Traveling the World Blind: An Interview with Dan

Tyler and Dan, two young male friends traveling together
Posted: 9/22/16 | September 22, 2016

The ability to see all the beauty in the world — from a sunset over the mountains to the mist of the cloud forest to the crystal blue waters of Thailand — is something we often take for granted.

Personally, I’ve always wondered what would happen if I were to lose the ability to see it. Would I have the fortitude to carry on? How would I adapt? I mean, I’ve never even sprained a finger!

A few months ago, I received an email from a reader named Tyler, telling me about how he travels with his friend Dan, who is legally blind (he suffers from extremely low vision). I was immediately inspired by Dan’s story. Born sighted, he started going blind in his teens but adapted and didn’t let it stop him from traveling.

The more Dan, Tyler, and I talked, the more I knew this story had to be shared on the blog. Though I recognize the irony in sharing a text-based interview about traveling blind, nonetheless, here is Dan’s inspiring story — and some very wise advice for us all.

Nomadic Matt: Hi Dan! Thanks for doing this! Tell us about yourself!
Dan: I’m 31, from Nobleton, Canada. I started going blind when I was a toddler. A family friend noticed that I was sitting abnormally close to the TV, desperately trying to look at all the awesome planes in Top Gun. I ended up getting a prescription for absurdly thick corrective lenses like Mr. Magoo.

When I was seven, I was kicked in the back of the head by accident by a friend of mine and ended up with a detached retina, leaving me blind in my left eye.

In 2008, the vision in my right eye started to go red. I was told that my right eye’s retina was coming off. For the most part, the surgery to repair the tear was a success, but the scar tissue wasn’t healing properly. I had two more operations over the next two years, but the recovery process was slow.

For a large chunk of that time I was totally blind. At first, I was incredibly light-sensitive. It wasn’t until much later I was able to regain some, mostly blurry vision — but with the added bonus of retinal scar damage!

After recovery and long fight with depression over losing my vision, I realized that I had a choice: adapt or stagnate. I chose to adapt, better myself, and to just keep moving forward.

What it’s like to live a life with a vision disability?
For me, living with a disability is something I’m almost used to, though there are always challenges. For example, my only big requests for my former housemates were to keep cupboard doors shut, not leave knives in the sink (I’d prefer to keep all of my fingers), and not leave anything on the floor that wasn’t there before.

It’s really the little things that are difficult, and that can honestly be embarrassing. With low vision, you quickly learn to mistrust anything made of glass, specifically glass doors. Who knows where they are, if they’re open, or even if they exist at all!

Many public and private buildings and services simply aren’t accessible by their nature. One case being train stations: I can’t see the board with the arrival/departure times, or the platforms. Usually, there is assistance available but my pride and independence mean I try my hardest to navigate situations myself.

I use an iPhone to take a photo of the train times and zoom in on it, letting me move at my own pace. Using a small, high-resolution screen lets me have a better look at the world around me without having to get within inches of the subject.

Dan, a blind traveler, on the Iles du Frioul outside of Marseille, France

What’s fuels your passion for travel?
My passion for travel comes from my family. Both of my parents are nomadic at heart. My father traveled all over the world in his youth for various reasons, eventually leaving his native France to come to Canada.

My mother is a brilliantly independent woman who travels across Canada and beyond, speaking on behalf of the Lions Foundation of Canada, an organization that provides dog guides to people with a wide range of disabilities, not just the blind.

In fact, she’s totally blind and travels with a dog guide herself. Our disabilities aren’t really connected on a hereditary level. She’s been totally blind since before I was born, and has worked with dog guides since 1989. She’s a huge inspiration to me and a major part of why I do my blog and YouTube channel.

Beyond family, I travel for the people. You can’t walk through a hostel without a happy Australian sticking their hand out with a “how’re ya goin’?” I realized people are genuinely curious about my vision, my cane, and my travels. I feed off of their curiosity, and I love being in a position to tell stories. I just love learning about how the person across from me got to be across from me.

What challenges did you face traveling with low vision? Were some countries easier to travel in than others?
Luckily for me, Europe (where I mostly travel) tends to be fairly accessible. While it’s nearly impossible to retrofit a thousand-year-old church with accessible ramps and touch tours, to their credit, most have usually made some sort of effort.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a large-print or braille guidebook, or sometimes you’ll have a full-blown exhibit in which people can feel the objects on display.

When I first started traveling back in 2012, I had the most difficulty in Barcelona. I was still learning how to work with abnormal street crossings. Anyone who has been there can attest that, for better or worse, their intersections are octagonal. It’s also insanely busy.

But then I went to Morocco. We made a video about it, but holy cats, Barcelona is like walking through an empty grocery store by comparison. Imagine all the vendors calling out to you, the cars and scooters going at road speed wherever they want, the scammers coming up to you with their sleight-of-hand and silver tongues.

