Legally blind blogger working to improve pedestrian safety in Montgomery

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The great irony for William Smith is that the worse his vision becomes, the more he sees.

There is the bus stop on Fenton Street in Silver Spring, encased by a concrete wall so close to the street that it's nearly impossible for a blind or disabled person to get to. There's the crosswalk where Georgia Avenue forks onto Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton that could pass as a maze. And don't even mention the construction zones that frequently block sidewalks.

Smith, 46, notices such things mainly because of his inability to see them.

The stay-at-home dad is legally blind. He has a progressive eye disorder that inhibits his central vision. But that hasn't stopped him from walking the streets of his Silver Spring neighborhood, camera in hand, to document each and every obstruction.

The hurdles he faces spurred him last year to launch a blog, Montgomery Sideways. There he chronicles the impediments he encounters, raises safety concerns for other disabled residents and lets Montgomery County officials know where they have fallen short.

Smith said he seeks to raise awareness because the problems he finds aren't mere inconveniences. They are roadblocks to something much more precious: his independence.

"Initially, it was just so I could walk around," he said of his blog. "I realize now, stuff like good sidewalks don't happen by themselves. I'm making it matter to people, and if I can make it matter to people, hopefully it will make people do something about it."

The things that Smith notices now haven't always concerned him.

His macular degeneration was diagnosed when he was 14. He still got his driver's license when he turned 16 and buzzed around the streets, not all that worried about the plight of pedestrians.

In 1989, when he was 25, the disease had progressed such that he could no longer drive. He was consigned to getting by on his two feet, which, to his surprise, was liberating.

"Being freed by not driving changes your perception -- it's profoundly sublime," Smith said. "Walking is the most natural thing. You don't need any special equipment. You don't need to buy anything, except for maybe shoes."

Knowing that his vision would continue to decline, Smith and his wife, Kathleen, moved to a house in Silver Spring close to schools, stores and churches. His mission as a self-described ambulatory activist began a dozen years ago with a sidewalk near his house. It was riddled with potholes and, apparently, bad luck.

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