The Navigation Equation — How Blind Students Take On Texas Tech

Stern's guide dog, Vail, rests at his feet. Photo by Jordann Fowler.

Stern’s guide dog, Vail, rests at his feet. Photo by Jordann Fowler.

George Stern, a junior journalism major from Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, said he’s been blind since he was two years old. Stern said he’s found ways to navigate around Texas Tech University — the nation’s second largest contiguous campus — by using his other senses and working with his guide dog, Vail.

Blind students overcome a unique set of challenges in attending classes on Texas Tech’s 1,839 acres.

Stern said he prefers to learn about his surroundings as a whole, rather than in specific chunks.

Photo by Jordann Fowler

Photo by Jordann Fowler

“Think of how you learn about a location,” he said. “You don’t live by a set route. I think people think blind people are confined to a certain routine that they practice over and over again; they can’t branch out from that. But I have interests that grow and change, so my itinerary will grow and change.”

This organic style of orientation isn’t necessarily the prescribed method of learning, Stern said, but he enjoys the process of discovering new places.

“When I got to Tech, I essentially did a lot of exploring,” Stern said. “Whenever I’d meet someone, I’d ask for a general lay of the land, the broad strokes. I have a very good memory for things like that. It’s essentially just a question of me and the dog memorizing things at the same time, which is not the textbook way to learn. You’re supposed to get to know the area with your cane first, then bring the dog. I didn’t care about doing things officially; I was just having fun.”

[Editor’s Note: This video shows a walk around campus from a blind student’s perspective.]

Anita Page, a researcher at the Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research & Education in Visual Impairment, said she teaches campus orientation at Texas Tech for several of the more than 40 visually impaired students at the university.

While many incoming freshman may be intimidated by the size and complexity of Texas Tech’s campus, Page said many of the students she works with have been blind most of their lives and see navigation as a task to be overcome, rather than a new frontier.

“Some of my students are really good about piecing it together if they know that area,” she said. “But, if they’re not sure, they’ll just call me. So, we’ll start from where they know and then go from there.”

At the beginning of each semester, Page works with her students on routes between each of their classes. Some, like Stern, prefer walking, while others take the bus.

George Stern navigates a velcro representation of campus with his hands. The map can be reconfigured to suit the needs of many different students. Photo by Jordann Fowler.

George Stern navigates a velcro representation of campus with his hands. The map can be reconfigured to suit the needs of many different students. Photo by Jordann Fowler.

“There’s a technique we call shore-lining,” she said. “They’ll run their cane over from the sidewalk to the grass as they walk along the edge of the path. It keeps them straight, and when they hit sidewalk on both sides, they know they’ve reached an intersection.”

Blind students memorize these features by walking campus and working with individualized, manipulatable velcro maps, Page said. These maps feature tangible, movable sections made to represent buildings, sidewalks, roads, bushes and other campus features.

Page said map details represent the specific needs and preferences of each student.

“I might take all the detail out, and they just need to know that they’ll cross a street and their building is over here.” -Anita Page

“I don’t necessarily have to show them every bush because they’ll find it with their cane and go on around it. If another student was doing the exact same route, they might make their map completely different.”

Stern said he prefers to work with larger representations of campus, rather than just routes between specific buildings. While he can read almost any of the velcro maps, Stern said it’s fairly easy for him to read what sort of student the map has been made for, and which part of campus it covers.

“A map is very contextual,” Stern said. “What’s the person doing? What’s the teacher doing? If they have different objectives, it’s just not going to work. It depends on the student.”

In addition to being a skilled cane user, Stern said he frequently travels with his guide dog, Vail, a Labrador retriever.

“What does it mean for a blind person to be independent? Some people think that the dog plays into the stereotype of being dependent. As opposed to the cane, which is just a stick and you. It’s a rugged individualism thing.” – George Stern

“I have a hearing impairment, as well,” Stern said, “so one of the better things about having a dog guide is that it freed me up to take a lot more risks. Otherwise I’d just be standing at the street corner trying to listen. I can pay attention to the things I can actually react to.”

Page said introducing a guide dog changes how a student is taught campus orientation.

“I had to learn from one of my students,” Page said. “I had made this huge, detailed route for her to learn. Reggie, her dog, just zipped right there. That was easy. We mark the classroom door. The student will pat the door and make a big deal about giving the dog a treat. It’s a party. The dog knows to go back there because of that.”

However, Page said, working with a service animal doesn’t mean a student can stop taking in the small details.

“The person walking has to be aware of time to keep them on track,” she said. “There may be other things they’re aware of, like sound sources, and other changes, like subtle gradients.”

Stern said this isn’t always easy because sensory details present one day may be gone the next. For instance, he said, the fountain between the English & Philosophy building and the College of Education isn’t reliable, which presents issues.

George Stern's stashable cane compliments his fast-paced lifestyle. Photo by Jordann Fowler.

George Stern’s stashable cane compliments his fast-pace lifestyle. Photo by Jordann Fowler.

“They don’t post an announcement like, ‘hey blind people, the fountain will be off today. Please don’t use it to navigate by,’” Stern said.

Sometimes, even constant, tangible support for the blind can’t be counted on, Page said. Braille signs may be wrong. Those responsible for placing the signs usually can’t read them.

They’re not all right,” she said. “I was walking with student one year through the old Mass Communications building and we were going into a stairwell. The braille sign indicated upstairs, but it was a downstairs. If you’re going to make a mistake, that’s the worst one to make.”

Nora Griffin-Shirley, the director of the Virginia Murray Sowell Center for Research and Education in Visual Impairment, said while fountains and signs may not be consistently reliable, students who are blind have a number of other resources.

Photo by Jordann Fowler

Photo by Jordann Fowler.

“The iPhone has many apps that can be used by blind people,” Griffin-Shirley said. “They can even develop their own apps. There are even certain auditory-enhanced map-making apps for them. There used to be different machines to identify money and colors; now apps can deal with all of that.”

Griffin-Shirley said the proactive attitudes responsible for these apps are necessary for everyone who wants to relate to someone who is blind.

“A lot of people have low expectations of what people who are blind can do,” she said. “Why wouldn’t you expect them to do everything everyone else can?”

For Stern, being proactive means asserting your right to be on the sidewalks.

“It’s not your responsibility to make it easy for people to get out of the way,” he said. “It’s their responsibility to see us. I know we all like to be cute blind people and not hit anyone, especially when you’re a cane user. But, that’s what the cane is for. The cane is for people to see you and recognize you and react.”

About David Talley

Robert David Talley is a fourth-year student from Decatur, Texas studying journalism and political science. David's interests include cycling and food. After graduating, he hopes to work for a newspaper in Park City, Utah.

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