Imagine holes in the sidewalks, beggars splayed out and blocking pedestrian traffic, and the heat. Combine that with the din: the noise of all those people and cars, the music blaring from shops and stalls and cars, the shouting of hawkers.

Now imagine that with one hand occupied holding a cane and only half of your vision and that blurry, foggy, and tired. Morocco was, understandably, intense for me.

I know this a stupid question but how do you manage to travel if you can’t see? Do you always have someone with you? Like, what are the mechanics of it?
I’d say my travel style is very much like most other backpackers’ but slower. For example, say I’m taking a train from Vienna to Munich. I know the train is at 11:00. So, what I do is find the display board. Any ounce of clarity I may have with my vision sort of peters out after a few feet so what I do is find as large a group of people as I can.

If they’re all facing the same way, they’re probably staring at the train timetable board. I’ll look the same direction they are and find the inevitable big, black, square blur. I figure that this is the train board, take a picture of it with my phone, and shuffle away to a quieter, calmer area. I’ll then have a gander at the photo and find my train’s time at my own pace.

I like to travel with another person, but it’s more because I’m a social person than I need assistance. I’m currently on the road with one of my best friends, Tyler. He’s been a hugely integral part of Three Points of Contact, a passionate traveler, talented musician, and natural videographer.

He and I met four years ago while he was working in Lyon, France, and became friends straight away. There are few people out there I would trust as much to travel with.

Dan, a blind traveler, enjoying the beautiful view in Iles du Frioul

What specific advice do you have for low-vision or blind travelers? What are some important logistics to consider?
The best advice I can give to them is the same as I’d give to anyone: use common sense and trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, make it known, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to change your situation.

For the most part, people are good and naturally look out for us, because the cane is an internationally recognized symbol of blindness.

That’s a double-edged sword, though: we’re also easy targets so trust your gut. Get out there and travel, show people you can pull it off the same as anyone else, no matter how poor your eyes work.

What kind of resources are there for blind or visually impaired travelers on the road? Is there a network out there? Meet-ups? Communities that you could join?
Blind or low-vision travelers are living in a fantastic time to be abroad. Services and support groups are easily accessible on the Internet, and many organizations reach across the world. In Canada we have the CNIB, the UK has the RNIB, and across the planet are other resources and contacts for the blind.

By contacting these resources, you can find accessible routes, get in touch with transit specifically for people with low vision, and simply have a support net if required.

Resources that aren’t blind-specific, like Facebook and Reddit, are excellent to connect with other disabled people as well.

Couchsurfing is fantastic to meet people who are willing to show you around, even if you don’t crash at their homes. Creating contacts and asking questions expands our range of movement!

Do your family and friends support your traveling escapades?
My family is a well-traveled bunch. My sister and I were lucky enough to explore Europe more than a few times growing up. My mother travels all over Canada doing speaking engagements, and my father is originally from France and has been all over the world.

Even my grandparents have been circling the globe for over 50 years. So, it really came as no surprise to them in 2012 when I announced I was going on the road.

They were, of course, nervous at first. But they also knew that trying to dissuade me from the idea would be futile: I’m stubborn and they know it. My parents, my sister, and my extended family have all been incredibly supportive since the first rumblings of this idea.

Dan, a blind traveler, on an extremely windy hike after a rough boat trip

Can you tell us about your next adventure?
After this current trip in Europe is over, I have no idea what my next port of call will be. I’m really drawn to Australia and New Zealand, Japan, and the lower half of South America.

But truthfully, I think it’s time for me to explore my own country. Canadians travel the world because it’s so hard and expensive to visit our own, which is a shame. It’s the second-largest country in the world, and we see woefully little of it.

Tyler may join me for a part of it and our friend Amy (a Chicagoan who features in a few of our Portugal and Spain videos) has expressed interest in joining for a leg as well!

What’s on your bucket list?
I’d absolutely love to learn to sail. I’ve got this image in my head of catching the wind and feeling control over a boat like no other. With any luck, I’ll have the opportunity next summer to give it a go out on Lake Ontario.

A long time ago, when I was fully-sighted, I had planned a few road trips as well. One across Canada and down the western coastal highways. I’ve never seen the Pacific, and I really have to change that. Another trip would have taken me on a sort of blues/music tour: Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans.

I’ll hopefully make it to Chicago soon, at the very least.

Dan on top of the Rock of Gibraltar

O.K., one last question: What advice do you have for people who are blind or have some other disability? 
My advice is to remember that nothing is worth doing if it isn’t a little bit scary. There will be times when you will screw up. You will get hurt, embarrassed, and confused. You have to take these moments and learn from them. Adapt from them. Take these opportunities to educate others.

Because while the majority of people are kind, generous, and helpful, the only person you really have to answer to is yourself.

Own the difficulties and hard times and they’ll never own you!

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