How fast can a blind person ambulate about town?

Over two decades ago, Robert substantially lost vision in both eyes.  After five failed corrective surgeries, taking a step forward, in unfamiliar environments, was a fearful thing.  The pith helmet he wore protected his head and earned him a very fitting term of endearment - 'Mr. McGoo'.

Dependent on 'sighted assistance' ('going sighted guide') meant a sighted person guided him beyond the familiar confines of his home and property.

An Independent Living Skills Professional, provided much encouragement and rehabilitation, teaching him Levels I, II and III braille.  Kathy taught him how to bathe, shave, pour water and other liquids without spilling, vacuum home carpets, how to prepare meals safely, using stovetop gas burners, gas oven, and microwave.  She guided him into a YMCA and marked key features of a treadmill and a stairstepper with raised dots.  Kathy taught him how to re-conquer immediate 3-D spaces he encounters in ambulating about.

An Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Professional brought him a long, white cane and taught him how to independently ambulate a few blocks around his immediate neighborhood.  Later, he expanded O&M training to include independently getting on and off public transportation and ambulating around other small areas of interest to Robert in Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona.

After some time ambulating about with a white cane, Kathy encouraged and assisted him in taking a quantum leap forward to vastly more independent, effectual, safe, and friendly guide dog mobility.

She greatly assisted him in assessing fourteen different guide dog / seeing eye dog schools in the US, UK and Australia.

Kathy took him out to job sites where guide dog users held various administrative and managerial jobs with their canine partners.  These service dogs lay quietly at their master's feet or lay in their office doorway, entertained by observing all the going and coming in office environments.

Robert chose guide dog mobility team training at a premier guide dog school in the US - Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., in San Rafael, California.  Then, Kathy assisted him in contacting GDB, and providing qualification and acceptance information.

So, how fast can a blind person ambulate about town?

Let's take mobility on familiar, long, open, clear, and even sidewalks for a point of reference.

Open sidewalks are obstruction free.  Open sidewalks have no obstacles like low, overhanging tree branches projecting down to the level of one's face from above or bush overgrowth into the sidewalk area from the side.  Open means no pedestrians, tricycles, bicycles or garden hoses in the path of the blind person or guide dog team.  It is unlikely vehicles will  be parked across open sidewalks.  ie open sidewalks do not have objects in the path of the blind person or guide dog team (guide dog and guide dog handler) that would impede forward progress.  Open sidewalks are along streets that have little to no vehicular or pedestrian traffic except during those small windows of time that some of the neighborhood residents leave and return home for work or school or shopping.

Clear sidewalks have no crushed rock, broken glass, pecans or acorns or other loose debris on the cement surface on which a blind person could slip, slide or fall.

Guide dogs slow down to navigate around loose debris to avoid the risk of injury to their partner and to their paw pad(s).  When fragments of glass, or thorns, injure a paw, a guide dog stops and offers the handler the offended paw trusting the handler is sensitive to the guide's injuries and special needs and always there to assist.  That's one major reason guide dog(s) work so energetically for handlers/partners.  Well, lavish praise and kibble treats at the end of the journey helps too!  The handler very quickly determines what the injury is, removes any embedded sharp object, massages the paw pads and encourages the guide dog that everything is OK now - 'it's Oooh Kaay!', 'I fixed it for you, now you're ok.!  'You're Oooh Kaay now Lanie Boy!'.  Lane 'Forward!'  Lane then picks up the established 'line of travel' and they're back on their way to the intended destination.  On clear sidewalks, the guide dog handler is rarely faced with paw or paw pad injuries.

'Even' sidewalks have no concrete portions rising significantly above other portions like when tree roots grow under the sidewalk, cracking and uplifting sections of concrete, on which one would trip and fall on raised edges.  Guide dogs stop and watch to insure the guide dog handler locates what they stopped to show the handler that, otherwise, may have caused the handler to stumble and fall onto the guide, potentually injuring either handler, guide dog, or both.

'Sighted assistance' is when a blind person is dependent on a fully sighted, fully ambulatory, person as their 'sighted guide'.  Robert's personal experience is that 'going sighted guide', is the slowest and most potentially irritating way to travel, yet, much better than stepping out into the abyss alone.  A 'sighted guide' is not a happy camper being throttled back to around 0.5 mph for long distances with a blind person in tow, walking slightly behind the sighted guide, holding their relaxed arm just above the left elbow.  For short distances - like assisting a blind person, with or without a guide dog, across a crowded room - it is very gracious and greatly helpful for a sighted guide to offer their arm to assist.  Sighted assistance can be very helpful and is almost invariably deeply appreciated.  Long distance sighted assistance, especially for a mile or more, is too restrictive for the sighted guide and can result in irritation and harsh verbal exchanges.  Going sighted guide would have taken Robert and his sighted guide two hours to walk the one mile from his home in Tone Ranch Estates, in Gilbert, Arizona to Fitness Works, where he swims, does stretching exercises in the steam room and sauna, relaxes in the jacuzzi, showers, and works out on resistance equipment and excercise balls, runs treadmills in the cardio theater, participates in group training classes and receives great health benefits from series of deep tissue massages in 'The SPA at Fitness Works'.

