Blindness and not being able to drive – getting around without my own car

When I was growing up, my grandparents always had a car. It was only Granddad who could drive it, so if Nan and I needed to get somewhere when Granddad was at work, we needed to walk, take the bus, or wait. I think this taught me that a car was a good thing to have, but when you don’t have one around, you don’t just have to stay at home.

The car certainly came in useful for things like going to riding lessons and meeting my friends who didn’t live in the village. But certainly when I was at primary school, Nan walked with me in the morning – whatever the weather – and Granddad usually came to pick me up in the afternoon. If it was really bad weather, he’d bring the car, but most of the time we walked. It wasn’t far. And really it was nice to spend time with them.

As I got older, I could have lifts, but I had to pay a small amount if I wanted to go into town. I thought this was really mean at the time, but I suppose it taught me that parents aren’t a taxi service. When I see what some kids – and girlfriends for that matter – expect of their parents and partners, I can kind of see my grandparents’ point. Nobody should be taken for granted. Having said that, my friends didn’t charge petrol money, so getting lifts with them was more cost-effective!

At high school transport became more of an issue because my friends lived further away. I did my a-levels at a school quite far away, and then nobody lived nearby. But people were accommodating and if I was doing anything with people from school, I was usually invited to stay over with one of my friends. There was a lot more to do in the big city than the little village where I lived!

At that time I used to hang around with people who were mostly older than me. Many of them had cars. Some didn’t, and not just because they couldn’t see. I couldn’t contribute to the driving around, but I never felt left behind. I tried to find other things that I could do to help. Maybe it made me try to be a better friend so I didn’t seem the one who was taking favours all the time. But I never really thought much of it because most of my sighted school friends weren’t in a hurry to get a car and start driving.

Moving to London

It was a culture shock moving from my little village to the capital. But it was liberating too. As long as I could get myself to the nearest tube station, I could go anywhere. I just had to think about how to get from the tube station at the other end to where I was going. If it was things like work or favourite restaurants, I learned the way. If it was for one-off things, I met up with friends or took a taxi – most stations had taxi ranks outside. There are also travel benefits for blind people in London that you don’t get in the rest of the country.

I got to know the tube network really well. I learned about the trains. I planned how I would get around so that I could always leave when I wanted to, not when others did. If I was meeting someone for the first time, I suggested central places for us to meet, but made sure they were places that I knew too. I asked questions about places so that I could build up a map in my mind. I practiced things until I felt confident. I had bad days – tourists, roadworks, and confusing layouts will do that to you, but each day was a new start and if I fell, literally or metaphorically, I got up again!

I didn’t spend my time wandering round unfamiliar streets hoping for the best. Some blind people rely on their navigation systems a lot more than I did – but I worked hard to be able to afford that luxury and I don’t apologise for it because I don’t think I have anything to prove. Being able to afford to do all the things I wanted to with the least hassle was an incentive for me to work hard and move up the career ladder. I don’t enjoy getting lost!

It probably helped that this was pretty much the same as what most of my friends and colleagues were doing too. We all got the train home. Many of us got our shopping delivered because taking heavy groceries on the bus was a pain. We all walked a lot.

Also, not all of my taxi journeys were blindness-related. I was happy to pay for one instead of walking home late at night in the dark. It was just the smart thing to do.

When I moved out of central London, many of my friends were able to drive, but very few of them did if they wanted to go into town, which most of us did during the week for work. So cars were never the main way to get around.

Weekends were different. If you wanted to go into the countryside, you really did need a car. We often joked that my friends shared my dog – because they enjoyed taking her for long walks with me – and I shared their car.

Sometimes my friends offered me lifts – either because we were going to the same place, or they found out I was planning something that would be a nightmare on local transport, such as a really early flight when I was travelling alone. I tried to make it up to them in some other way – petrol money, lunch, a couple of beers – it depended on the journey. They never asked, but it felt like the right thing to do. Maybe that’s because of what my grandparents taught me.

Living outside of London

Since I’ve been with S, I’ve got used to being in a household with a car. I quite like it! No more crowded trains, apart from on the rare occasions when we go to London.

S knew from the outset that we wouldn’t be sharing the driving.

If he’s around, he does give me lifts, but I don’t see him as my taxi service. It’s always good to have multiple options when it comes to getting a job done. Public transport isn’t as good here as it was in London, but we do have taxis.

It is harder here because when people choose venues for things, there is a general assumption that people will be driving there – but hey, car pooling is good for the environment and I think it’s ok as long as you don’t take people for granted. I’ve paid for petrol before. I’ve paid for taxis so that friends don’t have to drive all the time. Sometimes I accept lifts from friends who want to be nice. If I can think of something nice to do for them, I’ll do it.

