Skip to main content
Two people are walking in the park. One of them is using a cane. He refers to the topic of orientation in space as a blind person.MART PRODUCTIONS z Pexels

Today, I would like to talk a bit about the issue of spatial orientation. Right away, I’ll mention that my perspective in this regard may differ from that of someone who is completely blind from birth or who uses a white cane but still has some remaining vision. I became blind in adulthood, so I had to learn about the world anew. Previously, I didn’t fully realize how different this process would be compared to my previous ways of perceiving space.

Noise and Chaos

I would define the first moments of learning spatial orientation as noise, chaos, and uncertainty. The horizon of the wide space surrounding me narrowed down to literally a few dozen centimeters because, with the help of a white cane, I could only somewhat discern the ground about one step ahead. Notice that I haven’t mentioned anything above. It’s deliberate because as I move along the streets, I often bump into bushes, trees, handrails, or other protruding elements of buildings with my face or clothes.

In the initial days of learning, the sounds of the surroundings reached me as one big, overwhelming wave of unrecognizable chaos, an overpowering onslaught of information. I suppose that in the first days of using hearing aids, people with mild hearing impairments may feel something similar, as the brain needs to learn to process an increased number of signals.

Normal street noise has somewhat become routine for me over time, but when I encounter a lawnmower or pneumatic hammer on the road… Well, I quickly lose my orientation. In this context, add a joyfully passing tractor or garbage truck, and it becomes dense with sounds.
In rain and wind, there’s an additional layer of distortions to the acoustic space, so I leave the hood or umbrella to others. I know that in winter, wearing a hat is unavoidable, but I simply don’t like the auditory distortions associated with it. Similarly, I only use gloves in the harshest blizzards and cold, because the cues provided by the cane must be precise.

How does spatial orientation happen?

Technically speaking, a white cane is used to determine the space ahead. When the tip of the cane hits a curb, a building, a trash can, or a lamppost, the vibration associated with it is transmitted to the wrist. When I encounter a curb, stairs, a slope, or a terrain depression, the cane adjusts accordingly, either lowering, stopping at the object, or encountering a hole, the depth of which needs to be checked.
In some cities, additional aids facilitating the use of a white cane are placed on sidewalks. For example, you may come across attention fields before pedestrian crossings. These are rougher surfaces where dots are arranged in such a way that a blind person can recognize that there’s a pedestrian crossing. In some buildings with wide communication routes, such as railway stations, there are also guiding lines. These are specially designed grooves that can be easily found with a white cane, allowing one to maintain a straight line and reach a specific destination without having to walk along the walls of buildings or walk “on azimuth,” which is practically impossible for a blind person.

What spaces are the most challenging?

As I mentioned earlier, I dislike open, wide spaces without reference points. When I move along the streets, I bounce off curbs, building walls, and other objects, which helps me understand where I am. Problematic places also include inadequately secured scaffolding or road construction sites, which disorient me.

When I ask you for directions, remember that:
I can’t see where “there” is when you point with your hand.
My cane is not just a pointer. It provides me with important information, so don’t move it without additional verbal information or an invitation from me.
I can’t see what you see, so don’t push me or guide me from behind. My horizon is exactly one step.
Please don’t tell me how many meters until I reach a left or right turn. I am still determining how many steps such a distance might entail.
If you don’t know how to help and want to, simply ask. Don’t assume you know. I also had to learn to be blind, so I understand that it’s not intuitive.

I assure you that when I ask you for directions or assistance, I’m genuinely scared that I will get lost somewhere. I’ve gotten lost in familiar areas before, so I might ask for help when I’m just 4 steps away from my destination. It has happened to me more than once.

What about leisurely walks in the park?

There are no leisurely walks in the park for me. Moving into space with a white cane requires a lot of concentration. I have to focus on the route even when I’m going to a place for the umpteenth time. The situation on the road is dynamic, so just because I’ve learned a specific route doesn’t mean I’ll easily traverse it next time.

How do I discover new places?

It’s quite a complex process. When I go to a particular location once or twice, I usually get there by taxi and then ask for help finding the specific destination. This would be the case, for example, for a bank branch or a rarely visited, small shop. I hardly ever go to shopping malls alone. However, for routes essential to my daily functioning, such as to a local shop, post office, pharmacy, or parcel locker, I simply have to learn them with the help of an orientation instructor who goes through the route with me several times. Initially, we plan each section with the help of reference points, such as curbs, building walls, lawns, and others, which allow for effective and safe arrival at the destination.

Are there routes that I couldn’t learn?

Definitely. The inability to independently traverse a certain road has happened to me many times. The most problematic were usually places surrounded by large parking lots, where the instructor couldn’t help me find the right reference points.

To sum up

When you walk through the city, your sight seeks familiar reference points, allowing for quick orientation in space and planning an adequate route. My horizon is exactly one step, and the reference points are on the ground. So when you meet me on the street, forgive me if I accidentally bump you with my white cane or ask about the number of the approaching bus at the stop. Moving in space, amidst the hustle, chaos, and many mixed signals, is not easy for me. I’m learning to overcome my reluctance to explore new places, but I realize that as I learn the intricacies of navigating space as a blind person in adulthood, I may never master them well. And that means that in an unknown space, I won’t feel “at home.

Barbara Filipowska

Barbara Filipowska

Audytor dostępności