing with the Stars.." :)

Dec. 09 2010 09:57 AM
Scott from Flushing, NY

I used to date Chancey and she's right...I narrate movies too much...but she didn't dump cuz of that...

Dec. 09 2010 07:25 AM
Jay Durnan from Jersey City, Edison and New Brunswick NJ

Awesome Story. I'm a legally blind adult with the same Job and the same age as this young lady in the story. I live in NJ and hit up NYC all the time. This is the greatest area for transportation and for that reason alone it would make it hard for me to ever want to leave it.

Dec. 07 2010 11:14 AM
Jenine S. from Columbus Ohio

Nice article. One of my dearest friends lives in Manhattan and wouldn't live anywhere else as a blind person. It is such a rush every yearfor 4 blind women to go out into NYC, shop, do all the "chick stuff" women do, and feel absolutely invisible, save our guide dogs. I just wish the author had done a little language checking though. People who use wheelchairs aren't "wheelchair bound". that denotes bondage. They use wheelchairs to get around. They leave those chairs to do other life activities, like bathing, sleeping and well, use your imagination, but "bound" or "confine" is about as offensive as all those metaphores about blindness and darkness.

Dec. 07 2010 11:07 AM
Joanne Chack from Dumont, NJ

I work with a blind 15 year old student. She is brillant especially with computers, but mobility wise, not so great. Your story was of particular interest to I brailled your story for her to read. Thank you and keep up the great work!
Joanne - Dumont HS, Dumont, NJ

Dec. 07 2010 09:09 AM
Mike from Sunset Park

I happen to live next door to Chancey and Oscar, and I am continually impressed with how effectively she navigates the city. Thanks for this story!

Dec. 07 2010 08:35 AM
Marjorie Madfis

Great feature. I have a brother with visual impairment from RP so this was especially of interest to me. He happens to be an architect and can still see well enough to see all the ADA violations in construction that are dangerous to people with low or no vision.

Dec. 07 2010 07:54 AM

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