Traveling as a Blind Person Will Look Different After This Pandemic

By James Rath

My name is James Rath and I’ve been legally blind since birth. I’m a filmmaker and use my skills to share stories from within the disabled community and bring awareness to accessibility. In the climate of social distancing, as a blind person, it’s been a bit of a culture shock. As a blind person, much of my world is very physical and revolves around touch to identify the world around me. I think one of the hardest adjustments though will be how we receive guided assistance.  Oftentimes, I have friends or even voluntary strangers sight-guide in public or private settings. On top of that, sometimes navigating independently in public results in an accidental bump into someone. On average most people don’t mind the mistake whether from their kind nature, or they recognize my white-cane and excuse my visual impairment. As a result of the pandemic our normal social mannerisms are changing and we’re becoming more cautious of our health and safety. In a sighted society however, this may leave long lasting struggles for how us blind people will navigate this new world.

As an employed blind person, my job has allowed me to continue working from home but much like others within the entertainment industry, jobs have been postponed or dried up altogether. As of writing this, I was supposed to be on a film shoot in Canada, but instead, I’ve been doing my best to stay home for the last three months in Los Angeles, only going out for daily walks, trips to the local market, and post-office. This was quite an adjustment for someone who’s been traveling more frequently than ever these last couple of years. I had even been developing a project called BLIND ABROAD, that centered around traveling with a disability but as you can imagine that looks quite different now.

Right before airlines and governments put travel restrictions into place and recognized the issue at large that we’d be facing, I had taken a last-minute trip to Istanbul, Turkey. Along with my film making partner, Josh Forbes. The initial reason for this trip was to collaborate with a local tech company on a commercial campaign. This branded film involved me meeting a group of blind children who were experiencing accessible movies thanks to an app that enabled viewers to watch cinema with audio descriptions. I had known nothing about Turkey prior and took this as an opportunity to have Josh film every moment of the trip to capture what life is like in Istanbul for blind residents and travelers alike.

As the pandemic began to impact us all, I wanted to hear how some friends within the blind community had been adjusting. On my YouTube channel, I had collaborated with numerous voices to vent about the struggles and barriers we were presented with but also used the platform to share accessible resources for entertainment, news updates, connecting with others, and students. With the extra free time, I had taken it upon myself to be more involved with and communicating more frequently with other blind creators, writers, and advocates.

I had been sitting on the footage from the Turkey trip for a couple of months and was assessing the global pandemic to see when would be an appropriate time to talk about travel. To be honest, unfortunately, I still don’t think we’ve gotten to that point 100%, however, I decided to rethink the execution of BLIND ABROAD. Though content related to the virus is valuable, I felt it was important to diversify content, as too much of one thing can be unhealthy to consume. In the process of adapting what would have been an ongoing documentary series, I decided to expand the medium into something more sustainable that made sense in the climate of social distancing. Along with releasing our mini-documentary, I decided to launch a remote podcast, and blog related to amplifying the voices within the disability community where I could connect and learn from people around the world.

I’m optimistic that the world will open up to travel soon, and we’ll be able to follow up in person with many of the guests I’m bringing onto the podcast to talk with remotely, but I don’t think travel will look the same way as it did when I traveled to Istanbul. Many airlines and governments will have new policies and precautions in place for the health and safety of the public. I can imagine many of these policies won’t consider the blind or disabled community as a whole when implementing these measures. I’m afraid much progress we’ve made to travel independently with humanising accommodations will take a step back for the foreseeable future.

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