Notes on Traveling Blind from SBL 2017

A photo of the City of Boston from a very high vantage point.

That special time of year has once again come and past, when 10,000 scholars of Bible and religion gather for a long weekend of research presentations, nerdy conversations, and drinks with friends and colleagues who are scattered across the globe.

This year, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature met in Boston. Since it was just a stone’s throw from my former home in Waltham and Brandeis University, where I’m getting my Ph.D., I came in a few days early. It gave me a chance to stay with excellent friends, mete with my dissertation advisors, practice yoga with my first teacher, and eat pancakes at the best breakfast spot in town. Then I found my way into downtown Boston for four very enjoyable days of conference.

Between Waltham and Boston, it was a great opportunity to test and assess my orientation and mobility skills.

You see, in addition to its value as a professional conference, SBL gives me a regular chance to reflect on how my declining sight affects my ability to navigate unfamiliar locations and situations (see last year’s entry here). Most of the year, my life is pretty routine. I take familiar streets and familiar trains to familiar places—not a great challenge. And on most other big trips, I’m accompanied by my family. SBL turns that all on its head, as I find my way solo through busy airports, navigate public transit systems, and search for rooms in cavernous and labyrinthine conference centers.

Last year, the big transition was using my cane throughout the conference, even though I only felt I needed it for safety at night. This year, I can’t imagine having gone without it. Boston is a city of confusing streets, more confusing subway stations, and entirely oblivious speed-walkers—the only downside to my cane was how often sighted people tripped over it.

Overall, though, I’d say this year was a navigational success. I got everywhere I needed to go—perhaps with an extra wrong turn or two, or three, or…

But my point is, I got where I needed to go.

The biggest new challenge this year was balancing my desire for independence with getting help when necessary. Most of the time, I like to figure things out on my own. And most of the time, this is a good thing. I find that bumbling through a confusing route helps me internalize it better than if I’m guided through, and that makes navigating it the next time much easier. Sometimes, however, the time I’d spend finding my own way is just not worth it, and it makes more sense to ask the nearest person where I am and which way to go.

But asking for help is like that proverbial box of chocolates. Or maybe more like a box that’s part chocolates and part over-bearing strangers who just grab right on to you and start dragging you off in god-knows-what direction. And part older European gentlemen who are very concerned that you are going to be all right.

The point being, you never really know what you’re going to get. Sometimes asking for directions brings you into contact with truly delightful people you never would have met otherwise. Other times, it turns into a very unpleasant experience that tests your patience and civility.

One time, as I stood looking confused at a fork in the road, a man came up and asked if I was headed to the conference center (how did he know? I was wearing the scholar uniform of khakis and a corduroy jacket, of course). I said yes, and he asked if I’d like to walk along with him. We spent the next few minutes discussing his upcoming commentary on the Book of Leviticus and my dissertation on psalms, until we reached the center and split off to our respective events. Perfectly pleasant.

Another time, I was trying to find a group of friends in a crowded Italian market/restaurant. I asked an employee where “Il Pesce” was, and without a word he grabbed me by the shoulder, pulled me across the market, and let me loose with just as little ceremony—in front of “La Pasta.” Luckily one of my friends came to fetch me, or I may never have found them.

Another time, an elderly man asked if I needed some direction. When I asked him to point me in the direction of the exhibition hall, he grabbed my arm (much more gently than the last guy, but still) and guided me all the way to the hall, even though I kept telling him I was ok on my own from here (and here, and here). I just couldn’t shake the guy!

