I Can’t See You and You Pretend Not to See Me

I have become invisible, says James Bennett. (Newcastle Herald 24th June 2005)

I AM a blind person and an advocate of the theory that when one is blind, one becomes invisible.

We must be invisible because people expect us to get out of their way… we appear to be a nuisance.

This month I was forced to travel by a coach, temporarily replacing the rail service to Newcastle, to get to the Royal Blind Society, where I study braille and computer literacy, four days a week.

Instead of setting down passengers at Hamilton Station, where I would usually alight from the train, the coaches set down on the opposite side of the road.

This is not a problem to a sighted person, as it is only a matter of ducking across the road when traffic permits. There are no pedestrian crossings in that area of Beaumont Street and for a blind person it is a whole new ball game.

To start off, one has to identify where one is and have some tactile indicators from which to navigate. Once one has established orientation, the next step is to get safely across Beaumont Street, which can be done only by walking to the traffic lights at the intersection of Donald and Beaumont streets.

In order to get there, one must cross Hudson Street at the pedestrian crossing and this is where I encountered my first obstacle, a car waiting to turn into Beaumont Street. I had to wait patiently for it and the next car, which barged straight through on the tail of the first car.

Only then do I make a leap of faith and cross the road, using only a long cane and mini guide (an ultrasonic feedback device) for navigation.

The next step is to walk the full length of the block to get to the traffic lights. There, I pressed the button and moved my fingers to the tactile indicator above the button, as only when I feel the pulsation accompanied with the audio indicator do I know that it is safe to cross the road.

I finally got the walk signal and waited for a second and then stepped out, as my mini guide indicated that I had a clear path.

The next thing I know my mini guide is going mad and I can hear the approaching roar of a diesel engine. At this I prop immediately and feel the rush of air displaced by a large vehicle that has run a red light, with me walking into its path.

I end up half in the gutter and half wrapped around a steel pole. Fortunately, I am still in one piece and, except for shattered confidence, I am all right.

At this point, I find that I am totally alone and in spite of much moving traffic and the sound of pedestrians, I realise that yes, I must be invisible. The only voice I hear is a fast fading one, one that calls out “that was a bus that nearly hit you”.

Once again, I am on my own in a world of darkness. I can handle the fact that I have to stand on the train because backpacks and parcels and cases are more entitled to a seat than I am. And that it is people’s right to stop and talk at the top of escalators and in doorways.

But surely, I have a right to cross safely at a pedestrian crossing.

James Bennett is a business consultant and employee of Mission Australia who went blind as a result of a cardiovascular procedure.