With a Little Help, Blind Tourist Fulfills His Sense of Adventure

Repost from Portland Press Herald | by Lana Cohen | Photos by Brianna Soukup | Posted: Aug 21, 2022

Local couple Ivy Bateman and Trevor Greene lead Ian Perrault, center, through downtown Porltnad. Perrault was born blind but doesn’t let that stop him from traveling around the country. Every year, he takes around four overnight trips and 30 day trips to different cities. Perrault posted on Facebook asking if any locals would want to show him around the city; Bateman and Greene saw the post and offered to spend the day with him.

Local couple Ivy Bateman and Trevor Greene lead Ian Perrault, center, through downtown Porltnad. Perrault was born blind but doesn’t let that stop him from traveling around the country. Every year, he takes around four overnight trips and 30 day trips to different cities. Perrault posted on Facebook asking if any locals would want to show him around the city; Bateman and Greene saw the post and offered to spend the day with him.

Ian Perrault, 38, enjoys traveling solo around the country. When he put out a request on Facebook for a friend to show him around Portland, a local couple jumped at the chance.

Using one hand to grip the top of his white cane and the other to hold the arm of a conductor, Ian Perrault exited the train that had just arrived in Portland from Boston and walked slowly toward the city’s bus and train station.

Inside, he wanted to absorb everything around him. He asked: What was to his right? His left? “Is there a self-serve ticket kiosk? An information desk?”

Perrault is blind. He has been since birth.

He is skilled at navigating the world around him, which is largely unsurprising. At 38 years old, he has almost four decades of practice and the help of technology that has increased accessibility for people who are blind and visually impaired. Those who are blind say the most common misconception people have about those without sight is that they are unable to live independent and successful lives.

An Amtrak Downeaster employee helps Ian Perrault off the train and into the station after he arrived from Boston into Portland.

An Amtrak Downeaster employee helps Ian Perrault off the train and into the station after he arrived from Boston into Portland.

Perrault frequently adventures around the country, visiting unfamiliar cities and opening himself up to new people.

Perrault lives in a residential Boston neighborhood. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in public administration. He works at a Massachusetts bank in human resources and as the Americans with Disabilities Act specialist, ensuring the bank’s services are accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired.

He’s funny and laid back. He likes dad jokes and accepted a two-hour-plus wait for a table at Portland’s popular Duckfat restaurant without hesitation or complaint. He loves listening to music, especially The Beatles, and sometimes indulges in karaoke with friends. His song of choice is Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” He knows the words by heart.

More than anything, Perrault loves to travel. He’s visited places near and far including Washington, D.C., Montreal, Denver, London, Paris and Hong Kong. Sometimes he travels alone, other times with friends and family. He often makes friends in the new places he goes, with strangers who help him out along the way and by posting on social media to see if anyone is free to spend the day with him.

Trevor Greene leads Ian Perrault up to the Portland Transportation Center.

Trevor Greene leads Ian Perrault up to the Portland Transportation Center.

He took his most recent trip last weekend. It was a solo adventure here, to Portland.

Inside the train and bus terminal, Ivy Bateman and Trevor Greene answered Perrault’s questions about his surroundings, describing to him in detail what the inside of the terminal looked like: Big glass windows to Perrault’s right, rows of gray chairs to his left and a few vending machines straight ahead.

Bateman, 26, and Greene, 30, were strangers to Perrault before they met late on a Saturday morning. They responded to his Facebook post asking if anyone wanted to hang out when he was in town.

“Hi All! I’m making a spontaneous trip to Portland from Boston this Saturday August 13, on a small railroad called Amtrak!” Perrault wrote, saying it would be helpful to him if people could describe his surroundings and warn him about steps and such.

“If you may be free this Saturday, message me on Facebook, and we’ll chat,” he said.

Ian Perrault and Trevor Greene laugh as they ride a Metro bus into downtown Portland. Perrault – who wrote his master’s thesis on the accessibility of the Boston public transit system and once served on a transportation advisory committee for the city – says an easy-to-use transit system is, in his opinion, the hallmark of a good city.

