For my first day living at my college, the dining hall next to my building was closed so I had to walk halfway across campus. On my way there, I followed a group of students, but by the time I was ready to leave, no one else was going to my dorm, so I had to walk alone. I thought I knew where I was going, but thirty minutes later, I found myself a mile from my dorm with no idea where I was, how I got there, and when (or if) I would be able to find my dorm again.
My school offers 24/7 police escorts for students that feel unsafe walking alone, are injured, are disabled, that are lost with no idea how to get back to their dorm, or some combination of the above. Since I was in the middle of nowhere, I called Campus Security and gave them my name, a vague idea of where I was located, as well as a description of myself. About twenty minutes later, a kind policewoman found me after tracking my cell phone (similar to a 911 call) and drove me back to my dorm in her police car. While it was interesting to step out of a police car in front of all my new neighbors and get escorted to my dorm room, I was incredibly grateful to be in a familiar area. To read more about security escorts, read this post here.
Since that experience, I have still needed police escorts, but they have been few and far between. Here are some of the tools I use to avoid getting hopelessly lost, and how I eventually learned to navigate campus without seeing a thing.
Make sure to have important addresses available and easy to access, programmed as contacts in your phone and listed on a document saved to all your devices. My college has a list on the Environmental Health and Safety webpage of all of the buildings on campus with their corresponding addresses. I also recommend inputting addresses of buildings in the vicinity of your destination in case there is an issue with the GPS and it can’t locate your building. I wrote out the addresses I keep record of here.
Most smart phones have the capability to pinpoint a user’s exact location and share it with others via a text message. By going into “attach media,” I can send my GPS coordinates to any of my contacts, and they can get directions to the location where I am, and wonder how I got there. This worked great when a group of my sighted friends got lost at the mall, and we were all able to meet up again. Location services must be enabled for this to work.
There’s a joke at my college that the first time you visit, you drive in circles for an hour because the GPS isn’t helpful. My mom and I experienced this when trying to find the student center for a meeting. Our GPS decided we needed to experience the great outdoors, and took us to a forest outside of campus instead. Even I knew we weren’t in the right place, and that is saying something.
While it isn’t the best app for navigating campus while in a car, the Google Maps software built into Android phones has often helped me. It seems to work best for campuses with older buildings, as the GPS may not recognize newer buildings, or will lead you into the middle of a construction site (been there, done that).
Anyone with a case file with the state Department of Blind and Visually Impaired can request an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) instructor. You should contact the office as far in advance as possible, to schedule the session for once you arrive on campus, and preferably before the start of classes. Do not be surprised if your first session is short, especially if there are many other students in need of these services. You can request more sessions. The instructor will walk you around campus and to your classes, so you will know where you are going. A typical O&M student uses a blindness cane, though it isn’t required to receive these services. Read more about my experiences using a blindness cane here.
Some Fitbits have GPS tracking built-in, other models use the function MobileRun within the Fitbit app. I found that this is a great way to track how I get to class, or to figure out how I got somewhere and retrace my steps. The app is available on iOS, Android, and Windows, but requires a Fitbit. I own the Fitbit Alta and find it works great for my needs.
My school has an extensive bus system that takes students to several locations, including major areas of campus, satellite campus, shopping destinations, and more. Learn more about how I navigate the bus system here.
If all else fails…
Have the phone number for campus police so that they will be able to give you an escort back to your dorm building (this is where having your dorm address comes in handy!). Make sure to tell the dispatcher that you are visually impaired and require additional assistance. Don’t feel embarrassed asking for help, as even people with perfect vision can get horribly lost. I was told that it’s easier to give me an escort than it is to have to track me down when my friends report me missing. Besides, if it wasn’t for the police back on my first day, I would still be wandering around on the outskirts of campus, trying to find my dorm.