Evelyn Valdez refused to allow going blind at 18 to be anything more than an “inconvenience,” so she was determined to remain upbeat about Metro’s summerlong shutdown.
Valdez, 37, accepted that the commute from her Alexandria apartment to her job at the Department of Veterans Affairs in the District ballooned from 28 minutes to 75 minutes. She accepted that she has to get up as early as 3:30 a.m. to reach her office by 7:30. She adjusted to long stints stuck in highway traffic and to arriving home late most evenings.
What has been tougher is trying to memorize new routes when, for example, shuttle buses never seem to stop in the same place.
“This is the bad part,” Valdez said, shaking her head Friday morning as she navigated a crowded, winding path from a shuttle bus to the Pentagon Metro station, which she never used before the shutdown.
“This is the part I hate. It’s never the same twice,” she said, stepping carefully and using her white cane, adorned with a swinging silver starfish charm, to avoid walls and fences as other commuters rushed by.
At one point, she almost entered the Pentagon before a security guard steered her away. Some passersby called out instructions. Others walked faster.
Valdez is one of an estimated 17,000 riders affected by the 15-week shutdown of six Blue and Yellow line stations for a platform reconstruction project through Sept. 8. While the 107-day shutdown — the longest in Metro history — has been tough for all riders, it has been especially hard on blind and visually impaired commuters whose long-memorized routes have been disrupted, threatening their independence. Their travel woes have been exacerbated by shuttle and bus drivers, many of whom are also navigating unfamiliar routes.
Blind people of working age — of whom there were roughly 60,000 in the Washington region in 2017, according to census estimates provided by the American Council of the Blind — are heavily dependent on public transit, said the council’s Clark Rachfal. To get to work on their own, they painstakingly “build a mental map of their surroundings,” he said.
So when Metro replaced train service between the closed stations with free shuttles and hired new drivers or reassigned Metrobus operators to drive them, things got dicey, said Kayla Richardson, 29, who is blind and commutes on the Yellow Line.
Richardson, who lives in Alexandria and works at the National Industries for the Blind, said the new setup, subject to pressures like traffic and susceptible to driver error, is not only unfamiliar, but worse — totally unpredictable.
“Metrobuses don’t ever stop in the same spot, and that makes it quite difficult, and the other thing is, the new drivers don’t remember to announce the stops,” Richardson said. “I have to constantly ask for help or try to look lost so I can get people’s attention.”
Valdez said she has to ask for help twice as often as she did before the shutdown.
“My commute has always been Metro, shuttle, walk home, open door, inside,” Valdez said. “You see familiar faces, make chit chat. You never have to be like, ‘Oh is the bus over here?’ But now you have to ask.”
Metro spokesman Ian Janetta noted that the agency has deployed staff members “trained to guide visually impaired customers” to all affected stations. He said Metro worked closely with the agency’s Accessibility Advisory Committee to ensure that “customers with accessibility needs” had adequate options during the closures.
But the mere need for external support can be part of the nightmare, said Alexandria resident Katrina Martin, 43, another regular Metro rider who is legally blind.
“We have our independence by not having to bother anyone for our daily commute,” Martin said. “I hate asking others for help. I hate that this one thing that I relied on on a day-to-day basis has been taken away from me — that’s a big, frustrating part of my life right about now.”
Phil Posner, chairman of Metro’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, said that he understands the concern but that “sometimes you have to take help.”
“This is a situation that has been difficult; the platform repairs had to be done,” Posner said. “Metro has tried to do as much as they can to make things work for everybody. It’s for a short period of time. It’s four months.”
Claire Stanley, who works as a rights advocate at the American Council for the Blind, said she has heard “a lot of chatter” among the region’s blind residents about the shutdown. There’s been so much talk that the council is considering contacting Metro to help brainstorm ways to improve the situation.
“[Metro] tends to overlook the implications that can impact the blind community,” Stanley said. “We definitely wish they had consulted us about the closures.”
Posner encouraged the council — and any visually impaired people with ideas — to reach out to him and his committee.
Martin, meanwhile, is worried about her daughter.
Since her commute doubled from one hour to two because of the shutdown, it’s been harder to take care of her 12-year-old: harder to make sure she showers, eats a healthy dinner or gets to Girl Scouts meetings on time. Martin knows this kind of anxiety is universal. Many of those affected by the shutdown, visually impaired or not, are facing longer travel times.
But it’s challenges she faces because she is blind that rankle most — like the time she took the wrong bus home. In the shutdown shuffle, Martin’s regular bus did not stop in its usual spot and, unable to check the number on the side, she boarded one headed to a neighborhood she had never visited.
She realized her error when she didn’t recognize any of the street names announced over the bus’s automated system. Martin asked the driver to let her off. She walked a mile through unknown streets to return and catch the correct bus.
“Sometimes, I get so fed up I just take an Uber,” Martin said, though she tries not to because of the $20 to $30 cost. “I’m trying to be positive about it, but it’s tough. It’s tough, tough, tough.”
Valdez has also resorted to Uber as a coping mechanism. She has other strategies, too: Whenever she gets frustrated during her commute, she thinks about a new book she really wants to read or pictures a work project she is excited to tackle.
She compared this approach to the way she thinks about strangers who stare at her for too long, coming far too close. Though Valdez cannot see them, she knows they’re there because she can “feel them,” she said.
“I can’t allow stupid stuff like rude people or the Metro to bother me. I can’t let them win,” Valdez said Friday, rising from her seat as the train pulled into McPherson Square. “It’s annoying, but it’s okay. You just gotta deal with it.”
As Valdez started to exit, headed to her downtown office, a man in a hurry brushed past and knocked her off-balance. She stopped. She steadied herself and readjusted her grip on her cane.
Smiling, starfish swinging, Valdez tapped her way out onto the platform.