Someone in Chicago wants you to watch out for blind people


An advice column where Chicago can ask questions on how to navigate life transitions, relationships, family, finance and more.

Dear Ismael,

I read your column on walking etiquette in Chicago, and I wanted to add another level to the story.

I am blind and have walked the streets of Chicago for many decades. In the past, my white cane was an immediate sign to others that I am blind and to give me some space. I try to walk on the right side, but there are many sidewalk obstacles near the curbs. Bikes and scooters are among the frequent offenders, but bike racks and signs are right up there.

In recent years, tables on the sidewalks and even fenced-in dining areas are there in the mild weather. I still try to walk on the right, but I am frequently bumped and even elbowed. I have never been hit by a car, thank God, but I have been hit three times by bikes and had my canes broken a couple of times.

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In past years, it was a required question for getting a driver’s license to know what a white cane meant. I doubt this is currently a requirement, but you might be able to learn if it is. In short, between ignorance, bad manners and using screens, I have to wonder if anybody keeps stats on injuries to disabled or elderly people as they do for bike injuries. “Inclusion” seems to be a relative term.

— Elbowed in Lake View

I received a handful of responses to my sidewalk column, but this one stood out.

It made me curious about what the letter writer’s experience is like as a blind person in a busy city, and I wondered what we all could do to better accommodate people with special needs. So I reached out to the Lake View resident.

For starters, Wayne Smith says we need to educate (or re-educate) ourselves on what a white cane is and why a person needs one.

“It’s kind of surprising,” Smith says. “Today, many don’t seem to know what the white cane is. They see a long, white stick being swung back and forth, and they’re probably thinking somebody’s being goofy or something.”

Why do people need a white cane?

A white cane is a mobility device used by people who are blind or have partial vision. It helps them scan their surroundings while also informing others of the person’s disability.

Admittedly, I think this might be common-sense information. Then again, I don’t remember a specific time I was sat down and taught about white canes and proper etiquette when walking near someone who is blind.

Regardless, knowing how to recognize people with special needs is important because — to answer Smith’s question — yes, it’s information you must know to pass the written test to obtain basic driving privileges, according to the Illinois Rules of the Road. It’s also mentioned in the Illinois Bicycle Rules of the Road.

How to be more accommodating to blind people

Stepping out of the way and giving a warning to obstacles is always helpful. Let a blind person know when you notice an icy sidewalk, when there’s construction ahead or when you’re out jogging and about to pass them.

People on bicycles need to be more considerate of their surroundings, Smith says. Two of the three times he was hit, the cyclist didn’t respect a stop sign or stoplight.

Lastly, Smith says we need to remember blind people are human — meaning some can be nice, while others can be jerks. So some might get offended when you try to help them. Especially if it’s unwarranted.

Smith says he’s had someone grab his arm without saying a word, and he wouldn’t know if he’s being helped or mugged. That’s understandable. His suggestion is to ask first.

I’ll leave y’all with a funny story from Smith:

“Once, I was standing at the curb, and all of a sudden somebody came up and said, ‘Come on, buddy, I’ll get you across the street.’ Well, he doesn’t ask me. He just grabs my arm, pulls me off the curb and off into the street. I noticed his speech was slurred, and I said, ‘Sir, will you please let me go.’ And he said, ‘I’m going to get you across the street.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to cross the street. I’m waiting for a bus!’ “

For the record, Smith was far from being a jerk. We ended the interview with a big laugh. Take care of him, Chicago.

Write to Someone in Chicago at [email protected].


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