Dare to Ask: How do blind people know when to cross a street?

By Phillip Milano

Question

I've seen blind people waiting at intersections to cross the street, but how do they know when to cross?

Jennifer, Maryville, Tenn.

Replies

When someone goes blind (or is born blind), the other senses attempt to compensate for the lack of information that the eyes supply. For example, a blind person can "feel" a wall before they walk into it. ... A blind person's sense of hearing is more sensitive than the sighted. They listen for cars coming from the directions of the street they're trying to cross. Some intersections have bells that ring when it's safe to cross. Others have seeing-eye dogs that know when to cross.

S.S.R., 49, female, Penn.

They listen to the traffic. When there's none coming from the dangerous directions, cross. A sighted person can see a blind person at the crosswalk and ask, "Can I help you?" The blind person could say, "Yes, may I take your arm and you can lead me across." When assisting a blind person, do not grab their elbow and push them forward. Rather, offer your arm, and let them hold onto it, and walk slightly ahead of them, with you leading.

Laurie, Boston

A lot of cities now have crossing lights with audible cues, and even where these don't exist, there are environmental cues, like a lot of cars stopping, or other people beginning to walk.

A., 40, Kansas City, Mo.

Expert says

Sometimes NPR commentator Beth Finke of Chicago, who is blind, is minding her own business, just standing at a crosswalk even though she's got a green light. Folks going by think she's got a loser for a seeing-eye dog.

Ah, but Finke's got a vision.

"I like to wait until I hear the traffic rushing back and forth in front of me stop, and then the traffic that is parallel to me start," said Finke, author of a children's book about seeing-eye dogs called "Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound" as well as the memoir "Long Time, No See." "That way I know it's a fresh green light, and I have a long time to cross."

Far from being a loser, her dog even practices the Zen-like "intelligent disobedience" - for example, if it sees traffic coming or a huge pothole, it won't budge even if Finke orders it to do so.

Close calls? Once a cabbie pulled in front of Finke but her dog stopped on a dime � Finke petted the "bejesus" out of her after that one � and once an SUV took a left and nearly squashed them both. Her dog pushed her out of the way, and neither was seriously hurt.

"The guy said, 'Sorry, I didn't see the dog.' I thought, what am I, chopped liver?"

You can help, too: Say "hello" to let her know you're there if she needs assistance.

That's better than saying you wish you could take your dog everywhere ("If I were brave enough [I'd say], 'Well, you could gouge your eyes out.' ") and much better than petting or distracting her dog when its harness is on.

What about her other senses?

"[People] think blind people hear better or have an enhanced sense of touch. I often wonder, is there an assumption people who are deaf can 'see' better?"

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Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee), moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers. Send general column comments to phillip.milano@jacksonville.com. You can also hear his podcasts or watch his TV spots.