White Cane Day celebrates blind independence as city works to improve mobility

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Wednesday marks a celebration of the abilities of people who are blind or visually impaired in Austin.

The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) will observe White Cane Day with a series of marches throughout the city, most starting at 9 a.m.

The annual nationwide event is named for the common tool that provides independence and an ability to navigate the world for the visually-impaired community.

There are five marches happening in Austin, starting at the following locations:

  • Walgreens, 4501 Guadalupe Street; bus routes #1, #345; 9 a.m.
  • Big O’s Pit BBQ, 4707 Burnet Road; bus routes #3, #345; 9 a.m.
  • Central Market, 4001 North Lamar Boulevard; bus routes #5, #803; 9 a.m.
  • Triangle Station, West Guadalupe Street; bus routes #801, #1; 9 a.m.
  • Austin City Hall, 301 West 2nd Street; 8 a.m.

Organizers set up five marches instead of one to increase the group’s visibility to other Austinites and to manage expected large crowds. An outdoor festival will follow the marches at TSBVI at 1100 West 45th Street.

Navigating with a cane

Orientation and mobility specialists at TSBVI use tools of their own to teach students to navigate using a cane.

Tuesday, Brandon Aleman, who turns 17 this week, used those tools to plan a route from the main building to the community garden all the way across campus.

Brandon Aleman feels his way across a textured map of campus with the help of Emilie Jackson, an orientation and mobility specialist at TSBVI. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

One of the tools is a textured map of the area. With his instructor Emilie Jackson to help guide his hands on their route, Aleman felt his way from one side of the map to the other, picking out landmarks and determining sound cues he could rely on during the zig-zagging walk.

From Beeville, south of Corpus Christi, Aleman has been coming to the school in Austin since 7th grade. He likes exploring the city, especially stores like Waterloo Records and Half Price Books.

“I have visited lots of places and met some friends,” he said.

Aleman is an actor, runs a YouTube channel and plays in a synth band called the Semi Modulars, made up exclusively of TSBVI students in the school’s synthesis and sound design class.

He hasn’t much trouble navigating the city, he said, and it’s easier here than it is in smaller towns.

Increasing accessibility

Scott Meyer, an orientation and mobility specialist with the Texas Workforce Commission, takes a break from setting up for the White Cane Day celebration to speak with KXAN about the city’s efforts to increase accessibility. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“Austin on the whole is pretty accessible,” said Scott Meyer, an orientation and mobility specialist with the Texas Workforce Commission.

He’s worked in the Austin area for more than 22 years, long enough to see improvements come about as a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990. Since then, cities like Austin have committed to initiatives like installing audible notifications at crosswalks that count down the time remaining to cross for blind and visually-impaired pedestrians.

While he estimates the city is about as accessible as any in the country, there’s still work to do.

“There are still many areas across the country, in all the cities, that don’t have sidewalks. There are many places where you’ll have sidewalks, but then they end,” he said. “Still a long way to go for every city on having 100 percent accessibility with sidewalks.”

In Austin, he said, the further away from downtown a person gets, the less accessible the sidewalks are.

Neighborhoods are often the most difficult to navigate.

But the Public Works Department has been working for the last several years to improve sidewalks citywide. City leaders passed the Sidewalk Master Plan in 2016, which calls for major investments to improve and build sidewalks over 10 years.

At the time it passed, Public Works identified 2,580 miles of missing sidewalks in the city; three years and about $60 million in investment later, the number is down to 2,150, a department spokesman told KXAN.

The city is spending about $15-20 million per year on the improvements, about half what it needs to fix all of the high-priority areas in 10 years.

In both 2016 and 2018, voters approved bond money for sidewalk projects, totaling $57.5 million.

Planning for the future

Back at TSBVI, Aleman made his way across the quad, using his cane to navigate around a metal bench that serves as a landmark for students, then down the sidewalk toward the business building, across Wildcat Run, around the school’s track and finally to his destination in the garden, just as he planned using the textured map.

Brandon Aleman high-fives Emilie Jackson, a TSBVI orientation and mobility specialist, after reaching the garden on the other side of campus. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Once he graduates, he plans to enter the EXIT program at the school, a transitional education program for students ages 18-22 aimed at developing skills outside the classroom.

“And I’m thinking about moving to Houston after that,” he said.

He wants to travel with his uncle who lives there. The abilities he’s developing at TSBVI are opening the door for him, and Austin’s White Cane Day celebrations Wednesday are a reminder of those abilities.

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