Going sighted guide for long distances would be of no cardiovascular benefit to either the blind person or to the sighted person.  Heart rate and blood pressure might increase slightly from the stress of it all.  After all, 0.5 mph is the absolute minimum speed of a threadmill.  Even the starting and 'cool down' speeds are greater than 0.5 mph.   See for yourself!  Test your patience level, or lack thereof, by walking that slow for a day.

Groping along at around 0.8 mph with a white cane would take over 75 minutes to walk the one mile from Robert's home to Fitness Works.  The white cane user's heart rate may increase to 60 beats per minute (bpm) or so.  Cardiovascular benefits of white cane travel, if at all, are minimal.  At least white cane mobility is 'independent' mobility.

By Class of 544 graduation time, at Guide Dogs for the Blind, in San Rafael, California, after guide dog team training for 28 days with a fully trained and class ready guide dog, Robert's first guide dog, Eve, guided him on long open sidewalks at around 4.4 mph.

Safely zipping along, guided by Eve, only takes 13 mins to arrive at Fitness Works.  At 4.4 mph, after several minutes, his heart rate may rise to around 110 bpm.  There are definitely cardiovascular benefits with guide dog mobility.  In this target heart rate zone, calories burned would be mostly fat calories.

On each 'Eve, hop up!' command, Eve increased her speed about 0.4 mph.  At first hop up, (brisk stretchy walk) Eve guides him around 4.8 mph.  Cruising along, safely, at 4.8, Eve, gets him to Fitness Works in only 12.5 minutes.  His heart rate increases to about 120.  Most of the calories burned are fat calories.

On second hop up, at around 5.2 mph, (walk transitions to slow jog) his guide dog would reach Fitness Works in about 11.5 mins.  After a few minutes at this speed, his heart rate increases to around 130 - great cardio benefits for a guide dog team.

On third hop up, at 5.6 mph, (jogging) the Fitness Work's e-card reader would be validating his check in card in about 10.7 mins.  His heart rate would increase to around 134.  At 5.6 mph, their own cooling breeze is created.

On fourth 'hop up!', at around 6 mph, (jogging territory), depending on outdoor temperature, wind speed and direction, Robert's internal thermostat will begin to cool his forehead with beads of sweat.  His heart rate would increase to around 138.  In only 10 minutes, Robert would be enjoying the health benefits of a deep tissue massage therapy session at The SPA.

On each 'Eve, steady!' command, Eve decreases her guiding speed about 0.4 mph.  Eve moves up in guiding speed with 'hop ups' and down in speed with 'steadys'.

Eve can do more hop ups than Robert can handle.  She has guided him so fast, his maximum heart rate, was reached.  Robert could feel drops of sweat sliding down his brow, back and chest.  His clothes were becoming wet.  His chewing gum liquified.  While maintaining an appropriate breathing pattern, liquid chewing gum was swallowed along with normal saliva.  Eve was heating up too.  He steadied her back down a few notches, 'Eve, Steady!', 'Eve, Steady!  'Steady!', 'Eve, Halt!'.  Robert swung off his pack to retrieve her a cool bottle of water.  He served her water in her plastic folding water dish housed in his back pocket.  He also gently splashed water on her head, neck and shoulders.  He drank the remaining swallow (about an ounce).  The big, white, energizer bunny, Eve, was ready to resume her mission.

Robert's second guide dog, Lane, has shorter legs.  His open sidewalk guiding speed begans around 4.0 mph and increases to around 4.4, 4.8, 5.2, 5.6 etc. with hop ups.  Robert's heart rate, at 4.0 mph, is around 100.  Often, four miles per hour is just dandy.  In crowded malls and on sidewalks in old San Francisco, fellow pedestrians would yield to this freight train pulled by the robust yellow engine with the spotted tongue.  Owning pedestrian walk ways was satisfying.  Fast guide dogs have less opportunity for distraction.  They seem to stay very alert and focused on their mission of safely arriving at their destination.

At Eve's 'chewing gum liquification' guiding speeds, Lane, must gallop.  Lane's California State Certified Guide Dog Mobility Instructors and Apprentice Mobility Instructors at Guide Dogs for the Blind, Inc., Class of 594, felt more comfortable when Lane was not galloping.  Sweating, huffing and puffing, one of Lane's guide dog mobility trainers told him, 'Robert, please do not let Lane gallop in class'; 'when you get to the other side (of the intersection) tell Lane to halt'; 'you and Lane wait there until I catch up';  'We can not keep up with Lane'; 'when you return home with Lane, what we don't know won't hurt us'; 'here at school slow it down, please!'.


Robert M. Thomas
Academic Professional Faculty Emeritus
Arizona State University
Emeritus College
Tempe, Arizona

Improving lives of people with little or no sight!