MY DECISION TO become an archaeologist like my hero Indiana Jones led me to drag my parents on far-flung adventures, clambering over ruins and hunting for dinosaurs.
And although I discovered in later years that archeology and blindness do not a make for an easy career, my love of travel never abated.
I was born with achromatopsia – a rare genetic condition where my retina contains no cone cells. I’m completely colour blind, severely short-sighted (considered legally blind), and have no depth perception. Still, I’ve traveled solo, with tour groups, and with my husband throughout New Zealand and all over the world.
From my experiences, I’ve compiled following five tips for visually impaired travelers:
1. Rent a Campervan
If you’re travelling with someone who can drive, consider hiring a campervan. You can arrange the space to suit your needs, so you’ll easily be able to find your things. Your companion drives while you chill out. Or (in my case) your companion – in a brief moment of insanity – allows you to take the wheel and you promptly glide the vehicle towards a tree.
Frequent stops at interesting places along the way alleviate the boredom of long-distance driving. You don’t worry about the minefield of problems with public transport, and you’re not sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings every night. Make sure to pack good music.
2. Travel Connected
Internet cafés don’t provide adequate zoom or speech technology for vision impaired users, so if you can’t travel without the internet, you’ll need to bring your own laptop, cables, wireless unit, and software. I’m never without my laptop when I travel. It’s imperative to check out useful sites like Matador before I hit my next destination.
I use Zoomtext software, which gives me customisable magnification and font/colour programs. I can change the look of the screen and the font and icon size to whatever I want.
Zoomtext has audio features, but they’re not as good as programs like JAWS, which is designed especially for fully-blind computer users.
Since decent large print city maps are nearly impossible to come by, I simply enlarge Google maps on my screen, although JAWS sometimes has difficulty with map programs.
3. Consider a Tour Group
Blind travelers have to take additional care when planning travel: sourcing routes through cities and across countries, locating adequate facilities, and booking special guided tours. With a tour group, you don’t worry about most of this.
Transport, accommodation, sightseeing – it’s all taken care of. Many tour group leaders have some disability awareness training and will assist you with specific needs. There are tour companies who specialise in blind tours (look on Disabled Travelers or ask your local blindness institute for advice).
I’m a social person, so mixing coach tours with solo travel helps me meet new and interesting people, and takes the hassle out of planning certain legs of my trip. I prefer good old fashioned budget backpacking tours, and I’ve found companies like Tucan Travel, Topdeck Tours and Kumuka friendly, helpful, and encouraging.
4. Plan Ahead to Touch
Rob Gardner, a retired engineer, was travelling to Greece and wanted – more than anything – to see the Parthenon. The only problem was that Rob’s completely blind, and the Parthenon sits behind a scaffold and fence where no tourist is allowed to enter.
So he wrote to his local Greek consulate, and they liaised with the Greek government and granted Rob special permission to cross the fence and stand inside the Parthenon, touch the stones, and walk where no tourist has walked for a hundred years.
Many museums and art galleries develop special tours for the blind, where objects from the collection can be touched. These have to be booked in advance, especially for famous museums like the Louvre and the British Museum.
If you want a unique experience over and above the average traveller, try one of these tours.
5. Inform and Educate About Blindness
I know that many people who are blind prefer to keep their disability private, and I totally respect and understand their reasons for this. Ignorant people treat us like we’re crippled, deaf, and / or stupid even though the only thing wrong with us is that our eyes don’t work properly.
I’ve heard horror stories of airlines forcing blind passengers to sit in wheelchairs while staff members push them between connecting flights. There are numerous cases of airlines rejecting blind passengers after they’re assumed to be a safety risk.
Despite the limitations placed on blind travellers – not by themselves, but by society – I always inform others about my disability. I tick the box at the airline saying ‘blind passenger‘ and the staff make extra certain I’m in the right place. When using public transport, someone will help me onto the correct train, and will often give me a discount.
In many areas of the world, a blind person walking the street is a rare sight. Be prepared for curious questions, and use your travels to educate others about disabilities.
Many people from poor areas do not understand how a westerner can still be blind – their neighbours wear glasses or have cataracts removed and their eyesight is cured. I’m always encouraged by friendly locals to try on their glasses. I smile and say thank you and try to explain that my condition is incurable.
Above all, being a blind traveller is all about seeing the world in your own way. Without sight, I’ll never have the same experiences as a normal traveller. But my experiences so far have been awesome, and any blind person can find their way in the world and create their own memorable travel stories.
For a fantastic and inspiring historical travel read, check out Jason Roberts’ A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler.