In looking back at the evolution of GPS since we began
working on it in 1994, the technology has certainly evolved from a 12 pound
backpack to a 6 ounce iPhone. What remains the same is the need for and the
importance of accessible GPS
as an alternative way of navigating and knowing
what is around you.
I am going to post stories from the past once a month to
illustrate the significance of accessible GPS in traveling independently, no
matter which device you use. I have always said, “Any GPS device is better than
no GPS device.”
Here is the first story from 2003 when I would have been
using the first version of the BrailleNote Classic, probably with Sendero GPS
version 3.5 or so.
Streets of Barcelona
June 19, 2003
I have been to Barcelona a half dozen times before and was
looking forward to exploring the city with GPS maps on the BrailleNote for the
first time. I wasn’t even sure the maps would work until I got outside the
airport and sure enough, there we were on the map, at the Barcelona Airport.
How about that?
As we rode from the Barcelona airport to the Gran Hotel Catalunya
, my son was most impressed with the copious motorcycles. Once I went
for my first walk, I “saw” what he was talking about. The motor scooters were
lined up like bicycles on the sidewalks and nudged their way through the thick
pedestrian traffic. I suppose with the high cost of petrol in Spain,
motorcycles are an efficient way to get around.
A lot easier to find a parking place too.
We spent a good part of our first day, exploring the city
via a double-decker tour bus, open on the top. I had street names and some
points of interest in my BrailleNote database and the tour guide filled in the
blanks with an audio description including history of famous places. Sure is a
lot of antiquity in this city. My boy’s insisted on going to the zoo
world’s only known albino gorilla. I wondered if he was visually impaired.
My favorite way to see a city is walking, eating and walking
more. We quickly adjusted to the Spanish dining schedule finishing dessert at
an outdoor café in the middle of Las Ramblas, at midnight, seriously past my
kid’s bedtime back home. There was so much activity; it was hard to think it
was late with the temperature still in the ‘80s, very conducive to evening
Besides the scooters on the sidewalks, Barcelona has some
other big-city mobility challenges. Most of the streets in this section of town
are not at 90 degrees to each other. It is easy to think you are heading in one
direction only to learn after a while that you have significantly curved. Many
of the streets are very wide with inconsistent types of islands and placement
of cross walks. Pedestrians cross streets whenever they want and aren’t to be
trusted as a means of knowing when the light is green (verde). In short, it is
pretty chaotic on the streets of Barcelona and getting around independently as
a blind person is not for the faint of heart.
I met up with a local blind guy (Pep Llop, mayor of
La Palma) who has a dog guide from York Town Heights. His method of street
crossing is to increase his speed three-fold. He says, “Once you are committed,
best to get to the other side quickly.”
I was intrigued to see how well the automatic route
calculation would work with the latest Beta version of the GPS software. I left
my family mid way down Las Ramblas and set our hotel as my destination by
typing in its address, 142 Carrer De Balmes, Barcelona. The route consisted of
4 significant turns over the course of 30 waypoints. I had never walked, or
driven for that matter, this route before. Off I went, following the
BrailleNote directions like, “Waypoint 15, Provenca and Ramblas, left 129
Because of the offset street crossings, I made a couple
wrong turns but was quickly informed by the GPS that my target waypoint was
“behind and to the left.” After a couple of these missed turns and absolutely
no sighted assistance, I heard the comforting announcement on the BrailleNote
GPS, “Arrived at destination.” I was 10 meters from the front door of the
hotel. It is nice to be 49 years old and still feeling like a kid, “I did it
myself”, not to mention saving a few Euros on a taxi ride and the frustration
of bad directions from well-meaning sighted pedestrians.
A footnote: As I approached the hotel, I picked my way
through some street construction. I saw a florescent green object in my path
and tapped it with my cane. It wasn’t hard like a sign so I tapped it a bit
harder as I still couldn’t figure out visually what it was. I was startled as a
burst of Spanish profanity came from the workman bent over digging out a hole
in the sidewalk. He didn’t take too kindly to me poking him in the behind with
my cane. A little bit of vision can be dangerous sometimes.