Ian Perrault and Trevor Greene laugh as they ride a Metro bus into downtown Portland. Perrault – who wrote his master’s thesis on the accessibility of the Boston public transit system and once served on a transportation advisory committee for the city – says an easy-to-use transit system is, in his opinion, the hallmark of a good city.

Bateman and Greene are both lifelong Mainers, Bateman from Portland and Greene from Freeport. The couple said they saw Perrault’s post and it seemed as if they had common interests, including eating good food, drinking good beer and meeting new people.

“Honestly, my first thought when I saw his post was how cool it was that he was interested in coming here and putting himself out there in a new city,” Bateman said. “We really just thought it would be a great experience and that he seemed like a pretty cool person and we had a lot of the same interests.”

Bateman, Greene and Perrault seemed to become fast friends. From the transportation center, the trio hopped on the city bus and headed to the Old Port. Bateman and Greene had never taken the Portland city bus before.

Perrault takes a special interest in public transportation. He wrote his master’s thesis on the accessibility of the Boston public transit system, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, and was formerly on the MBTA’s Access Advisory Committee.

Ian Perrault at the information desk at the Portland Transportation Center after arriving from Boston on the Amtrak.

Ian Perrault at the information desk at the Portland Transportation Center after arriving from Boston on the Amtrak.

In addition to good food and beer and kind, open-minded people, an easy-to-use transportation system makes a good city in his view. The Portland bus got a good review from Perrault – the driver was nice and helpful, the payment system easy to use and the automated system announcing the stops easy to understand, he said.

Last year, he took a 50-hour Greyhound bus trip to Denver. In April, he went to Baltimore for a week to visit a friend. This fall he plans to go to Chicago and back to Colorado, although this time he will fly. He usually takes between 15 and 30 trips a year, four or five overnight ones and the rest day trips.

Like anyone else, Perrault wasn’t born comfortable traveling alone on public transportation within cities and across the country. He had to build up his confidence by getting lost, asking for help and trying again.

And once he gained the skills and trust in himself that he needed, he passed on what he learned.

Ian Perrault smiles as he eats some long-awaited Duckfat fries.

Ian Perrault smiles as he eats some long-awaited Duckfat fries.

Perrault met his close friend Tyler Terrasi, who is also blind, about a decade ago, when he spoke in front of Terrasi’s class at Massachusetts-based Perkins School for the Blind about life after graduation. Terrasi and Perrault both attended Perkins, but at different times.

At that point, Terrasi had taken public transportation without a sighted person only once. He was nervous, scared and didn’t have proper instruction. He vowed never to do it again. But then Perrault showed him how it was done – that he didn’t have to memorize the whole system and that he could figure things out on the go. Terrasi took the bus by himself and then the subway.

“It was one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences I had,” Terrasi said. “It showed me I could do anything I set my mind to if I knew how to use the tools.” Terrasi now takes public transportation almost every day to get to his job. “I give Ian credit,” he said.

In Portland, Bateman, Greene and Perrault spent the day walking around, eating and drinking their way through the city, and chatting about their travels around the country – both parties had recently been to Colorado – and the different things to do in Portland and other areas in Maine.

Local couple Ivy Bateman and Trevor Greene lead Ian Perrault through downtown Portland.

Local couple Ivy Bateman and Trevor Greene lead Ian Perrault through downtown Portland.

One would have thought they had known each other for years, Perrault holding the arm of Bateman or Greene as they walked through the city, his new Portland friends explaining to him everything they saw around them. Perrault explained to them the different elements of city infrastructure that help him get around when he doesn’t have assistance from a sighted person. The tactile paving in front of cross walks warns people who are blind that they are moving off the sidewalk and into the street, he said.

Walking from Middle Street to Commercial Street, a route that was bustling with pedestrians, Greene and Bateman guided Perrault through crowds of people and the maze of Portland summer construction – stepping right to avoid a group walking toward them and across the road to get past a street closure.

“They don’t do any construction in the winter, so in the summer the city tries to do 10 months of construction in two months,” Greene said.

