Meet the woman who won’t let being blind ruin her travel plans

Blind woman travelling the world alone

“You are travelling on your own?”

This is the most frequent comment when people discover I am legally blind. I find it very patronising when asked why I do not have a caregiver.

I began travelling internationally in 2007, not long after unusual retinal detachments robbed me of much of my sight.

I am determined to ‘see’ as much of the world as I can before I lose more sight. I have no qualms about travelling solo, I am not sure anyone else would have the patience to travel with me.

The perks

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There are many positives; I get on the plane first and in most instances I receive assistance to help me negotiate airports. These lovely staff have found me meals, ensure I arrive at the correct gate on time, retrieve my suitcase and take me to customs. On more than one occasion I have been through crew or diplomatic lanes. 

I always take a taxi to my accommodation when arriving at a destination, usually a hostel. Finding out how to work the shower and where the light switches are is usually preceded by the mystery of how to access the room. Keys, some medieval, key cards and numbered keypads have all provided me with some amusing moments, especially in gloomy corridors.  

Getting around

I travel by train as it is highly accessible. Loud destination announcements at stations and on trains ensure I not only catch the correct train but alight at the right place. Finding my way around a new town or city can provide challenges. Invariably I take the circuitous route and often get lost. I usually use a Hop on Hop Off tour on the first day to get my bearings, this means I get to all the major tourist venues.

 My biggest difficulty is usually trying to find a toilet. I am not sure where they hide them. I eventually found one in Prague that had purple lights and travelled for ages on a bus to the only public toilet I ever discovered in Paris. If in a country where English is rarely spoken this can be a very difficult situation.

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Although my white cane has often been mistaken for a walking stick, I do find many people have no idea what it is for. They stare at me in amazement when I say I am partially sighted and travelling. My guide dog would be no use in a foreign country but my cane becomes my eyes, does not need feeding and toileting and folds up.  

Maps are very difficult. Those available for the ‘normal’ tourist are often tiny. No one seems to know how to enlarge a map on a photocopier so I usually resort to my ‘blind’ trick – I take off my glasses and put the map under my right eye. This has on occasion brought some interesting collisions with well-heeled tourists. The London Underground produces a wonderful large print map, though it is too big to unfold on a street when looking for a station. Now that we have Google Maps and helpful apps such as Blind Square on our phones I am sure travel will be easier.

I seldom get outside major cities or towns, unlike those who can hire a car and explore the countryside. This I do find disappointing as I am a country girl at heart. To compensate I usually take a local bus trip to a small town or interesting attraction where I meet locals and on one occasion had a meal with the mayor.   

The people

In Britain I am treated with huge respect and usually given free entrance to most places of interest. This has included being a guest of Westminster Abbey and being given my own personal Beefeater to guide me around the Tower of London. I have seldom had to queue as staff always spot my cane and let me go to the head of the queue. People on the underground usually give me a seat and staff in cafes and restaurants are wonderful.

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In Europe I am totally alone. Perhaps I am seen as foolish for travelling solo and I am usually expected to make my own way, see and find everything for myself. There is no assistance of any kind. This has helped me become a very independent traveller. I walk for hours and often find interesting places the ordinary tourist misses.

The sights 

Obviously I do not ‘see’ the sights in the same way fully-sighted travellers do. I see parts of buildings and have to move around to get a proper view. This is compensated for by enjoying the tastes, smells and atmosphere of places. I have also been allowed close up views and let into areas other tourists never visit.  

Downside of solo travel

Are there any big negatives? Of course. I was robbed in the Copenhagen railway station and began seriously to wonder at the dangers of travelling alone with poor sight. I love history but many museums are so dark they are inaccessible and castles with stone steps are dangerous. There are steps everywhere, ready to catch out an inattentive traveller with a white cane. Sometimes I feel lonely but ensure I keep in touch by text with envious friends at home.

If you have a vision impairment and this is preventing you travelling please think again, you are missing so much. I have had many wonderful experiences and visited places I never dreamt I would see. If you are not confident about travelling alone take a tour, and there are special organisations which arrange tours with sighted guides for the blind and visually impaired. All you need is confidence that you can do it and the world is there to be explored.         

Are you inspired by Susan’s story? Let her know in the comments section below. 

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