At a recent parish event held at our Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary downtown, I struck up a conversation with one of our parishioners, a fine young blind man who recently moved to the area. During the course of our conversation I learned that he would be walking home after the event. Knowing that he lived down the street from me and that I would be walking in the same direction, I asked if I could join him. He agreed and indicated that he would wait until I wrapped up everything.
As we set out on our walk over to Douglas Island, he took out his collapsible walking stick and I asked that he let me know if I could be of any assistance. In beginning our trek I found myself describing everything around us, for example, when we would be approaching stairs, coming to a turn, how soon we would come to a curb and other various items in our path.
As I was describing things on the way, I noticed myself becoming cognitively aware of things that I never really saw in the past. I never thought twice about garbage cans on the sidewalk, I just moved around them while I listened to my music or talked on the phone. Now I was aware of cracks in the sidewalk and uneven pavement which present potential tripping hazards. I found myself looking at the narrowness of our sidewalks and how pedestrians must maneuver between fences and electrical poles especially with someone is coming in the opposite direction. In my awareness of these items, I started to grow in concern for my walking partner and it increased my attentiveness of the potential hazards that confront a visually impaired person.
During the walk, I became increasingly aware how much I need to learn about the city. He demonstrated to me that he knew the name of every street in town. He had committed the downtown map of Juneau to memory soon after he arrived. What surprised me most is that I have walked between the Cathedral and the State Capital building countless times, but this time, I realized that there is an electrical pole directly in the middle of the sidewalk next to the capital building. In addition to the pole, the guide wires follow about 10 – 15 feet further down the sidewalk – again, right in the middle of the walkway.
As we walked around the bus depot at the intersection of Main St. and Eagan Drive, and proceeded toward the bridge, I asked him if he was aware of a sculpture of a huge whale in front of the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. He was unaware of its presence and I asked if he would like to feel it. He was up of the encounter. As he put his hands on it, he quickly identified the girth of the creature and indentified that the whale was bending back in its breaching posture. He was impressed with the size of the sculpture. As he felt the ventral grooves, the ridges on the pectoral fins, the eye, the dorsal fin – it was great to see the expression on his face as he was mentally visualizing the work of art. I described for him the mural on the front of the Center that makes it look as though a flood light focuses on the work and imitates a shadow on the building. It was a worthwhile stop as I heard him say, “This is cool”.
As we approached the Douglas Bridge, I pressed the crosswalk button. While I always knew that the button verified the pressed request with an audible beep, it quickly alarmed me that there was no audible indicator that identifies when it is safe to walk. In my experiences of other cities, I have come to know audible indicators when the crosswalk sign is lit. The lack of such a sound creates a major safety concern for some who are disadvantaged. Knowing that he had walked this way many times, I asked how he does it without the “it’s ok to walk” sounds. He said that he has to rely on the sounds of traffic and sometimes people yell from their cars to say that it’s ok to proceed.
In a recent meeting with city officials, I raised this concern and was directed to the Alaska Department of Transportation. In not wanting to write about this before coming into contact with them first, I gave the DOT a call. They promised to look into it and get back to me.
That night was a learning experience for me. The walk home with my visually impaired neighbor helped me see things differently in the city – in particular, I now recognize things that have been right in front of me all the while.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.