Post by Elizabeth Mattey
Why would a blind person want to travel, if they can’t see anything?
It’s an understandable question, considering how central visuals are to our travel experience. We stare in awe at the ancient pyramids, or take in the scene of a tranquil tropical beach – what is the point of traveling to such exotic places if we can’t actually see them?
But what about our other senses, the other aspects of our travel experience, like the sounds of a bustling European marketplace, the smells of Southeast Asian food cooking on the fire, or the taste of spicy Mexican chilis? There’s so much more to our experiences than just the visual image of a place.
“It’s like the difference between watching a movie or reading a book,” says Barbara Salisbury, CEO of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “We [sighted people] are just watching the film, while a blind person experiences a new place like we do when reading a novel. They use their imagination to ‘see’ the world around them.”
Take Bill Raeder, for instance. He travels with a companion who describes scenes to him, allowing him to imagine his surroundings. “I don’t consider myself [particularly] sensitive to sounds or smells,” he says. “I rely a fair amount on verbal description of the visual sight so that I can imagine what it looks like. Now, what I imagine may not closely resemble the reality, but it’s satisfying.”
Bill has traveled all over the world – to China, Scandinavia, South America, and more. He lost his sight after college when he was on an expedition doing seismological testing in the Arctic. One day by accident a stick of dynamite exploded in his hand and took his sight from him. “The Northern Lights were last thing of note that I actually did see in the Arctic, probably only days or the night before my accident. I was at this little arctic way station up there on this floating island. I came out of the mess hall after dark one night and it was extraordinary. The whole sky was just lit up with these shimmering beams of light that just seemed to come from below the horizon, up over the horizon and up into the sky, seemingly into infinity.”
Bill is an adventurer, ready to explore new places. “One of my great adventures travelling was in Brazil, visiting Iguazu Falls,” Bill says. “That is a most magnificent waterfall or set of waterfalls, there must be hundreds of them around the rim of this canyon. The central one is very much the same quantity of water as Niagara Falls, but much higher and it is magnificent. We took a boat from way downstream up under the falls, and there is so much water flowing down that for the last mile or so up to the center of the falls that I could feel as though we were going uphill. And then when we went under the falls I could feel the falls coming down on us.”
Bill enjoys the history and the culture of foreign places. “I spent two weeks above the Arctic Circle in Norway, and that landscape up there is spectacular – I listen to descriptions of sighted people. Right in the center of Tromso there is a mountain and you can take a funicular up the mountain and get a magnificent view of the whole shoreline across that Norway coast which is cluttered with thousands of islands. I try to imagine, try to understand how the Vikings could find their way through those islands.”
Bob Gildea has traveled extensively as well, working on projects in Clear, Alaska and overseas in Germany and Thule, Greenland. “I enjoy getting a very different perspective on life from people native to the country,” he says.
Traveling without vision requires organization, he says. “Make sure you know what is written on your travel documents: what document has what written on it so that at the airport you hand the right thing to the clerk,” he says. “Memorize the various documents’ different shapes, different sizes, different thicknesses. Bend a corner of one of them if needed.”
Bob says he learns about the world when he travels. What did he learn from the Germans? “Drinking beer,” he laughs.
There are many resources for blind and visually impaired people interested in travel. Travel companies offer accessible tours, and airports and hotels provide accommodations when requested. Learn more about accessible travel options.