“I always get to where I’m going, by walking away from where I’ve been.”
—Winnie the Pooh
This guest post is written by Kerry Kijewski of The Insightful Wanderer. She is passionate about travel, and travels the world without her sight.
Upon entering the hotel, on the first morning of a week full of convention seminars, panels, and speeches, I stand, frozen in one spot, and am lost-afraid to move. The sound of the tap tap tapping of so many white canes echoes in my ears, in all directions, all around me and seemingly bouncing off wall and ceiling. The braille agendas are available, at an information table, to my left. From there, they tell me to walk straight and pass the hotel check-in desk and restaurants on both sides, before I can reach the convention area. I walk, with my brother, trying not to become separated from each other. We are here in Florida together, close siblings and each other’s safety nets. We know we are here to eventually go out, on our own, but we resist that eventuality.
We’ve been to Florida before, as a family, twice: a two-week road trip in the mini van and then a week long visit to the amusement parks, as guests of the Give Kids the World village. I’ve been here, as an adult, to attend an ex’s best friend’s wedding, at some fancy resort. We hung out at the pool, made it to Harry Potter World, and a baseball game too. This time, this is less of a vacation, and more of a work trip. As fairly new members of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of the Blind, we are here to represent Canada, at the National Federation of the Blind’s annual convention. This is its final year in Orlando. Where will it move to next year and will we both be so impressed at this first attendance, so much so that we will do anything we can to travel to the 2019 location?
I’ve been to Disney and all that. I am completely okay to spend this week indoors, in this freezing cold, air conditioned convention centre. Every morning, and again at night, I step out of the hotel and into muggy Orlando. The humidity hangs in this air and I long to retreat back inside. Visiting Florida in July is the wrong way to go. December/March is a better time. I am not here for beaches or Mickey and his friends.
We are a group, traveling from across Canada, to attend this convention. We show up at our nearest airports and require assistance from airport staff, to check ourselves in and to locate our gates for take off. Once on the plane, I am randomly seated beside a young woman and her guide dog. We get the middle seat in our row of three, left open, for more space to let the assistance animal stretch out for the flight. Already, we’ve met a new friend who’s also traveling, as a first time convention attendee.
Once we land in Orlando, the staff help us off the plane and a helpful airport employee leads all four of us, guide dog and white canes and luggage, through the busy areas, to find the luggage carousel for one of us, a relief area for the dog, and finally outside to a cab. This requires us all to follow, by voice direction and by talking, even while the crowds move fast all around us. The cab drops us off at our hotels. Ours isn’t the one where the convention is happening. That one always books up fast. We are in another hotel, ten minutes away, where those who didn’t get in with the convention usually stay.
We are shown up to our rooms. I learn which floor I’m on. The elevator speaks each floor. Once I step out, I immediately memorize which way to turn and which hall to walk down, counting rooms on each side, until I locate the appropriate wall panel with both tactile room number and braille as well. It is important to note and it matters, in terms of travel accessibility for those of us with disabilities. I scan my card and my door opens. I collapse on my bed, in the room, and feel a real sense of accomplishment that I can travel, as I so love to do, without feeling restricted by my blindness or by society’s barriers to the meaningful experience of travel, for whatever the reason.
I still wonder if I receive stares from people, as sometimes I become lost navigating the hotels and convention all week. The convention has extremely helpful UPS volunteers who can offer some guidance, but at certain moments during my convention experience, I am forced to stop and find an out-of-the-way spot, where I retreat to catch my breath and regroup, gulping down the lump in my throat at all the concentration this requires. Starting a fresh assessment of my whereabouts, I can do this, I tell myself. It takes time to even begin to know a large convention centre and its many ballrooms and meeting rooms. Again, tactile/braille signs are posted outside each doorway. People serve as talking signs, directing all 2500 or so of us around, to help us find the escalators/stairs. Those of us who know the convention experience well also provide direction and reassurance that it will get easier, eventually, maybe.
Just as I begin to get the hang of this, the week has flown by. By now, my nose is tuned to recognize the smell of the coffee shop and then the Mexican eatery and then the burger place. My feet are sore (though they now expect when they’ll detect carpet underfoot, which means convention centre) and my head buzzes with all the information I’ve gathered and people I’ve met along the way.
I sit in a chair, among many rows of chairs, as some important business for the NFB is being conducted. I am trying to establish a similar government, run by blind people for ourselves, to better represent blindness and the value we hold in Canada. I am impressed by the system that has been thriving here, for more than seventy years: blind people working to advance their rights and a better life collectively. I meet a friendly man sitting beside me and we talk about our lives, both here in the US and in Canada. The tension rises as the president of the NFB teases the crowd with the news for next year’s convention location.
Suddenly, a familiar voice speaks, most likely from a speaker and recorded announcement. I know that voice, Brad Garrett, most well-known for his part on Everybody Loves Raymond, but for me he is that distinctive voice as a character in Finding Nemo. “Next year, this convention will be held in…” Brad says, but the crowd cheers and I don’t hear where.
Mandalay Bay, first sounds like Hawaii to me. No such luck, though that is near the top of my travel bucket list, but Las Vegas, Nevada it is. All the casinos, commotion, and noise of Vegas, as a place I’ve yet to explore, has always seemed like too much. The crowd goes wild though, with excitement, and I wonder if I will be there in 2019, along with all of them, to visit a new place for me, and learn all the roots again. Travel is one of the most enriching things I do with my life and I don’t plan to stop, anytime soon.