Getting around when you can't see

I win something at my school prize-giving. On my way off the stage I misjudge the stairs and stumble badly. What sounds like a cacophony of laughter ensues.

A few years on I can smile and shrug off things like this – something my teenage self couldn't quite manage. What hasn't changed though, is that life is still filled with getting lost and knocking into things – only thing is that the setting is now business meetings and cocktail parties.

Getting around when you are blind, or just very "partially" sighted like I am, can be an absolute nightmare. Fortunately though, more and more tools exist to make navigating the physical world if not a breeze, then something not especially painful.

With guide dogs, canes, GPS cell phones, sonar sensors, and special binoculars, the possibilities are various, and increasing by the day.

Help from a pro
Whether you were born blind, or are suddenly losing your sight in middle-age, it is a good idea to meet up with a professional mobility trainer.

These people can be invaluable in helping you to make use of all the tools available to you and thereby help you to adapt and to reclaim as much of your independence as possible. Asking for help may not always be easy, but it pays off in the long-run.

The white cane
Probably one of the most effective of adaptive technologies is also one of the simplest. The iconic white cane may seem like little more than a stick, but it is extremely effective. Not only does it help you to detect objects in your way, it is also an excellent guide to stairs, bumps, and changes in surface texture.

In addition, white canes have become a symbol of blindness, and as such are sometimes also used by people who still have some sight left. Such token canes can help people with poor vision by warning other walkers to get out of the way.

The social magnet
Guide dogs offer an attractive alternative for blind people who are not that adept at using canes. Unlike a stick, dogs can see, which makes them more capable of adapting to the environment.

But with great power comes great responsibility. Guide dogs are not pets, in any normal sense – they are companions, and in a sense employees. They go with you wherever you go – getting one is a big responsibility.

Thus, even though they may in some ways offer increased independence, this is to some extent offset by the fact that having a dog with you can be cumbersome and limiting in other ways.

Furthermore, guide dogs have the added benefit, or drawback, of acting as a social magnet. When out on the town, you are almost invariably bound to be accosted by some animal lover who wants to pat your companion.

According to the South African Guide dogs Association Training a guide dog costs about R7 500.

Picking up the pulses
Some blind people also make use of sonar glasses or sonar canes to increase their mobility.

Similar to the way in which a bat gathers information from its environment, these devices send out pulses, which reflect off objects in the surrounding area. The pulses are then turned into sounds or vibrations, which indicate the location of objects.

Such devices are however still relatively expensive and not widely used.

Knowing where you are
Not walking into obstacles is one part of the mobility problem. Another is knowing where you are, particularly when navigating unknown terrain.

The use of technologies such as GPS (global positioning system) together with sophisticated maps is already helping people in some countries keep track of exactly where they are. Providing the area you are in is mapped, such systems are able to tell you things such as: "The street to your right is Church Street, and to your left is a cinema."

For people with low vision, specially designed binoculars may offer a simpler solution. These can be invaluable for reading street and shop names.

As with most adaptive technologies though, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you are struggling with vision problems we recommend getting in touch with some of the organisations listed at the bottom of this article or contacting vendors of adaptive technologies.

Going long-distance
Not being able to drive a car is one of the most limiting things about severe vision loss. Fortunately though, most of South Africa's major cities have taxi services that can take you anywhere you want to go. These do however tend to be relatively expensive.

And poor sight need not keep you from travelling abroad either. Most airlines these days offer special assistance for people with vision problems. Just make a point of requesting assistance when you book your ticket.

(Max Visagie, Health24, updated October 2008, originally published December 2005)

For more information you can contact the South African National Council for the Blind on (012) 452 3811 or visit their website at

For more information on guide dogs you can contact the South African Guide dogs Association on (011) 705 3512 or visit their website at

Read more:
Reading when you can't see
New technologies change lives

Useful resources:

South African Optometric Association
Tel: 011 805 4517
South African National Council for the Blind (Their website is highly informative and helpful)
Tel: 012 452 3811
Retina South Africa
Tel: 011 622 4904
Ophthalmological Society of South Africa

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