What Commuting is Like for a Blind Torontonian
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What Commuting is Like for a Blind Torontonian

Assisted by her guide dog and a cane, Debbie Gillespie relies on public transit.

In this new photo series, we follow Torontonians on their daily commutes through the city to explore the challenges faced while in transit.

Debbie Gillespie rides the bus with her guide dog, Leroy.

“One of the biggest problems is the strollers, the bikes, and all the paraphernalia going on the buses,” says Debbie Gillespie, pictured here with her guide dog, Leroy. “There’s too much of it and at some point there needs to be a policy around it.”

Debbie Gillespie is the coordinator of accessibility and braille promotion at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and she practises much of what she preaches when it comes to getting around.

Gillespie started experiencing vision loss when she was under the age of four. She began using a cane at 18, and now also uses a guide dog—two very different experiences.

“The difference in a cane user is they need to know their physical space really well,” she says. “With a guide dog user, you just look for the clear path and let the dog take care of it, but your orientation skills have to be much better since you don’t have those physical landmarks.”

Gillespie has light perception and has used light to find her cubicle at work.

“I can’t tell you what I’m looking at, but I can see there’s something there or I can see the lights,” she says. “You tend to use the environmental cues that you have and they change depending on how much vision you have and what mobility device you use.”

“With a cane, you have more time in general to process your physical space and you might track a wall to find a doorway, you’re looking for obstacles because they give you clues about your location, but with a guide dog, you’re not going to do that—you avoid obstacles,” she adds.

Gillespie is the CNIB's coordinator of accessibility and braille promotion.

Gillespie is the CNIB’s coordinator of accessibility and braille promotion.

If anyone knows how to improve the transit experience for visually impaired people, it’s Gillespie. Her day-to-day job includes managing braille courses, the certification of students in braille, and the promotion of braille in signage, among other duties, but she’s also the vice chair of the TTC Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit.

There, her primary goal is to help make transit an easier place to navigate for people with vision loss. One method she relies on heavily is the use of iPhone apps like BlindSquare to inform her of her surroundings and enable her to make good decisions about where to go and not go. Checking the app is the first thing she does when walking out the door.

“I look at my apps on my phone. I love the technology. I think it’s really made transit a lot more efficient for everyone.”

Gillespie checks the app BlindSquare when she leaves the house.

“I love the technology,” she says. “I think it’s really made transit a lot more efficient for everyone.”

Using voice commands and strategically placing the apps on her phone’s home screen allows her to easily access what she needs when she needs it.

Commuting with a guide dog from the Kennedy and Ellesmere area in Scarborough to the CNIB offices at Bayview and Eglinton—which takes roughly an hour each way—means being thoughtful about her chosen transit route.

“I change my route depending on the time of day and depending on how crowded I think it’s going to be and how much traffic there is,” Gillespie says. “I like to know if the bus is two minutes away or if it’s going to be 10 minutes, so I’m going to change routes because I like to keep moving.”

“Because I do a lot of business travel in unfamiliar places, I have to have a dog who’s very resilient and doesn’t mind going places it’s never been, because I can’t be of much assistance to that dog because it’s not familiar to me either," Gillespie says.

“Because I do a lot of business travel in unfamiliar places, I have to have a dog who’s very resilient and doesn’t mind going places it’s never been. I can’t be of much assistance…because it’s not familiar to me either.”

Gillespie also takes the needs of her guide dog, a five-year-old black Labrador named Leroy, into consideration when selecting her route.

For both her and Leroy, two great challenges with public transit are overcrowding and arriving at a bus stop with multiple bus services and not knowing which bus is hers. If a bus is too crowded, she won’t take it.

“I’ll know a bus comes, but I’ll have no idea if this is the one I want or not,” she says.

“Guide dogs are trained to stop at surface changes, and when you get your dog, they come with a basic set of training," says Gillespie.

“Guide dogs are trained to stop at surface changes, and when you get your dog, they come with a basic set of training.”

That said, Gillespie believes this issue is improving with the automatic route announcement on the outside of the bus, along with the automatic stop announcement within the bus itself—an initiative she anticipates will be completed by the end of 2016.

Another concern of Gillespie’s is the relocation of a bus stop due to construction, something that happened on this very commute. Luckily, a couple of TTC customer service staff were waiting to redirect TTC-goers to the new bus stop—something Debbie would have struggled with had there been no one to inform her of the change.

With Leroy in tow, one ambassador took her by the arm and led them both to the spot where she’d wait to board the 34A bus eastbound to Kennedy station.

During this commute, a TTC representative helped Gillespie get to her bus stop after it was rerouted due to construction.

During this commute, a TTC representative helped Gillespie get to her bus stop, when it was rerouted due to construction.

Once it arrived, the ambassador got onto the bus with her and requested that those sitting in the blue priority seats (without clear physical disabilities) let her sit down. Good thing, too, because Debbie isn’t the type to do the asking herself.

“I’m not good at asking people to get up,” Gillespie says. “I generally don’t, it’s just not my nature. They may have a disability that I don’t know about and I’m not going to make an assumption that everybody sitting in those seats already doesn’t deserve to be there.”

“Because Leroy is getting ready for retirement, I use him a lot less. If I’m going outside, like most of last week, I’ve been using a cane because he really doesn’t want to work anymore. I’m dealing with that and I love him, so whatever he wants is what he gets.”

“Because Leroy is getting ready for retirement, I use him a lot less. If I’m going outside, like most of last week, I’ve been using a cane because he really doesn’t want to work anymore. I love him, so whatever he wants is what he gets.”

Leroy is Gillespie’s second guide dog. He’s been with her for three years, but he’ll be retiring at the end of the month. Although she adores him, she recognizes that he’s probably not fit for such an urban setting. She says he also has some health problems.

“You’ve got six-lane traffic at major intersections and you don’t get that in every city,” she says. “Leroy does have a few issues when he crosses. He goes this way a little bit and then he comes back.”

Guide dogs in Toronto need to work with multiple modes of transit that other cities don’t have.

“He’s an excellent dog, but just not for the Toronto environment,” she says.

“One of the problems in subway stations is it’s just a big platform. There are no physical things for me to count on a platform to know what bus bay I’m at and that’s a problem. We’ve looked into it at TTC to come up with different ideas.”

“One of the problems in subway stations is it’s just a big platform. There are no physical things for me to count on a platform to know what bus bay I’m at, and that’s a problem. We’ve looked into it at TTC to come up with different ideas.”

Photos by Roxy Kirshenbaum.

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