Local rehab center teaches Virginia’s blind to walk safely

Have you noticed blind students walking around town? Here’s what’s going on, and how you can help.

Have you noticed blind and blindfolded people walking near the intersection of Thompson and Grove in the Near West End, not far from Carytown? I noticed them too and wondered if there was a training program or school for the blind nearby, so I put in a call to Melody Roane to see if she could answer some of my questions. She’s been the director of the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired (VRCBVI) for the past seven years. Founded in 1970, and operating under the state’s Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI), the center is located at 401 Azalea Avenue, just north of Washington Park.

“We work with students on developing skills in blindness, and developing confidence” in those skills, Roane said last week. Those students–mostly adults–come from all over the state to the 20,000-square-foot facility where they learn a variety of skills: reading braille, personal and home management, computer skills, and public navigation.

On average, there are about 20-25 students at the VRCBVI at any given time. While the educational program for each varies, Roane said individualized programs typically last between six to nine months. VRCBVI provides dorms for students, although some locals commute during the day.

Roane said most students are adults; some have lost or diminished vision due to accidents, or from sustaining injuries, like gunshots. Roane said that others are 18-year-olds who “want to come here and get their skills before they go to college.” No matter the age or severity of blindness, Roane said that the program wants to impart life-long skills so students “don’t have to come back to us.”

After students complete an orientation on mobility instruction, Roane said they are then dropped off at various locations around the city “to learn problem-solving skills.” Those skills involve using walking canes and listening to audible clues to ensure safe passage on sidewalks and through intersections. “What they’re listening for is the parallel traffic and the perpendicular traffic,” Roane said.

The center wants students to be confident traversing both familiar and unfamiliar areas alike. One of the reasons why the VRCBVI uses the area surrounding the Thompson and Grove intersection, where I notice them most often, is that there are businesses and homes, along with both busy and idle intersections. It’s a catchall of what students will encounter in the world.1

Roane, who is blind herself, said that the best thing for drivers to do when they see a blind pedestrian–student or experienced–is to follow existing traffic patterns.2 Don’t alter driving behavior on account of the blind. She said that some motorists stop at a green light if they see a blind person who wants to cross the street. Although well-intended, this disrupts audio cues and puts the blind person in potential danger if they cross–just because one driver stops at a green light doesn’t mean the one in the next lane will.

One of the most surprising things I learned in my conversation with Roane involves Accessible Pedestrian Signals. These devices often provide audible indicators at intersections that let blind people know when it’s safe to cross the street. Turns out they aren’t always so safe.

“Those noise indicators…[interfere] with the sound of traffic,” Roane said, thereby nullifying any added safety benefits. And “just because a light turns red, doesn’t mean [drivers] stop,” something those audible indicators don’t relay.

And the blindfolds I’ve see on some of the students? Roane tells me those are called “sleep shades.”

“We do have some students that do have some vision,” she said. And while “it’s a good thing to use the vision that you have,” students are taught “non-vision skills” to increase the confidence and maximize their independence. “The sleep shades are to help them develop those non-visual skills.”

She added that some VRCBVI students may appear uncertain or awkward in public as they learn. “You’re going to see blind people of all different skill levels.” Despite tendencies to help, Roane said it’s best for members of the public to not impose help onto students. “Certainly people are welcome to come up and say, ‘Hi, can I help you?'” But people shouldn’t shuffle students across the street (unless they’re in immediate danger), like some overzealous Good Samaritans have done before.

Instead, Roane asks the public to let the students develop their skills by learning on their own and at their own pace. She said it’s best for pedestrians to simply greet blind passersby with a friendly hello. If the blind person needs help, he or she will likely ask for it.

This last point relates to one of the underlying lessons that VRCBVI teaches its students. The center wants to acclimate people to the presence of the blind, giving each more experience interacting with one another. This fosters comfort and safety. Roane said the only way the blind can do that “is to get out and go places like everybody else does.”

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  1. Students are also placed downtown, and other areas around the region, to diversify their training experience. 
  2. Roane said that motorists will sometimes honk at blind pedestrians. “What does that mean?” she asked rhetorically. The blind can’t discern if the drivers is trying to warn the pedestrian or if the driver is merely saying hello. Either way, it only confuses blind pedestrians. 

photo by Thomas Leuthard

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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