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24. Two Feet Instead of Four Wheels

I have a bit of a secret to share, and it's that in middle school, I actually drove once. Now driving is a bit of an exaggeration here. What actually happened is my parents took me into the woods and I sat in the driver's seat of my dad's jeep while he had his hands on the steering wheel, and I wasn't even allowed to press on the gas pedal, but the car was moving. Very, very slowly.

And it was quite a strange experience for me because up until that point, I thought, you know, driving isn't that big of a deal. I have a lot of residual vision. I could probably do it, but I remember being very stressed. It was one of those moments where I realized how little I could actually see, and in that moment I realized, although I probably would not have admitted it out loud, that I would never drive, and that's what we're here to talk about today.

*Intro Music*

Hello, everyone! Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. If you are listening to this, then it is 2023, which is such a strange concept to me. I'm currently home for winter break. I have been relaxing after all of my exams, getting in some good couch time with my pug Freddie. But the one thing I can't help but think about every time I come home is driving.

As many of you know, I am from suburban New Jersey where public transportation is pretty much non-existent. I spend most of my time in Georgetown where my friends and I use the metro, the bus system, or even just walk to where we need to go. Before I moved in, the university sent me this postcard listing all of the reasons why I shouldn't bring a car to campus. So it's always a shock when I come home and remember that I have to rely on my parents or someone else with a car if I ever want to pick up a prescription, get some Chick-fil-A, or meet my friends at a restaurant, things that I routinely do on my own while I'm living in the city. And that, my friends, is because of car dependency, the bane of my existence. I've talked about transportation a lot on Legally Blonde & Blind, but I wanted to specifically make an episode talking about low vision driving, our attitudes towards it, and how I ultimately came to accept that I will travel on two feet instead of four wheels.

Let's start with some basics. Now, for most people who are born blind or start losing their vision rapidly at a young age, driving is completely out of the question. Albinism is a different case because relatively speaking, we are born with a lot of usable vision that on its own is not expected to get worse. We have normal color perception and a normal visual field, which is super important because even if your central acuity is 20/20, it's obviously very dangerous to drive with tunnel vision. Additionally, many people with albinism aren't legally blind. IF their corrected vision is somewhere in that 20/70 to that 20/200 mark. depending on what state they're in, they could be candidates for low vision driving. Some may have good enough vision to get a regular driver's license. Others may get a restricted license that limits the time of day or the geographic range in which you can drive.

Another option is the biotic telescope, which attaches to the top corner of the user's glasses. They are really cool and kind of terrifying to me. The driver is supposed to use their regular glasses 90% of the time to get the big picture of what's going on, and then through training, they learn to quickly pop in and out of the telescope to do things like read a street sign, or see what color the light is. They have to rapidly identify stationary and moving objects. They shouldn't be looking in the biotic telescope for more than a second or two at a time.

As with many things in this country, state laws regarding bioptics use and low vision driving are all over the place. I am not an expert. I'm not an optometrist. I don't work for the Department of Motor Vehicles. I wanted to give an overview of low vision driving opportunities, but please do not take this as definitive legal or medical advice. From what I gathered, it looks like most states will allow you to drive with a bioptic as long as you meet a certain visual acuity threshold, which of course isn't uniform because that would make things too easy.

In my home state of New Jersey, you can only get a restricted license if you are a bioptic user. I never seriously considered the possibility of driving, but based on conversations with my medical provider, I could have tried to use a biotic because my corrected vision is right at that 20/200 legally blind mark, but the odds of me being able to effectively use one and drive with my vision were not that great. So can you drive? As any future consultant would say? It depends, and that is not the point of today's episode.

Now, I never went to a low vision driving specialist, but there are some people who, like me, are right on the cusp, who are those edge cases that do and some end up with a license. I have done more research on low vision driving for this episode than I ever have in my entire life. Truthfully, when I was in my preteens, I was like, “this is scary…no thanks.” But looking back, there are several reasons I'm happy I made this decision.

First and foremost is safety. And I never realized this until I started reading articles for this episode, but there's actually a good amount of debate surrounding the risks of bioptic and low vision driving. On one hand, NOAH’s website mentions that studies, including people with albinism, found that low vision drivers are 1.9 times as likely to get in an accident when compared to non-disabled drivers. This rate is actually lower than that of other disabled groups such as those with hearing impairments or seizure disorders, but it is still a scary statistic. Multitasking while driving can be especially dangerous, and a lot of experts worry about the inattention blindness that might result from popping in and out of the bioptic telescope. People with albinism are extremely light sensitive, and so even if your visual acuity is 20/70 in the perfect environment while you're at the doctor's office, what happens if you're driving and the sun's right in your face?

