Risk management: The barriers for N.H.’s blind and visually impaired people in winter
It’s a frigid Friday afternoon and Jason Valley needs to pick up supplies for a perfume he wants to create. He’s hoping for a vetiver scent, so he’s walking to downtown Concord with his guide dog, Link. Valley lost most of his sight several years ago and can’t drive. He relies on Link to get around on foot.
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The main sidewalks around the downtown core are mostly covered with de-icer, but snowbanks line the edges, and the side streets are slick. That uneven, slippery ground is more difficult to navigate for someone who is visually impaired or blind — something sighted people may not think about.
In places where someone has tried to clear the area around their property, Valley says they often leave piles of snow that get in the way of people traveling on foot.
“It just makes my route travel a little bit more difficult. Just through one innocent action, not realizing that that's going to impede somebody's traffic,” Valley says.
Link directs Valley towards the businesses he needs to go to, stops at crosswalks, and steers Valley clear of barriers. When Link brings Valley to a stop at a curb, he holds him there until the cars have passed and Valley gives him the command, “forward.”
Valley visits a couple of stores and takes a left onto a busier street. Link leads him steadily forward but suddenly, Valley slips on the ice and lands on his back. A car stops to see if he’s okay and he’s back on his feet soon. He says he’ll definitely feel that later.
“So, this would be an area that could use some improvement,” Valley says with a chuckle.
Randy Pierce, the president and CEO of Future In Sight, says Valley isn't alone in experiencing mobility issues during the winter.
His organization is one New Hampshire-based group helping blind and visually impaired people navigate life by providing training and services, including for people who are new to having sight impairments.
Formerly known as the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, Future In Sight serves over 1,100 clients across New Hampshire and in some bordering towns.
And the organization is especially attentive to mobility issues during the winter, when sidewalk conditions can make it very dangerous to get out.
Pierce says they help address questions blind and visually impaired people have – everything from how to email to broader questions regarding mobility – about navigating a world designed for sighted people.
“How do you do any of the things you need to live and thrive? Which all of us should be, and can be, able to do, sometimes with a little help,” Pierce says.
Pierce says it’s even more dangerous for blind and visually impaired people when sidewalks and roads aren’t cleared. People with canes can’t safely trail the edges of the sidewalks. People with guide dogs worry about ice melt that isn’t pet safe. Many of them just don’t go out.
“Who wants to be shut in, right?” Pierce asks. “Just like COVID taught us, there are so many risks to all the things that restrict us from contact and from getting out,” Pierce says.
Being forced to stay in for safety’s sake could present issues like missing a doctor’s appointment, missing a trip to the grocery store, or missing human connection. Being able to get around urban areas is essential if driving isn’t an option.
In Concord, the city’s General Services Director, Chip Chesley, is in charge of clearing roads and sidewalks in the winter. He says every winter storm is a complex operation for his crew. They do countless drills and hours of planning, and they plow and spread de-icer on the main roads and sidewalks all night.
Chesley is proud of what his teams do. Without them, people wouldn’t be able to safely get out on the roads, but he knows they miss some places.
“We do get complaints, candidly, that sidewalks may not be addressed as quickly as people want them to be addressed,” Chesley says. He says he understands, but the city staff has to prioritize with the resources they have, and they get to reported issues when they’re able to.
One way Chesley knows where to direct his resources is through an online program, SeeClickFix, that the City of Concord uses. People can snap a picture of a problem area and submit it to the city, and Chesley says they’ll take care of it as soon as they can.
Aside from that, he says it helps when residents can assist by clearing their own sidewalks. Pierce, from Future in Sight, agrees. He wants more people to consider their neighbors who can’t see or get around as easily.
“Just be aware when you see others coming through… How did you put your trash out? Did it block the sidewalk? Because how is somebody going to get around that if they can't see it?” he says.
After his errands, Jason Valley gets home safely, navigating the side streets that lead back to his house. Challenges are put in front of him, but he says generally if he asks, people have been willing to help out. And when falls happen, he bounces back.