I know this might make a lot of you nervous. A lot of people feel uncertain about how best to help visually impaired people and people with other disabilities. “Will they think I’m overbearing, rude, or awkward? Will they hate me for trying to help?” This is understandable—it’s a complicated issue that I hope to dissect more in future posts. But based on my experience so far, I have thought up a few tips that I think will serve you well in deciding how and when to help:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask a blind person if they know where they’re going. I know a lot of good-hearted people who don’t offer help because of the fears mentioned above. I’ll just give you permission: it’s ok to ask a simple question like “Are you all good?” or “Do you need some directions?”
  • BUT, believe the person if they say no, and believe them if they tell you they only need one piece of information, and don’t feel bad walking away once you’ve told them what they asked for.
  • In general—and this is good advice in all of life—don’t just grab people. Exceptions are allowed for imminent danger: falling pianos, quicksand, etc. Otherwise, ask before touching.
  • Better yet, ask if the blind person would like to take your arm. This is best practice for what is called sighted guide, but understand that not all blind people like to take an arm, or at least not all the time. Many of us prefer to walk beside you or a half-step behind, and walk independently with our canes.

Basically, let people tell you how to help them. Listen and trust that they know how to live and function in their own bodies.

On my end, I’m realizing I need to develop my ability to clearly and effectively communicate my needs to those who wish to help. This can be frustrating and difficult in the moment, but the more I think through my experiences and talk with people, the better I get.

Any other questions about how to interact with blind folks? Any other tips from blind travelers? Let me know in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Notes on Traveling Blind from SBL 2017

  1. I’ve been wondering when you would post again, and was thrilled to read this! Eric, it’s ironic that your blog is often like “leading the blind” on our end – our handicap in understanding, or at least getting a glimpse, of what it is you go through everyday. You’re right, I have totally been there witnessing a blind man with a cane on the sidewalk (fearfully too close to to the road I thought) and wondering how do I help, and more importantly, when is the right time to step in and help? Thank you for guiding us through some of these questions. Next time I will have a little more confidence in how I approach him/her while hopefully still respecting their independence. I look forward to reading your upcoming posts!

    I hope your trip was awesome! A dissertation on Pslams?! Seriously!! I am just trying to meet my goal of reading through the Bible in well, two years (since I have one month left of 2017 and am still in 2 Samuel!). You scholars amaze me. Truly.

    Will you and your family be coming to Colorado for Christmas?

    (Guess what!? I started a blog too! It’s not nearly as amazing as yours but writing is a good therapy – wouldn’t you agree?)

    Hope you’re well Eric!

    1. Thanks Rebecca! Unfortunately no trip home for Christmas. We were home for a while this summer and its not in the cards for us to do that twice this year!
      Glad to hear you started a blog! Processing through things is one of the main reasons I started this one, so yes, good therapy! 🙂 I’ll havae to check yours out.
      As for blind folks on the sidewalk—don’t worry too much. The cane tells us where the sidewalk ends, but not until we’re close enough to make sighted people nervous!
      Hope you and your family are doing well, too.

  2. Great post brother.

    I am often paralyzed by not wanting to attend thanks for a little permission.

    I remember when we lived together right down the street for the Institute for the Blind In Littleton. A couple men asked me for directions to it and I obliged (with maybe overly detailed directions). I’ve always kind of wondered if that was the help they need and really wish I had just asked them how I could best help.

    Thanks for your perspective as always!

    1. Thanks brother! It’s kind of a paradox that the people who are sensitive enough to give good help are the same ones who are sensitive enough to fear giving offense. And overly-detailed verbal directions are ok in my book. Better than grabbing.

  3. This was so helpful! I think you are a mind reader. I totally respect and appreciate your saying “no grabbing.” We all need to think before touching anyone, anywhere.

    Your blog is wonderful. I cannot thank you enough

    Julia Brown

  4. Eric, you are a wonderful writer that addressed such an uncommon subject in the life of my wife and I. I read it because we follow Kristin’s instagram page and she referenced it. You had me deep in thought and then laughing out loud as you commented on not being able to shake the guy. You have given me insightful instruction with gentle humor. Thank’s for the window into your life and process. It’s true, sometimes helping is intimidating and I agree that the subway in Boston is very confusing, even when you have 20/20 vision.

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