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Navigating London with Visual Impairment

May 2024

In February I began a new chapter in my life: I started work. After nearly seven months of applying for several roles, I secured a job in the heritage sector in London.  

 After finishing my dissertation, my job hunt began. I am not going to pretend it was an easy process, but I will preface with the fact that applying for jobs is a job. Which was why, when I finally got one, I was thrilled and relieved. But then it sunk in that I had got a job in London and was going to have to navigate the commute and the Underground with a visual impairment. Not that it stopped me.

The following article details how I navigate the London Underground – and London in general – with a visual impairment and will provide, I hope, some guidance.

To get to work I have to get a train into London Marylebone and then change twice at the Underground. Before I started work, I practiced the route twice: once on a regular afternoon and then again at morning rush hour. This was not only to understand my route, but also to experience the joys of a standing-room only train and rush-hour on the London Underground. It was important I did this and I am glad I did, but I practised the route for another reason.

I can confidently say that London is an unpredictable city. Staying on your guard and being visually aware is key. This comes with a set of challenges for someone with visual impairment. You can read my article Living With Glaucoma to understand how my vision affects me. Knowing and becoming familiar with my route would not only boost my confidence in unfamiliar areas but it would also make me aware of the obstacles, barriers, roads, steps and traffic lights along the way. This was the first step to navigating my commute.

The second thing I did to help me independently navigate the Underground was to figure out colours. For example, brown is the Bakerloo Line, dark blue is the Piccadilly Line, grey is the Jubilee and so on. These were easy visual cues to tell which line was which. One of my worries about travelling on the Underground was that the signs would either be too small or not clear. Thankfully, they are neither. They are written in a bold font and everything is clearly labelled, including the ‘way out’ sign which is always lit up. While the tube maps are small, I have the TFL Go app on my phone which allows me constant access to the map and I can enlarge it. I would highly recommend it when commuting. For anyone. Live information on delays or cancellations is a godsend.


When travelling in London alone I use a red and white symbol cane which I bought from the RNIB. These two colours symbolise my duo-impairment: red is for hearing impairment and white is for visual impairment, but most people will not know what the red means as they are more familiar with a white stick.

I used to refuse to use a symbol cane because I thought it embarrassing to let people know of my disability. That it would somehow hinder the independence I so desired, but I now use it with pride. I understand now that it is extremely useful when navigating a busy city.

It is important to point out that the cane is more for everybody else than it is for me. It makes people aware that I need extra time navigating roads and in some cases I may need some space to see where I am going. I have learnt to be aware of crowds and to judge whether the symbol cane is necessary. My commute has taught me to independently make judgements based on my surroundings. 

Not everybody will bat an eyelid at the symbol cane; some bypass you without second thought and others will turn away, but there are those that will help. Forgive me for getting philosophical, but humans, as Aristotle said all those years ago, are social animals. We naturally want to help others. That brings me onto my next point.

I was coming home one evening and there had been protests. Consequently, the barriers at my Underground station were closed and many Lines were either severely disrupted or suspended. I only have one word to describe the Underground that evening: chaos.

I approached a member of staff and asked if the Line was running, which thankfully it was. However, the staff member stopped me from leaving when he noticed my symbol cane. He asked me where I was travelling to, then he offered to get someone to get me through the closed barriers and to help me to the platform. Another member of staff – Carlos, if you are somehow reading this, thank you! – came and directed me to the platform amidst the sea of people trying to get home. He let me know where steps were. I had never seen the Underground so busy and it was a little overwhelming. I don’t know what would have happened if I did not accept the help. I will never forget those two TFL staff members. I strive to be independent. I even encourage it in the disabled community, but I know that there are some things I need extra support with. It is important to remember that it is ok and not embarrassing to both ask for help and accept it when it is offered.

Commuting to and from London has been one of the biggest milestones and challenges in my life. I was apprehensive about it before starting work, but now that I have done it for three months and will continue to rely on it, I have conquered that apprehension. I do know that there is more I will learn – and I look forward to it. Being visually impaired, it would be too easy to accept something as too difficult, but that is not me. These experiences are how I learn.  I hope this article has helped and informed you.

By Ciara Griffiths