How to stay safe outdoors this winter if you’re visually impaired

It’s December, that magical time of the year when we celebrate the holidays with our families and friends. For many of us, the start of winter is also the time to prepare for traveling in icy and cold conditions, especially if you or someone you know is visually impaired or blind.

Treacherous winter weather comes with many hazards, including the possibility of falling on slick, icy surfaces. It’s even more challenging as we get older and are less agile.

Each year, 2.5 million older Americans are treated in emergency departments for injuries from falls both indoors and outside. Falls are the leading cause of injury among New Yorkers over 65.

Here are some simple things you can do to keep safe while out and about this winter:

  • Draw up a plan. Get to know as much as you can about the location you’re traveling to. Check the weather, plan your route and give yourself extra time to get there.
  • Remove snow and ice. To avoid falls, ask a family member, friend or neighbor to shovel your porch, steps and pathways. Have them remove ice by using salt, cat litter or sand.
  • Keep track while traveling. Use an accessible compass or a cell phone app to keep track of your directions and location.
  • Be visible when walking. Wear brightly colored, reflective safety clothing so that drivers can see you in the dark. Put reflective tape on your cane and travel with a flashlight.
  • Wear ice and snow grips on your shoes. There are a number of products available that cover the outside of the soles of your shoes and have metal grips on the bottom for added traction when walking on snow and ice.
  • Find new landmarks and walk slowly. Snow covers landmarks such as the changes from pavement to grass. Prevent falls by relying on taller landmarks to navigate, such as bushes, fences and sign posts.
  • To uncover snow or break up ice, tap your cane harder on the ground or “touch and slide”. Use a long white cane to probe for changes like sudden inclines. On black ice, which isn’t detectable with a cane, take smaller steps than usual.
  • Limit your reliance on your guide dog in bad weather. Your dog can lose its scent in heavy snow. According to the Guide Dog Foundation, more dogs get lost during winter than at any other time of year. Dry your dog after being out in the snow. To avoid cuts and cracked pads, clean and dry your dog’s paws and rub on a little petroleum jelly.
  • Dress in layers. Loose-fitting wool, silk or polypropylene inner layers of clothing protect you from wind and frostbite. Layer your clothing—including coat or jacket, sweater and scarf—to retain body temperature when outside and allow you to remove layers as needed indoors.
  • Cover your skin in frigid temperatures. If you travel with a guide cane but find it difficult to use while wearing gloves, it might help to cut off the tip of the index finger (or more fingers) so you can feel the cane. For a mitten, you can make a hole at the tip and insert the cane so you can hold it inside the mitten. You can also purchase “mobility mittens” that cover your cane and hand with cuffed openings. And to make sure you hear important sounds while traveling, avoid hats with ear flaps or ear muffs.
  • Wear waterproof winter boots that have good traction. Although traction will help prevent falls, the soles of your boots should be thin enough so you can feel the surface as you walk. Another option are footwear traction devices attached to the bottom of your boots.
  • Stay connected. Travel with a cell phone and charger. Take with you a device you use for reading such as a handheld magnifier, portable video magnifier, tablet or e-reader that provide magnification.
  • Tell family or friends where you’re going. Identify your planned route, and what time you expect to arrive and return. Ask them to inform authorities if you’re very late.
  • For peace of mind, stay at home in very bad weather. If you must travel, if possible, consider riding with a friend, or taking a cab or public transport instead of walking. Should you encounter a problem, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

You don’t have to give up traveling independently because of vision loss. Lighthouse Guild’s Orientation and Mobility Instructors can help you learn to travel with confidence. Call 212-769-6299.