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Blind rage

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The other day I was in the area of a local mall, having dropped by for a regular errand. It was early, the mall was still closed, and it was relatively peaceful.

I noticed a father and son who were on a walk, mostly because it looked like the younger guy was blind and the older guy, who I assumed was his dad, seemed to be helping his son learn the ropes. I’m making a lot of assumptions here, but bear with me.

Another assumption I made while observing them for a short while was that the son, who looked like in his early 20s, seemed to be new at being blind, based on the tentative way he was moving. He had the blind person’s collapsible stick, but based on what I saw, he wasn’t that good yet at using it.

They were walking along the jeepney bay of the mall, and the dad was pointing out to him the standing sign (no parking I think), probably to show him how it could be an obstacle and a hazard. They were touching the side of the metal sign together, the dad helping him feel it, maybe so he could “see” how he could run into it if he couldn’t detect it with his stick.

Anyway, the duo first caught my attention because of the obvious love of the father for his son, who was probably relearning everything all over again. The way he was leading, protecting, and teaching, the best way he could, was really a touching sight that was able to warm my cold heart.

Anyway, after interacting with the standing metal sign together, they moved on and proceeded to cross the street. At this point, the dad folded up his blind son’s stick, and they stood there, waiting for an opportunity to safely cross the street.

At this point, I had to go already, but I already knew the conclusion to that story. Together, they may be able to cross the street that morning, but the blind son, even if he masters the art of the stick ala the superhero Daredevil, will never be able to cross a street alone in any of our towns and cities because what we have is definitely not built to be PWD friendly. If our streets and sidewalks are already almost impossible to navigate for those in wheelchairs due to the lack of ramps and the many hazards and obstacles, that morning opened my eyes on just how impossible it would be for the blind.

At that point, my usually cold but recently warmed heart, broke because of the plight of the blind young man, and I knew right there and then what my next article would be about.

We don’t think about it because we are not blind. And our public officials don’t bother over it because even if they have blind offspring, they move around in air conditioned SUV convoys, with yayas and bodyguards that mean they never have to cross any of our streets on their own. But if you come to think of it, despite all the lip service and a bit of effort, our cities are simply not PWD friendly, especially for the blind.

Imagine how a blind person, even if extremely adept at using their cane, would cross any of our streets, where signaled pedestrian crossings rarely exist and work properly, and when they do, there are no additional tools such as audible signals or tactile markings installed to help the blind safely cross the street.

I’m going to be annoying once more and compare the Philippines to Japan, which might be a bit unfair as the latter has one of the most blind-friendly sidewalks in the world.

Anyone who has walked the sidewalks of Japan would notice its ‘Tenji blocks’, or tactile paving, which has been standardized in transport stations and public places. Also called Braille blocks, this innovation has become a standard and universal design applied not only in Japan, but other parts of the developed world.

These embedded plates that were invented in Okayama City in 1967 and standardized in 2001, allow the visually impaired to navigate their environment through touch. Tenji blocks have patterns that help indicate different safety or hazard conditions, such as raised dots for “caution” or long parallel strips that mean “safe to move ahead.” They are also used to identify the boundary between the footpath and the road. These bright yellow blocks traverse the whole of Japan now.

Aside from the Tenji blocks, there are auditory signals at street crossings, telling the blind when it is safe to cross. These tactile blocks and sidewalk sounds are instantly familiar to anyone who has been in the country, and if you understand what they are for, it blows the mind how their government has been improving their society to make it accessible for all humans of all abilities.

I know it’s too much to ask to have something like Japan for our blind, given the chaotic state of our sidewalks and street crossings, which seem to have been given zero thought by public officials, but maybe it is time we opened our eyes to just how tough the lives of the PWD are because of that lack of thought. While a PWD card and accompanying discount may be nice, the true degree of concern of a city or country for its PWD population can be seen in its sidewalks and infrastructure.

In the past, the test I had been pushing has been for public officials to navigate our sidewalks using a wheelchair, just to see how crappy it is for PWDs. Perhaps we should add a wrinkle to that test, by making them do it while blindfolded. It would be nice to see if any of them are brave or stupid enough to give it a try.*

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