Getting around Chicago via mass transit can be frustrating for any of us, but imagine what it’s like for people who are legally blind. Visually impaired sound artist, rock musician, and recording engineer Andy Slater offered to share his experiences navigating the city on public transportation and floated some ideas to improve transportation access for folks with disabilities.
A native of Milford, Connecticut, Slater moved to town in 1994 to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now lives in Portage Park with his wife, Tressa, and their 12-year-old son, whose very rock ‘n’ roll name—yes, his real name—is Baron Vonn Slater. Andy creates “organic-electric” soundtracks and sound design especially geared toward people with visual impairments, with the goal of evoking images and colors. He also sings and plays keyboards in the acid-funk band the Velcro Lewis Group and records other acts at Frogg Mountain studio in the West Loop.
Slater’s vision has gradually declined since childhood, due to retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that involves the deterioration of the retina’s rod photoreceptor cells. Symptoms include loss of peripheral and night vision, plus light sensitivity—Slater must wear two pairs of sunglasses to go outside on a sunny day. The condition can eventually lead to total blindness.
Nowadays Slater can detect light and dark, shapes, and movement, but not much else.
“There’s a layer over my vision like snow from an old TV,” he says. “It’s this strange mix between a sort of neon purple and these black dots that kind of move around.”
In 2009, when his sight was somewhat better, Slater was walking from his home in Humboldt Park to Wicker Park when he was struck in a crosswalk at Division and Western by a turning driver who failed to yield. (Five years earlier, a drunk driver fatally struck Slater’s acquaintance Christopher Saathoff, bassist for Chin Up Chin Up, at the same intersection.)
Slater suffered damage to his leg muscles and back and still has a “nasty scar” on his right arm. It took about a year of physical therapy for him to make a full recovery. While he’d previously been hesitant to use a white cane because he didn’t want to draw attention to his disability, after the crash he began using one without fail, both for navigation and to warn other road users of his condition.
Slater and his family currently live near Montrose and Milwaukee. Although they own a car, he frequently uses CTA trains and buses to pick up his son from elementary school near the California Blue Line station, commute to his studio near Lake and Ogden, and go to band practice in Humboldt Park.
While he’s generally comfortable getting around on his regular el and bus routes, accessibility issues influence his travel decisions.
“If I have to transfer to another train line where there’s no direct transfer, or if I have to leave the station, I generally don’t bother because that’s a huge pain in the ass even if there’s [a customer assistant] there to help me,” he says.
For example, Frogg Mountain is only a few blocks west of the Morgan Green/Pink Line station. But Slater often travels there via the Ashland bus, because transferring from the Blue Line subway to the elevated tracks at the Clark/Lake station is a complex operation for a legally blind person. “It’s just too taxing for me,” he says. “I get turned around a lot in terms of where the stairs or turnstiles are, and I hate wandering around clueless and confused.”
One CTA feature that Slater says makes travel less confusing is the 350-plus bus shelters that beep to broadcast their locations to the visually impaired, and have a button you can press to get audible announcements about incoming buses.
“If they took that idea and put it on the stairs to elevated trains or some of the turnstiles,” he says, “that would help me a lot.”
While el stations that serve multiple lines usually have announcements about what color train is approaching, Slater says they don’t always work. “That really pisses me off,” he says. “If they have a situation where it’s down, the driver should always announce it.”
Slater’s proud that he’s done his part to make the el a little more accessible for himself and other blind riders. During the buggy launch of the Ventra payment system, he realized that the fare card vending machines, which offer audible cues for payment, would state the balance on a customer’s card, but wouldn’t tell you whether it was a positive or negative sum. Roughly three months after he called Ventra and the CTA about the problem, he noticed it had been fixed.
CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman confirmed that Slater deserves credit for bringing the issue to the agency’s attention. He added that other CTA features to assist blind people include Braille text on the vending machines and station, platform, and railcar signs, audible alerts from the card readers at turnstiles, tactile platform edges, and automated stop announcements on buses.
Aside from the aforementioned issues, Slater says he has had few accessibility problems on the CTA, although he can’t say the same for his friends who use wheelchairs, due to the fact that 45 of the el system’s 145 stations don’t have elevators or ramps. The transit agency recently announced plans to make its entire rail system accessible—over the next 20 years.
Slater notes that all people with disabilities are eligible for a reduced-fare card that allows them to pay only $1.10 instead of the usual $2.25 for a train ride, but they have to demonstrate economic need to qualify for a free-fare card. “Until every station is accessible, I don’t feel it’s fair to have to . . . pay [even] reduced fare for less service than other passengers.”
Slater’s mixed experience using the CTA is fairly typical of the general disability community, according Gary Arnold, spokesman for the disability rights group Access Living of Metro Chicago. “Some things are being done well, but there is also room for improvement, so there’s a continued need for advocacy,” Arnold says. For example, he noted that, thanks to multiple lawsuits, all CTA buses are now wheelchair accessible. However, he added, the fact that the “Your New Blue” rehab of O’Hare branch stations doesn’t include adding elevators to all the stations that lack them arguably represents a missed opportunity.
Despite his severe visual impairment, Slater has become relatively comfortable navigating the physical aspects of our city’s transportation system. “The biggest concern I have as a passenger is other passengers,” he says.”
Specifically, Slater has had issues with people grabbing or pulling him on the street or in the subway, assuming he needs help without asking if he wants assistance. Not only is that patronizing, he says, it’s dangerous because he might assume he’s being mugged and instinctively overreact. It’s especially problematic on a CTA platform or when he’s walking under el tracks, because train noise is disorienting for people who rely on their hearing for wayfinding.
Then there are the selfish folks on crowded railcars and buses who notice he’s blind but fail to offer their seat. “Sometimes I’ll purposely stand right in front of them and maybe knock my cane against their feet a little.” He’s even encountered jerks who’ve accused him of faking a disability because he has some remaining vision.
Luckily, though, to date he hasn’t had any problems with crimes common on the CTA, such as cell phone snatching, which he partly attributes to his burly frame and bushy beard. “I don’t look like a vulnerable blind person—I look like I might mess someone up,” he says.
To ease his encounters with well-meaning, curious people—as well as clueless buffoons—Slater recently wrote a Chick tract-style comic called How Many Fingers Am I Holding Up? illustrated by cartoonist and Reader contributor Steve Krakow. The handout serves as a dos-and-don’ts guide for interacting with blind people and lays out Slater’s daily public space challenges in an alternately heartbreaking and hilarious manner.
“I’m just a dude who wants to live life without ignorant, aggressive people interrupting me,” he states in the intro.
Hopefully decision makers and the general public will take some of Slater’s suggestions to heart and help make the CTA more friendly to folks who can’t see well. v
The Velcro Lewis Group play a release party for their album Taking Frogg Mountain with Dark Fog and Bionic Caveman on Thursday, April 20, 8:30 PM at the Hideout. Slater performs solo at High Concept Lab’s open house on Saturday, April 29, 7:30 PM at Mana Contemporary Gallery.
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.