Finding His Way

In Features

The tapping of his cane. The buzz of a passing plane. The whistle of a persistent wind. These were the sounds of the Cal State Fullerton campus as Chetan Bakhru, who has been blind since birth, walked between classes.

He easily navigated the campus. His knack for staying the course is nothing new. He said since he was a child he has been more mobile than his blind peers.

Between preschool and sixth grade he had mobility training on a monthly basis. He said most blind people are trained once a week, but that even at that age he was able to go anywhere he wanted.

A former instructor marveled at his keen sense of direction.

“Chetan can find anything, he even found my house in Los Alamitos,” said Zofia Rundzia, French instructor at Anaheim High School.

While it is a risk for even sighted students to venture out on foot into the crowded parking areas, Bakhru said he refuses to limit where he will walk on campus.

He used the parking lots for short cuts. Being wary of cars, he slows his pace and tips his head while crossing. Other than that, he keeps going until he finds his way, he said.

“I am the kind of person, I just don’t care. I like to go explore,” Bakhru said.

The elements of nature would pose a problem for a less skilled walker, but not for Bakhru.

The strong wind didn’t break his attention as he listened to the sounds around him at University Hall. He said he used his hearing a lot while walking in the Titan Student Union, but doesn’t need it as much in a familiar area. Sometimes if there is a lot of noise, he said, he tries to be a bit more careful.

He can pick up a little bit of a shadow, as he has slight light recognition. He said he doesn’t really use it though, because depending on that would not help him at night.

He quickly became familiar with the campus because of the information passed on to him from disabled student services, he said.

When he first came to CSUF he was given a Braille map, was taught the layout of campus and memorized where every building was located. He said the campus was accessible because of the main path that runs along the buildings.

Bakhru had arrived at Langsdorf Hall via Access bus at dawn and escorted two blind women to their Humanities Building classes.

Bakhru left the lab at university hall and set out for his statistics class at McCarthy Hall on a misty morning that would make for slick passage across damp grass islands.

He was dressed in a striped shirt, ankle-top shoes and walking shorts. The black backpack bulged from two Braille books and a laptop computer he needed for the statistics lab to follow.

He opened the University Hall north door one narrow crack and then it automatically opened wide. Bakhru turned toward the west.

The sun was glinting on the windows of University Hall and of the myriad cracks of the sidewalk that sometimes caught the tip of his walking stick.

He advanced until his cane finally stuck in the grill at the border of the grass where the sign read, “no dumping, drains directly to ocean.”

Soon his expression grew sober as his posture stiffened. Having left the relative security of the grass border for the open path, he meandered through a surge of foot traffic.

Bakhru overshot the McCarthy Hall and took a detour toward the Quad. He drew an arc around some tires at the bike rack. With head tilted and tongue out between clinched teeth, he passed an ashtray and trash can at the base of the ramp.

His cane caught along the ramp’s steel grating as the Associated Students Inc. banners curled in the wind like the fronds of a fern.

He turned south into the breezeway, catching the corner of a blue mat. He zigged and zagged between sighted students rushing to class. His cane traced the outlines of the shoes of a couple standing with their arms full of books near the vending machines.

His cane has a standard tip rather than a “mushroom” tip with a wheel.

He walked past the vending machines. There was a slapping sound as he went through a blue door. The next slaps were even louder than the first. It was the escalator.

The clapping of escalator steps replaced the clicking of his cane.

A sign posted on the escalator read “Please use hand rail.”

“Watch your step” was stenciled on it in red paint.

He rode the four separate levels. The black rubber handrail joined a plexiglass railing at the fourth floor. Bakhru split from the stream of students out into the right corridor past the elevator where he followed the contour of the lecture hall by tapping at the brown baseboard.

Bakhru said he keeps the general layout of the campus in mind as he walks.

“I remember this aisle as the side of the building that faces UH,” he said.

Passing the men’s restrooms, Bakhru checked the Braille room numbers posted next to the next two doors, rubbing his fingers across them with his right hand.

His right hand came to rest at the sign beside the door of his math class at MH 442, where Gulhan Alpargu, assistant professor of mathematics, was writing on the board.

Turning to the right, he folded the five-piece cane and slid it in the rack beneath the front seat in the first aisle. He dropped his backpack. Unzipping it, he removed his laptop and ear phones and placed them on the desk.

“The other students usually leave the first seat open for me,” Bakhru said.

He knelt on the seat with his right knee in the space created by the semi-circular cutout in the left side of the wooden desktop.

Bakhru slid the backpack under the desk and sat down, donning the ear phones.

A program called “Jaws” reads back whatever has been typed into his computer.

His next challenge is to learn to navigate Dan Black Hall with its hidden patios and extensive seating areas, he said.

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