Thirty Years Later: Experiencing Washington D.C. Without Vision

When Brandie Kubel, our CareersPLUS Coordinator and Independent Living Skills Instructor, arrived in Washington D.C. last month, it had been 30 years since she had last visited the capitol city with her roommate at age 21 – just one week before she lost all her remaining vision.

Her 1992 trip began in Washington D.C. on Dec. 27 and ended on New Year’s Eve in Times Square, New York. After returning from her travels on Jan. 2, 1993, Brandie’s retina detached because of her underdeveloped retina from premature birth, and she lost her remaining vision.

Three decades later, as part of her work at Society for the Blind, Brandie had the opportunity to attend a conference hosted by the American Foundation for the Blind in Arlington, Virginia. She decided to go three days early to explore Washington D.C., this time on her own.

“It really felt like a full circle trip for me,” Brandie said.

Back in 1992, Brandie’s vision was low, and she had no depth perception, but she did not use a cane and had not taken any mobility courses. Her roommate helped her navigate the city, but she still had accidents each day and would trip and fall.

“I don’t really know how I managed,” Brandie said. “It’s just how I got through life.”

Thirty years later, Brandie put her independent living skills to the test. Alongside improved technology, she also found herself relying on what she calls her “old school orientation and mobility skills”: asking questions, listening to sound cues and paying attention to cardinal points.

“I teach people these skills, but I forget that while teaching them I’m also learning,” Brandie said. “This was really a test for me: You teach the skills, but can you walk the walk? It was sink or swim to show that this stuff really works. And I was so tickled that it did.”

Brandie said the trip also showed her how much she has grown both as a person and as a blind person.

“It was just the most awesome, empowering experience,” Brandie said. “I learned that I have more abilities and more courage in myself than I knew. This time, 30 years older, I knew so much more about life and had so much more appreciation for American history.”

One of the most exciting parts of her trip was getting to tour the Capitol building, including the famous underground tunnels, thanks to an opportunity through Congresswoman Doris Matsui’s office with legislative assistant Sydney Dahiyat and a UC Davis intern named Jose. There was a particular flight of stairs in front of a U.S. flag in the Capitol building that she remembered touching when she was in D.C. in 1992. She remembered they were worn in the center from the thousands of lawmakers’ feet that walked up and down them for the last 200 years.

“It was important to me to return and find those stairs and touch them again,” Brandie said. “When I did, I got very emotional and sat there a minute to reflect on how far I’ve come. It was like going back and touching my own history. It was such a reminder of why I chose to study at UC Berkeley where the disability rights movement began, and I why I chose to be a professional in rehabilitation services.”

Throughout her trip, Brandie often wished she could go back in time and give herself a cane and low-vision aids, things she had no idea existed at the time. She walked significantly more on this trip than in 1992 because she had the mobility skills. She advocated for herself at museums such as the Smithsonian and International Spy Museum and experienced tours with assistance, including adaptive technology through her iPhone.

“I felt like I saw more being totally blind than I did being partially sighted,” she said laughing.

Brandie never regretted her decision to take the trip alone.

“Normally when you travel, you want to be with someone to experience it, but I loved that I was alone and doing it myself,” Brandie said. “I kind of felt like a blind version of one of those travel guides on TV.”

When it was time for the conference on diversity, equity and inclusion to begin, she was over the moon.

“My time in D.C. was like three days of exactly what the conference was all about,” Brandie said. “I can’t thank the leadership at Society for the Blind enough for giving me this experience. I feel like I can now tell my students from personal experience: Don’t let your fear and anxiety stop you from rising to the challenge. I had doubt, fear and anxiety, but I also had the skills, technology and desire to do it. You just have to live – life is too short not to.”