Ultimately, there are a whole host of reasons why some people might struggle with this more than I do. I have my own sight-related struggles. I don’t want to make light of anyone’s feelings of frustrations about not being able to do this, but I did want to share some of my coping strategies because they might help someone else.

Are self-driving cars the answer for blind people?

I’ve seen articles where some blind people are getting really excited about the idea of self-driving cars. But I don’t think they are the answer.

I certainly understand why it feels better to rely on technology instead of a person. My Seeing AI app is great for reading the post, reading labels on beauty products (most of the time), and checking out things in the kitchen. It takes away that step of the process where I need to find a functioning pair of human eyes. But a car?

My first problem with the idea that self-driving cars are the answer to our independent travel problems is that they’re not the only ones on the road. There are other people doing crazy things too. As a passenger, how many times do I hear friends cursing about some other driver being unpredictable, careless, or just really stupid?

The whole point when in charge of a self-driving car is that someone is supposed to be paying attention and step in if something is about to go wrong. I don’t want to be responsible for hitting someone’s dog or small child that wasn’t picked up by the sensors, or ploughing into a vehicle because it was the wrong colour (I read an article about that).

And to be honest, as a pedestrian, I wouldn’t be happy at a driver’s defence if I got hit by a driverless car with a blind person behind the wheel. Sighted people are not supposed to be sprawling out and watching Netflix when they’re at the wheel of driverless cars, so I think it’s a long way before we can see them as the vehicle of choice for people with no usable vision.

Maybe in 50 years someone will find this and have a good laugh – but given what’s available now, I have no urge to start planning for when I just put my destination into a driverless car and hope for the best.

I have been behind the wheel of a car once – a crazy friend decided to give me a lesson in a field in his car. It was fine, apart from the near-miss with the tree! We had a laugh and I learned some things! If I could see I think I’d probably be a fairly safe driver, but I can be pretty intolerant of other people’s stupid behaviour – even as a pedestrian!

I understand it must be hard for blind people who previously had sight and used to be able to drive. But then there’s always the flipside – they had this experience which I don’t. I always get tired of the “what’s worse” debate, because I don’t think you can really say. It’s comparing two very different experiences.

How to reduce the problems associated with not being able to drive

I’m in some groups for parents of visually impaired children and I do come across people whose children or who themselves really struggle with not being able to drive. The fact that I don’t find this so hard has nothing to do with me not finding my blindness a total inconvenience sometimes. I do. It’s just that driving isn’t high up on my list of reasons for why this is.

There are some things that I have done though that have made things easier for me as someone who is unable to drive:

  1. Think about transport when deciding where to live. London was great for me in this respect. As I moved further out, each time I had a good look at how easy it would be to get to the station from every property I looked at. Nobody wants to feel trapped or isolated, and choosing accommodation with easy links to the transport network will make life easier. This meant moving away from my family, but apart from the lack of job prospects, life for a non-driver in a little country village would have been much harder.
  2. Budget for additional transport costs. I set aside money for taxis because I knew that I would need them. I didn’t want to be a burden on my friends all the time, and anyone with their own car has to budget for transport costs too – petrol, MOT, road tax etc. If I pay for someone to drive me, I’m not being dependent. I’m giving them work. I can do it when I want to, not when someone else has time to help. It puts me back in control of getting the job done, even if I’m not the one driving there.
  3. Take time to get to know your local area.
  4. In some cases, it’s just easier to get the job done online!
  5. Build up a good network. Taking lifts from friends is still hard sometimes, but there are ways to make it a give-and-take arrangement, even if you’re not giving and taking the same things. Maybe you’re really good at something that your friend with a car can’t do. Maybe you can think of something to buy or do for them that would make them happy. If you’re doing something with friends, maybe you can be in charge of organising or sorting out another part of it while someone else does the driving. Also, if you’re not asking the same people for help all the time, it doesn’t feel like such a big ask!
  6. Plan! I plan less now because I know if I find some place for us to go or activity for us to do, it will probably involve S or one of my friends driving there. So we really just need the post code and the sat nav. But previously I got good at planning – finding the easiest way to get across London (I generally liked busy stations with lots of people rather than deserted ones), organised car sharing, planned to do multiple things in the same area to cut down on unnecessary logistical nightmares, or made the effort to make contact with people who would be making the same journey. Ok, planning and organising come naturally to me and I find there’s something quite therapeutic about them, but even if this isn’t the case, a good plan can go a long way to reducing the stress of travelling around.

Do you have any tips to add to this list?

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Author: englishwithkirsty

I have two blogs. Unseen Beauty is my personal blog. English with Kirsty is my business blog for people who are interested in languages or learning English.

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