As they walked, Greene pointed out DiMillo’s, the landmark Old Port boat restaurant, different breweries and restaurants, and the ferry terminal for the Casco Bay islands.

The trio talked about their shared love of food. Bateman and Greene sometimes like to spend a day having what they call a snack-a-thon – where they go to a restaurant, order an appetizer or beer, and ask for the check when they order. Then they eat and drink, pay and move on to the next restaurant. Perrault has favorite restaurants in all the cities he has been to, and lists of ones he wants to try. He has all their locations saved on Google Maps and a navigation app for the blind called Nearby Explorer.

Ian Perrault and Ivy Bateman, 26, have a beer and a snack on Aug. 13 at Liquid Riot. Bateman, and Trevor Greene, said they responded to Perrault’s post because they admired that he was “putting himself out there in a new city.”

Ian Perrault and Ivy Bateman, 26, have a beer and a snack on Aug. 13 at Liquid Riot. Bateman, and Trevor Greene, said they responded to Perrault’s post because they admired that he was “putting himself out there in a new city.”

Although spending a day with new friends is his preference, Perrault is also happy to explore a new city by himself. He has a series of tools he uses to provide himself the information sighted people get from observing what is around them.

He’s confident and comfortable asking for help and directions, and often finds people who go out of their way to assist him. “When I was at Perkins, I was taught to advocate for myself and to ask questions and ask for the help I needed,” he said. “How else?”

He walks nimbly using his cane, which serves as his eyes, moving it back and forth in front of his body. He seems to use it without thinking about it, like it’s an extension of himself. And then there’s technology, which in the past few decades has vastly changed the options for interacting with the world.

Perrault has two Amazon Alexas at home, uses voice control on his iPhone, screen readers for his computer, and a technology called Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistance to provide him with visual information that can’t be easily replaced with other senses. AIRA, which has been around since 2015, provides live agents 24 hours a day who can help with any task. Standing on Middle street in Portland, Perrault showed Bateman and Greene how AIRA works. Holding his camera out in front of him, an agent described his surroundings – a cloudy sky with a patch of blue, people eating to his right, a woman (Bateman) scratching her arm.

Still, sometimes assistance from a friend or a stranger is in order.

Ian Perrault points his phone toward the sky as he listens to an Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistance (AIRA) agent describe the surroundings – the sky is mostly cloudy with a patch of blue – as he waits outside of Duckfat. AIRA is one of several adaptive technology services Perrault uses to navigate through the world.

Ian Perrault points his phone toward the sky as he listens to an Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistance (AIRA) agent describe the surroundings – the sky is mostly cloudy with a patch of blue – as he waits outside of Duckfat. AIRA is one of several adaptive technology services Perrault uses to navigate through the world.

Sitting at the bar at Duckfat, which specializes in Belgian-style french fries, Perrault enthusiastically pulled a thick, golden fry out of the basket in front of him and held it in his hand. Next to the basket of fries sat a plate with five small paper cups filled with different sauces.

“Okay, this one is the garlic sauce,” Bateman said. Perrault dipped. “Here, I’m passing you the curry,” said Greene, placing the sauce in front of Perrault. Next went horseradish, Thai chili, truffle ketchup. Perrault said that horseradish was his favorite, and that they were the best fries he’d ever had.

“Food is good,” he commented, reaching for another fry.

Perrault hasn’t seen the world. But with considerable confidence, the help of friends and family, the kindness of strangers, public transportation, modern technology and some serious street smarts, he’s experienced it.

He enjoyed visiting Hong Kong years ago but said that the texture of pigeon (a popular dish in the region) he ate was weird. On his Greyhound trip to Denver, he made a friend during a layover in New York who helped him on and off the bus at every stop the rest of the 50-hour journey. Montreal, he said, has the best transportation system he’s ever taken. Washington, D.C.’s used to be good, but now there’s too much construction. His favorite place he’s ever traveled is London, because he loves fish and chips.

He said he likes Portland because it’s easy to get to from Boston and the food is good. But mostly he says he likes going to places where the people are open-minded.

“We’re all just people,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

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