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.
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?
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."