On the other hand, some researchers have started to question how well “normal” drivers see while operating a vehicle. For example, one study I came across found that drivers with an unrestricted license had a functional acuity of less than 20/40 when they were driving at night at speeds greater than 55 miles per hour with high beams and at speeds greater than 35 miles per hour with low beams on. If you think about it, we don't place restrictions on drivers when there's weather that will limit visibility such as heavy fog, rain, or snow. A study I found while browsing a website titled Review of Optometry, which believe me, I never thought I would do, suggested that the correlation between low vision driving and car accidents, so only looking at visual acuity and controlling for all other factors is less than 1%.

So that begs the question: IIs visual acuity measured at a doctor's office giving us a false sense of security? Is it really that much more dangerous for a low vision driver to be on the road, especially if they're more likely to only drive in the daytime or in familiar environments? Like I said, I'm not an expert. I don't know the ins and outs of all these studies, but I think it's really interesting how there isn't a clear answer.

Ultimately, everyone is going to have their own comfort level and risk profile. But what gets me is this idea that when you're driving, you could hurt or kill other people. Every driver has to acknowledge this reality, but especially for those of us with visual impairments or other disabilities. I mean, there are times when I'm sitting in a car and I remember I'm sitting inside a metal machine of death, practically. And regardless of what the research says about the effectiveness and risks of biotics, you can't deny that vision is a critical part of driving.

There's also the fact that even trying to obtain a license is a huge time and financial commitment for people with low vision. You may be able to get one at a free or reduced cost through your state's Commission for the Blind, but if not, a bioptic is going to cost you at least $1,500. It takes significant time, effort, and practice to learn how to use one, let alone while driving. And the worst thing is that buying a bioptic and going through all these mobility lessons does not guarantee that you will get a driver's license. Or even if you do, you may only be able to drive during the day. So if it's winter and it gets dark at four o'clock, how are you gonna drive home from work?

For some people with albinism, driving is extremely important to them. It's worth the time, effort, and money, and if they meet all the requirements and get a license, by all means they should be able to drive. But for me, I would much rather live in a place where I don't have to rely so heavily on a car where I don't have to put myself or others at risk.

I now want to shift my focus towards the social and practical implications of being a non-driver. We in the United States, and particularly within the albinism community, put driving on a pedestal to a fault. Anyone who went to a high school in a rural or suburban town can tell you that driving represents maturity, freedom, independence, and a social life. Getting a driver's license is seen as an accomplishment, a rite of passage, but we don't feel that way about alternate forms of transportation. I was so, so proud when I first learned how to use the metro. But I didn't post about it on social media and get a ton of compliments like people do when they pass their driver's test. Similarly, as I mentioned in my white canes in the wild episode, cane training is typically seen as giving up or giving in after you've fallen multiple times. It's a sign of failure and of losing vision, not an accomplishment.

When parents get the diagnosis of albinism or any other eye condition, one of the first questions they usually ask is “Will they be able to drive?” Being on that cusp creates a lot of stress and uncertainty. I couldn't imagine going through months of biotic training only to find out it isn't going to work. I imagine that creates a lot of self-loathing and shame. We often use the word privilege when discussing low vision driving, the idea that getting a driver's license is not a right. It's a privilege, and I think that's such an interesting word choice. I mean, it most certainly is. Driving makes your life so much more convenient. It gives you a lot of freedom, but at the same time, it is a massive responsibility. It is not something that you or anyone, regardless of their vision, is entitled to. The word privilege also implies status, and I think many non-drivers at times feel as though they are second-class citizens. People associate driving with freedom, independence, and competence. It influences your social life and the job opportunities available to you. As a blind person, there are very few things I encounter that I cannot do under any circumstances. Usually there are tools and techniques that help blind people cook, use power tools, cross the street, or do any other task a sighted person does, even if it's a bit different. But with driving, we don't have those tools available yet. And with things like getting a license or buying your first car being such milestones in American culture, It's very easy to feel left out.

On that note, a lot of people ask me what I think about self-driving cars and whether I'll be able to “drive” one in the future. Even as autonomous vehicles become more popular, more affordable, and most importantly, better able to predict the behavior of stupid humans, I think it'll be a while before people who wouldn't qualify for a driver's license will be allowed to operate one. So many things can go wrong on the road. People are extremely unpredictable and I think for a while, even when people are using self-driving cars, there will still need to be some sort of backup mechanism for people to manually drive in case things go wrong.

With all of these observations in mind, my question is how can we better support non-drivers? How can we make them feel less socially isolated and give them more opportunities to travel independently? I think the first step here is acknowledging that car dependency in our country is not good for anyone, including the planet. Data from the EPA reveals that transportation is the largest source of pollution in the United States, and 58% of that comes from light-duty passenger vehicles. Even if someone drives an electric car, there is a good chance that the electricity used to power that vehicle did not come from a clean source like wind or solar.

