Angie Castro and Mark Erickson went over the game plan one more time.
First, they would walk west toward Nicollet Avenue. They would stand on the curb until traffic quieted down; when it did, they would cross the street. They would then find the bus stop and wait there until the southbound 17 bus arrived, headed toward Lyndale Avenue.
Erickson asked Castro if she was ready. She said yes.
“OK then, let’s do it,” he said. With that, the two stepped out of the school, white canes in hand, to begin their journey.
Their outing, on a chilly, overcast morning in March, was typical of the lessons taught at BLIND Inc., a training center for people with vision loss. Located in a mansion built for the Pillsbury estate in Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood, the school is one of three in the country affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).
People from all over the country come to the center where, for six to nine months, they are taught essential life skills: cooking, household tasks, reading Braille and traveling with a cane. (The school is currently teaching students online because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
Some students were born blind due to a genetic defect or premature birth. Others lost sight because of diabetes, an autoimmune disorder or a hereditary disease. Still for others, the loss was sudden, such as from a car crash or accident. The students are not alone in their loss — most of the staff is blind, too.
That’s intentional, said Jennifer Kennedy, executive director of BLIND (an acronym that stands for Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions). By learning alongside blind instructors, students build confidence navigating a world that in many ways was not built for them.
“We really believe in the capabilities of blind people,” said Kennedy, who lost her vision from uveitis, or retinal hemorrhaging. “It is an empowering feeling to be out there traveling alongside another person who’s blind.”
One of most important skills they teach is how to use public transportation.
There are about 86,500 people with a visual disability in Minnesota, according to 2016 estimates shared by the NFB. For those in the Twin Cities, buses and light rail are critical to get them where they need to go.
Kennedy takes the 17 bus from her home in Uptown. Erickson, who first trained at the center 11 years ago and now teaches cane travel, takes the 18 bus from south Minneapolis. The students use either the bus or light rail to reach their housing near the University of Minnesota campus.
Metro Transit, the largest public transportation operator in the state, does have smaller buses that provide door-to-door service for people with disabilities. However, fixed bus routes give blind people the freedom to work, run errands and visit the same places everyone else does, Kennedy said.
“For some of them, it is fun and exciting. For some of them, it’s terrifying, because perhaps they’ve not been asked to go out and do anything on their own,” she said. “Confronting a world that was not built around you really does improve somebody’s confidence and their belief that they’re going to be able to go out and do the things that they want to do in any area.”
In this respect, Minneapolis fares better than most cities, said Kennedy, who has also lived in Utah, Virginia and Ohio. There are more pedestrians here, she said, as well as nearly 2,000 miles of sidewalks and bus lines that connect throughout much of the city.
Crosswalk lights come equipped with accessible pedestrian signals that have audio cues for when to cross the street. Buses and the light rail have similar automated voices that alert upcoming stops.
Guthrie Byard, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VI administrator for the Metropolitan Council, said Metro Transit is constantly looking to improve its features and train drivers to make its service easier to use for people with disabilities. It has customer advocates who help people with disabilities and is considering using smartphone apps with wayfinding to and from stops.
“It can’t be overstated how important public transit is,” Byard said. “We need to be mindful of how important it is for those folks to get around. We’re not just talking about paratransit (individualized service for people with disabilities or health conditions) ... but certainly those who are using fixed routes.”
Some students and instructors are still taking the bus during the coronavirus pandemic, Kennedy said. The center provides gloves, hand sanitizer and wipes, but has shifted most of its lessons online, she said.
There are many things students at BLIND need to learn before riding the bus by themselves.
First, they have to learn how to use their white canes. They then take short walks around the school. They learn how to detect corners and curbs and how to listen to traffic. Then they learn to cross the street.
“It’s a slow process and you start building it up,” said Castro, who is from Madison, Wis.
Castro was born premature with a condition called retinopathy of prematurity. Her vision fluctuates so she wears sleep shades throughout the day to focus on her nonvisual skills. “I have what you call good eye days and bad eye days,” she said.
She had never gone out at night before coming to BLIND. The first time she stepped outside of the school, she felt scared and vulnerable.
Over time, and by working with teachers such as Erickson, she sharpened her skills and built up her courage to travel.
“Now I can go out at night confidently,” she said.
Outside the school, Erickson and Castro began their lesson for the day.
Construction trucks rumbled nearby, making it difficult to hear if cars were passing. Instead of crossing, they walked up the street to the nearest stoplight. When the walking signal ticked, they crossed the street and turned back down on their path toward Nicollet Avenue.
“I don’t care if you’re blind or sighted; you need to know what you’re doing when you’re crossing a busy intersection like this,” Castro said.
So they listened for the silence. When it finally came, they crossed over to the other side. They found the stop by tapping it with their canes.
A bus approached and slowed to a stop, hissing as the driver opened the door and tilted it slightly. “18 D, 18 D,” he bellowed from inside.
“No, thank you,” Castro told him. If he hadn’t told her the number, she would’ve asked, she said.
Minutes later, another bus hissed to a stop.
“17 D, 17 D,” the driver said. They climbed inside. After some rearranging, Castro and Erickson sat next to each other in the middle of the bus.
Teaching students how to use public transportation is not only helpful for them but for other riders, too, Kennedy said. It helps them understand that the blind can use the same tools as them to get around town.
Blind people often deal with microaggressions, such as others telling them to watch their step, to sit at the front of the bus, or grabbing and guiding them without their permission, she said.
“How do we deal with the social misconceptions about blindness?” Kennedy said. Her job, she said, “is to get people to recognize that blind people have as much of a right to move about in the world, and helping break those misconceptions down without getting on other people’s nerves or their cases.”
The bus’ automated voice signaled an upcoming stop: “24th and Lyndale.”
“This is us,” Castro said.
Once off the bus, they walked toward Lyndale Avenue. They tapped the curb with their canes as the crossing signal repeated: “Wait. Wait. Wait.”
The light turned green. “Lyndale — walk sign is on the cross,” the voice said. Erickson and Castro crossed the street and waited for the next bus.
Erickson, who like Kennedy lost his vision due to uveitis, said the skills they teach are foundational for students once they leave the center. For a group with only a 30% full-time employment rate nationwide, according to NFB, something as simple as using public transportation can help them secure jobs as lawyers, engineers and professors.
“We try to raise expectations of people,” Erickson said. “There’s more things I can do than I cannot do.”
Castro said she liked all the opportunities available in Minneapolis and is thinking about staying in the city once she is done with her training.
The bus arrived. Erickson figured they should take it to Franklin Avenue and avoid the construction trucks they encountered the first time. “17 W,” the driver said.
They climbed in and sat down in the back, headed back to where they started.