There have been many who have made the noble attempt, but only one who has really, really done it.
Virginia Tech has officially set one of the biggest milestones in history for the blind.
A university engineering design team from the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech has developed a four-wheel dirt buggy loaded with all kinds of technological features. There are laser range finders, a vibrating vest for feedback on speed, a click counter steering wheel with audio cues, spoken commands for directional feedback, and a tactile map interface that uses compressed air to provide information about the road and obstacles surrounding the vehicle.
This is a first step of many to come. There have been several blind people who have test driven the buggy around an obstacle course set up on the Virginia Tech campus. It was a success!
They have started bringing the vehicle to summer camps for blind teens of the average driving age to test drive as well.
After reading about this, I had immediate visions of myself independently behind the wheel of a car, going to all the places I find inconvenient to get to. I pictured myself being able to get somewhere and back home in a matter of minutes rather than having to spend time waiting for buses.
But, just because the technology is here doesn't mean I'm expecting to be on the road in a few years.
I don't think the price of the vehicle will be anywhere near affordable once it's ready to enter the market. Secondly, I think there is going to be a major fight to preserve the blind folks as inferior and "incapable."
Because of that, my cynical, but very real perception is that no matter how safe and successful this car is proven to be, it's still going to take years for our social and cultural perspectives of blind folks to change enough to even allow the first blind driver to come alongside the sighted one in the morning rush hour traffic.
The nature of disability discrimination and stereotypes is like a tangled ball of string. It's not going to be easily picked apart.
Being discriminatory is so taboo that people literally lie to themselves about how they feel, either because they feel bad for feeling it, or they're afraid of getting sued. The real problem is that denying it doesn't make it go away, but after a while it does become natural to hide behind the mask of acceptance and believe that's how you really feel. That's when your beliefs and your actions start becoming incongruent and people can see right through you to the very thing you set out to hide.
It's this messy sort of hidden discrimination that we have to deal with before blind people will be allowed to put their foot on the pedal of their new vehicles.
It seems to me that the blind are going to have to be open enough and willing enough to educate without penalizing the sighted to the point of fear-induced denial, and in turn the sighted are going to have to be willing to name their fears, explore their motives, and be willing to deepen their understanding of the things they are unfamiliar with and thus uncomfortable with.
It's not going to happen unless there is willingness on both sides to examine and remedy the longstanding stereotypes and come to an honest understanding rather than this fake sort of understanding, or the uninformed attempt at understanding.
So, my question is, what's so scary about a blind driver if he's in a comprehensively tested and proven vehicle? Is it wrong because it's never happened before?
It's definitely not something we've dealt with before. So what? That doesn't make it wrong, nor does it make it something that shouldn't happen.
Back at the turn of the 20th century we had never dealt with airplanes. It would have been silly to think that anything weighing more than 400 tons would ever be something we'd get used to seeing above our heads, defying the pull of gravity. But it happens every day now and we don't even think anything of it.
By the turn of the 22nd century there will be blind drivers everywhere and I can guarantee it won't seem unusual in the least to anyone. So here's to a big thanks to the Virginia Tech team members for being the 21st-century Wright Brothers of blind driving. Thank you, you are my heroes.
Kate Pavlacka, a graduate of the State University College at Oneonta, has been totally blind for 11 years.