How The Blind Navigate New York City

08.23.12 David Lumb and Joseph Schulhoff

Of the one million New Yorkers who have impaired vision, 120,000 are legally blind. And they get around fine, says Rad Mazon, job readiness instructor at Visions, a non-profit organization offering services to the blind and visually impaired.

The legal threshold for blindness is 20/200 vision and lower. Essentially, the level of detail for standard vision at 200 feet away matches that of legal blindness at 20 feet away

The swooshing cars on many NYC streets can be a death sentence to anyone not paying attention to the flow of traffic, so how do the visually-impaired know when it’s safe to cross? Primarily, it’s the swoosh of cars flowing by, using the sound of cross traffic to let me know when it is safe to cross streets. Rad has a more creative, unofficial method he calls the “three-person cutoff”: one or two people may be able to dart out in between cars, but once three people or more walk out, Rad interprets that his fellow pedestrians feel safe enough to cross. The legally blind have more dependable methods of getting around, like counting blocks (which makes Manhattan’s grid layout north of Canal street very convenient), listening to subway announcements, and simply asking nearby folks for the cross streets (though the last is questionably reliable at best). The subway is the preferred method of mass travel for the visually impaired thanks to its omnipresent audio directions; alternatively, the paratransit system in the city, Access-A-Ride, provides door-to-door bus service for 300,000 less-abled New Yorkers.

Due to the range of visual ability in the legally blind, of course, some may be able to discern crossing safety by sight. Rad, for example, can see the contrast in “walk” and “don’t walk” colored indicators at night, but cannot against the bright backdrop of day. He depends on his cane to identify obstacles directly in front of him. Environmental help, such as voiceboxes at either end of crosswalks, tend to be around clusters of government buildings and places with high levels of traffic by the visually impaired, like Selis Manor, a residence on 23rd street for people with vision loss.

Technology is increasingly helpful with assisting the visually impaired, especially smartphones: accessibility features are becoming more integrated in phones, from larger text to voiceover instruction that assists the visually impaired in navigating through touchscreen interface. Rad singled out Apple for its universal approach to increase accessibility throughout iOS devices; Android operating systems have irregular accessibility options and Windows operating systems have no built-in accessibility options at all, requiring third-party “screen reader” software costing upwards of $500.00.

Below is an extended video of Rad’s stroll through Manhattan recorded with binaural microphones to simulate how he navigates with his ears–be sure to plug in a pair of quality headphones: