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Mona Minkara stands in front of a tall red gate at the Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine in Japan. The bioengineering professor films her travels on YouTube to show how the visually impaired can journey on their own using public transport. Photo: courtesy of Mona Minkara

Blind and travelling solo: a woman’s YouTube travel show celebrates public transport for the visually impaired across the world

  • Mona Minkara has the highest praise for Tokyo’s subway network, which made travelling as a blind person easy, and also rates Singapore’s MRT
  • She thinks many blind people don’t travel because they fear getting lost; once she overcame that fear, the engineering professor says, she felt completely free
Asia travel

Mona Minkara’s east Asian travels begin as soon as her plane touches down at Singapore’s Changi Airport. A camera follows her every move.

Pulling her suitcase with one hand and proudly displaying her long white cane in the other, Minkara exits the arrivals terminal and asks staff for directions to ground transport. Later, when transferring from a bus to a nearly empty MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) station, her cane strikes a line of raised tiles on the pavement. She pauses and glides her cane across the ridges.

“Oh, look at that, cane guides,” Minkara, who narrates her videos in real time, says. “Whenever there’s a turn, these cane guides create a grid on the ground, so I know there is an option to turn.”

The tactile paving leads Minkara first to a lift equipped with Braille buttons, and then down to the train platform.

Minkara and her friend and camerawoman Natalie Guse in a Tokyo ramen shop. Photo: courtesy of Mona Minkara

In the YouTube series Planes, Trains and Canes, Minkara takes viewers to five cities on three continents to show how a visually impaired person can independently travel by largely relying on public transport, which she says is “undervalued” by many car-loving Americans.

“A city with public transport is a city that allows me to be free,” says Minkara. “It’s very empowering to say, ‘I got this, even better than you car-driving people.’”

Minkara and Guse wearing brightly coloured kimonos after a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Tokyo. Photo: courtesy of Mona Minkara
Minkara, 32, wrapped up shooting for the series at the end of last year before the coronavirus pandemic brought international travel to a halt. She is now sheltering in place with family in Massachusetts in the US and teaching online courses at Boston’s Northeastern University, where she is a bioengineering professor.

The other destinations featured in Planes, Trains and Canes include the British capital, London, Johannesburg in South Africa, Istanbul in Turkey, and Tokyo.

She gives Singapore’s transit system high marks for its cane guide layout and modernity, but was underwhelmed by its buses, which do not make announcements. She ended up missing her stop and, rather than hop on another, decided to walk back.

She reserves her highest praise for the Japanese capital’s train network, which she says “ruined” her for all other cities.

Minkara, who had never previously travelled to Japan, says thanks to adaptive features – such as pedestrian crossings with audio signals, cane guides inside and outside stations, as well as audible alerts that direct subway passengers to nearby restrooms – manoeuvring around this “beast” of a system was made easy for even a first-time visually impaired visitor.

“It made this huge and daunting place extremely accessible,” she says. Boston’s metro seems “decrepit” in comparison, she adds.

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What also stood out to Minkara was the near silence she experienced while using Tokyo’s subway, which allowed her to appreciate ambient sounds that to others might seem like background noise.

“Every train line had a different musical tone that played when the doors opened,” she says. “It felt like I was in one big video game.”

Minkara diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition as a child. She explains she has about two per cent of her vision remaining in her left eye and only has some light perception in her right.

Minkara smiles in a Tokyo conveyor sushi restaurant. Photo: courtesy of Mona Minkara

Her video series was supported by the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired’s Holman Prize. The award is given to blind or legally blind individuals from around the world to fund projects that encourage travel.

While Planes, Trains and Canes shows how a blind solo traveller can successfully navigate foreign cities, Minkara was not completely alone; her friend and camerawoman, Natalie Guse, followed her lead. It requires a lot of trust to be guided by a blind person, Minkara says.

She says the two had a pact: Minkara would not ask for help and Guse would not offer it. The agreement was broken just once, in Johannesburg, when Minkara was nearly struck by a vehicle while crossing an intersection.

“I jumped in the road, put my hands out, and I think I yelled, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’ at the car,” says Guse. “I trust Mona, but I cannot say I trust drivers.”

Minkara in the Merlion Park in Singapore. Photo: courtesy of Mona Minkara

While Tokyo has accessible public transit, Minkara says its private sector lacks consideration for the visually impaired. For example in some restaurants kiosks take the place of wait staff.

“There was so much automation, I don’t know how you’d be able to order food as a blind person,” she says.

She says that in the less developed countries she visited, South Africa and Turkey, strangers frequently offered to assist her, but she was often ignored in wealthier cities even when she asked for help.

The biggest resistance she experienced was in London, where a transport official told Minkara that she wouldn’t be permitted to ride the city’s Underground system without someone accompanying her.

“He kept saying it wasn’t my choice, and I kept trying to understand why it wasn’t my choice to decline the help,” she says. “I think people project their fears of being blind on us.”

Minkara stood her ground and was eventually allowed to board the train without a guide.

She says the fear of getting lost or not being able to find help stops many people with visual impairments embarking on their own journeys – something she has had to overcome, too.

“The second I came to peace with being lost, or recognising that I might not be as efficient as the next person in navigating, a weight was lifted,” Minkara says.

It was a state of mind she says enabled her to feel completely free.