I've Been Legally Blind for Decades — Here's What It's Like to Travel the World on My Own

Guiding Eyes for the Blind president Thomas Panek has been visually impaired since he was young, but that hasn’t stopped him from traveling the world.

Composite image of Thomas Panek traveling

Courtesy of Thomas Panek

For Travel + Leisure’s column Traveling As, we’re talking to travelers about what it’s like to explore the world through their unique perspectives, We chatted with Guiding Eyes for the Blind president and CEO Thomas Panek, about his experiences traveling with decades-long vision loss. Here’s his story… 

I started to lose my sight as a young man. Even as a boy, I had trouble seeing at night. Turns out, I have a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. It’s the equivalent of tunnel vision that turns to darkness at night. Then you can't see in the day, except in the center, and eventually not at all. It’s a common form of blindness, not that blindness is common. It affects people as they age, and they end up needing reading glasses and bifocals. It just happened much quicker for me, and by the time I was about 18 to 20 years old, I was legally blind.

Nonetheless, I’ve always thrived on travel. I've always managed to go places on my own, but what makes my travels unique is that I’ve always done so with a guide dog, even before it was popular to have a service animal. My dog does all the navigating, but I've been traveling around the world independently for 25 years, and I've never once gotten so much as a bump.

My dog's job is to make sure I'm on the sidewalk, going around obstacles and pedestrians, and stopping at curbs. Paying attention to traffic is my responsibility. My dog will identify a car turning in my lane and backing up, but I use the same navigation tools you do, either Google Maps or Apple Maps. My phone reads aloud, so I use it just like you do, too, except I listen to the navigation and then my dog takes me from block to block, stopping at the curbs.

Before we had phones, I used to count the number of blocks and ask people along the way. We’d all get lost more often, but there was more human interaction. It's almost hard to remember how we did that. Technology has been an equalizer for the blind traveler.  

Thomas traveling with his guide dog

Courtesy of Thomas Panek

When my wife and I were both in graduate school, she was studying in France. I would hop on a plane after work, we would spend the weekend together, and then I would head back to the U.S. on Sunday night and sleep at my desk at work. I always did that independently with my dog.

Kyoto, Japan, was one of the most amazing places I've visited. Having a large breed dog in such a spiritual place like Japan, with all its temples and shrines, is unique. We hopped on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo — seeing that millennium of history and being able to travel through that kind of environment is incredible. 

At Guiding Eyes for the Blind, our guide dogs are offered at no charge to people who are blind or visually impaired. Volunteer puppy raisers care for them in their homes for the first 18 to 24 months and then we put them through a formal training process in which we teach them how to behave in different environments. For example, we do mock TSA simulations — the dogs are tucked under their seats and become very comfortable with staying in the footprint, which is what's required. 

When I board an aircraft, my dog will curl up like a piece of luggage. Sometimes, the person next to me will be surprised at the end of the flight when my luggage stands up — they think my dog is a yellow suitcase. That's how good they are; they’re quiet and tucked away.

The guide dogs usually get to you when they’re about two years old after they’ve been raised and trained. They retire between eight and 10 years old, so in 25 years or so, I’ve had several dogs. My very first was a yellow lab named Paulson when I was in my mid-20s. I recently retired Blaze and just got a new yellow lab — named Ten, after quarterback Eli Manning. (Eli is actually on our board of directors and he handed him off to me.)

Those with visual impairments usually use either a cane or a guide dog. The main difference is the cane identifies obstacles. For example, if you're boarding a train, you can use the cane to feel if the door is open, locate the side of the door, and whether the train has arrived. Meanwhile, I'm on my iPhone, reading the newspaper, and my dog pulls me along. He knows the door is open and where the exits of the train are. It really is a different experience when you give up the cane and let a dog do the navigating.

The incredible thing about guide dogs is that once they've been somewhere, they know. They're very pattern-oriented. For example, if I were to go to Times Square and stop at the Marriott Marquis, the next time I pass the hotel, the dog will pause at the door, wondering if I want to go in. They're very intuitive and have good pattern recognition. Whenever I go to Washington, D.C., for example, my dog knows as soon as I land at Reagan National Airport that I need to go to the metro, and we’ll navigate out of the two terminal areas to get there.

The unique thing about having a guide dog is as soon as I exit the aircraft, I'm able to be mobile. My dog knows how to navigate to escalators and elevators and out the airport to a taxi or Uber.

Thomas at a car show

Courtesy of Thomas Panek

I'm independent with a dog. For instance, I recently traveled to Germany. I went to Hamburg with a dog, and to Regensburg without a dog. I couldn't even leave the hotel and go to a nearby cafe in Regensburg. With the cobblestones there, it's hard to travel with a cane, as you have to feel your way down the street to the cafe. With a guide dog, I can travel the whole city — and pretty quickly — even run (I’ve run at least 21 marathons, but that’s a whole other story).

That said, it can be harder to travel with a dog these days. On my first trip overseas, there was an open seat next to me. They put my dog there and said they were going to bring him a tray of food and throw on Looney Tunes. Nowadays, you’re lucky if the plane isn’t overbooked. We’ve become stricter — as we should — about which dogs can travel. Hotels have gotten harder, too. Some have a pet policy, but if I have a guide dog, they’re supposed to let me have access by law. Now, it has gotten more challenging as more pets start traveling.

Interestingly, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is not in effect in the air. But the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) covers air travel for people with disabilities, and I do have the right to fly with my guide dog in the cabin.

I'm not myself when I don't travel with my dog. It feels like someone took something away from me. It's probably how many people feel traveling without their phone. It makes it tough for someone who can't navigate independently.

When people travel, they say, I want to go see this. But if you think about that for a second, what are you seeing? You taste food, you hear the language — that's an immersion in a different culture.

Thomas holding a special piece of the parthenon with his son

Courtesy of Thomas Panek

A few months ago, I was in Athens with my son, Timothy. As I was going up to the Parthenon, one of the guides noticed I was blind and ran over and said he wanted to give me something. He came out with a model of the Parthenon the size of a shoebox and let me feel the model, and I could understand what the ruins look like.

Then he said, you're the only one who can touch the Parthenon. Because you can't see it, your experience is to be able to touch it. No one is allowed to touch the marble — there are guards watching,

Timothy being sighted couldn't touch it, but I had this unique experience. So, you go through these things where you experience things a bit differently as a traveler. Now I know in my mind what the Parthenon looks like. I know what it feels like. I can't tell you that I saw it, but I was certainly there.

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