Local Rocker Andy Slater Discusses What It’s Like Riding the CTA as a Blind Person

Andy Slater at the Montrose Blue Line station. Photo: Baron Vonn Slater
Andy Slater at the Montrose Blue Line station. Photo: Baron Vonn Slater

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

Getting around Chicago via mass transit can be frustrating for any of us, but imagine what it’s like for people who are legally blind. Visually impaired sound artist, rock musician, and recording engineer Andy Slater offered to share his experiences navigating the city on public transportation and floated some ideas to improve transportation access for folks with disabilities.

A native of Milford, Connecticut, Slater moved to town in 1994 to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and now lives in Portage Park with his wife, Tressa, and their 12-year-old son, whose very rock ‘n’ roll name—yes, his real name—is Baron Vonn Slater. Andy creates “organic-electric” soundtracks and sound design especially geared toward people with visual impairments, with the goal of evoking images and colors. He also sings and plays keyboards in the acid-funk band the Velcro Lewis Group and records other acts at Frogg Mountain studio in the West Loop.

Slater’s vision has gradually declined since childhood, due to retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that involves the deterioration of the retina’s rod photoreceptor cells. Symptoms include loss of peripheral and night vision, plus light sensitivity—Slater must wear two pairs of sunglasses to go outside on a sunny day. The condition can eventually lead to total blindness.

Nowadays Slater can detect light and dark, shapes, and movement, but not much else.

“There’s a layer over my vision like snow from an old TV,” he says. “It’s this strange mix between a sort of neon purple and these black dots that kind of move around.”

A panel from Andy Slater and Steve Krakow's comic book.
A panel from Andy Slater and Steve Krakow’s comic book.

In 2009, when his sight was somewhat better, Slater was walking from his home in Humboldt Park to Wicker Park when he was struck in a crosswalk at Division and Western by a turning driver who failed to yield. (Five years earlier, a drunk driver fatally struck Slater’s acquaintance Christopher Saathoff, bassist for Chin Up Chin Up, at the same intersection.)

Slater suffered damage to his leg muscles and back and still has a “nasty scar” on his right arm. It took about a year of physical therapy for him to make a full recovery. While he’d previously been hesitant to use a white cane because he didn’t want to draw attention to his disability, after the crash he began using one without fail, both for navigation and to warn other road users of his condition.

Slater and his family currently live near Montrose and Milwaukee. Although they own a car, he frequently uses CTA trains and buses to pick up his son from elementary school near the California Blue Line station, commute to his studio near Lake and Ogden, and go to band practice in Humboldt Park.

While he’s generally comfortable getting around on his regular el and bus routes, accessibility issues influence his travel decisions.

“If I have to transfer to another train line where there’s no direct transfer, or if I have to leave the station, I generally don’t bother because that’s a huge pain in the ass even if there’s [a customer assistant] there to help me,” he says.

For example, Frogg Mountain is only a few blocks west of the Morgan Green/Pink Line station. But Slater often travels there via the Ashland bus, because transferring from the Blue Line subway to the elevated tracks at the Clark/Lake station is a complex operation for a legally blind person. “It’s just too taxing for me,” he says. “I get turned around a lot in terms of where the stairs or turnstiles are, and I hate wandering around clueless and confused.”

Read the rest of the article on the Chicago Reader website.