There's also the fact that owning a vehicle is a massive financial commitment. In addition to buying the car, you also have to worry about insurance maintenance and gas payments there. There's also car crashes, which are the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 in the United States. And then there is the social isolation component, the idea that children can't play in some neighborhoods because of unsafe roads. The fact that when you're commuting in a car, you're alone. And as much as I hate being packed like a sardine in the DC metro, there's something I really enjoy about being around so many people commuting to work. I love running into people as I'm walking along the street or striking up a conversation with someone as I'm waiting for the train. This is why I cannot be seated in the quiet car of the Amtrak. I doubt our country will ever get to the place where we have public transportation infrastructure that's comparable to smaller European countries, but I still think it's important to acknowledge that increasing public transportation options and making cities more walkable and bike friendly benefits everyone, not just those with visual impairments.

Next, children and especially teenagers with low vision living in suburban areas need to be exposed to public transportation. Knowing that there are options out there other than your mom chauffeuring you around can take a lot of that pressure off when it comes to thinking about a license. When I was in high school, I did orientation and mobility lessons in Philadelphia because even though I had no intention of living in that city, it was important for me to be exposed to an urban environment, to know that there are transferable skills and techniques I can use to get around without a car. Even if you're a younger listener thinking, “oh, I hate cities. I don't like the noise, the traffic, the trash, the people.” Give it a chance because at least for me, once I had a taste of freedom, I was hooked.

My next tip is if you've offered to give a visually impaired person a ride, try to limit the complaints about traffic or long commutes. Even though I know that these complaints aren't directed at me and that they're not my fault, they still can make me feel like a burden. I had some friends in high school who lived in another town and would occasionally make comments about my house being out of the way. It made me feel very frustrated because it wasn't like I could choose where I lived or whether I was a driver. It felt like I either had to inconvenience them or my parents. There's just something inherently exhausting about having to constantly ask for rides, and don't get me wrong, my parents and most of my friends are so helpful, they're wonderful, they completely understand. But then there are instances when people who literally live two minutes away from me don't even think to offer me a ride when they invite me somewhere, like, can you all make the tiniest effort to include me?

So a few things here. One, if you offer or agree to take a visually-impaired friend somewhere, try to limit the driving related complaints because they can very easily be misinterpreted, even if you have no intention of directing them at us. Two, if you're going somewhere and you know that one of your friends can't drive because of a disability, be proactive. It makes me feel so much better when a friend reaches out to me and offers me a ride rather than me having to ask. It makes me feel like so much less of a burden, and it makes me, it makes me feel included. It's like someone's thinking about me and my needs. And three, let us pay for gas. We want to help contribute. We don't wanna feel like we're using you as a free chauffeur or Uber driver.

Finally, I believe that the best way we can support those without a license is to take driving off of its cultural pedestal. We should treat all mobility related accomplishments equally, whether that be getting a license, learning to use a white cane, attending a blind training center, or getting a guide dog. All of these things require a lot of time, effort, and perseverance. With conditions like albinism where there are varying degrees of residual vision, I think it's very important to remember that vision isn't a hierarchy. We shouldn't put so much emphasis on numbers. A person with albinism who's legally blind can be just as independent as someone with a higher acuity like 20/70 or 20/100. We shouldn't automatically assume that driving is superior to any form of public transportation, or that using visual techniques for navigation is better than non-visual cues. There were times at NOAH conventions where I almost felt insecure because I noticed that my vision was worse than most of my albino friends. But the truth is it doesn't really matter. We all found our way. Some of us drive with bioptics, some of us use canes or guide dogs. We all found what works best for us, and we are equally independent, happy, competent adults.

My advice for anyone who is thinking about driving, regardless of your vision, is to take a deep breath. Driving is not life or death, and you don't have to get a license the second you turn 17. I know I see so many people online, particularly parents stressing about vision acuity and qualifying for a license. But my advice, as, I know, the queen of overthinking, try not to worry too much. My parents never really talked about me driving because I think they knew before I did that it wasn't going to work out. But I feel like if they put it on a pedestal and made it seem like it would be the only way I could get around independently, that would really stress me out. So for my listeners who are parents of younger children, treat driving as one of many forms of transportation.

I know I needed to hear this when I was 17, but being a non-driver does not mean you'll be any less independent. It does not mean that you'll forever be a passenger in your mom's car. There are thousands of blind people who have found their way, and so will you.

Well, everyone, thank you all so much for listening. I hope you learned something new about driving from someone who does not drive. I will say I did get a 96 on my written driver's exam in high school, so I got a better score than some people on the road today. I've listed plenty of resources in the show notes for more information on low vision driving. You should also check out the National Federation of the Blind's Blind Driver Challenge because if you think that no blind person in their right mind would ever drive a car 50, 100, or 150 miles per hour, you are wrong. If you like today's episode, make sure to subscribe to Legally Blonde & Blind on Spotify, Apple Podcast, YouTube, or any other major platform where you get your shows. You can also stay up to date by following my social media pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram @legallyblondeblind. Thank you for listening, and I hope to see you all soon!


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