Skip to content

Describing Toronto

In 2016 I started planning my first described walking tour. I was a one-man-band; I did my own research, writing, and promoting. And on a rainy Saturday afternoon, a dozen or so friends (and friends of friends), folks from the Blind community, showed up to hear me describe the visuals of downtown Toronto.

Now I’m a bit of a theatre kid, and I like a bit of low key showmanship, so I planned to use the distinctive sound of a passing streetcar as my cue to describe Toronto’s transit vehicles. We had just gotten the fancy new articulated streetcars with the accordion section connecting the front and back halves. They were all over the local news and I thought folks would really enjoy a description of them.

The streetcar rolls by — there’s my cue — so I stopped the group and launched into my scripted and rehearsed description: “The new streetcars look like long, sleek, shiny, red and white capsules, topped with a metal rod that connects to an overhead wire. The windows are tinted—”

“Excuse me,” one of the participants said, “A rod connected to an overhead wire?”

“Yes, a long trolley pole extends out of the top of every streetcar. That pole maintains contact with an overhead power wire. But those black windows are—”

“Wait a minute,” another participant said. “There’s a live power wire above the street?”

“Ya,” I said, “It’s held up by a grid of support cables. But anyway…”

“So there’s a grid of wires and cables over our heads right now?”

And it finally hit me. I was trying to describe visuals that I thought were cool, but my audience was clearly telling me that I was missing something far more interesting and important to them. In classic Accessibility fashion I had made the mistake of thinking that I was the expert.

So I started partnering with organizations from the Blind Community to plan and run my described walks. Now I work with the CNIB (the Canadian National Institute for the Blind) and the Toronto Visionaries on described tours of the city. We’ve toured neighbourhoods like the Annex, Yorkville, the Waterfront, Chinatown, and Kensington Market; we do theme walks talking about infrastructure and urban change; we do holiday walks at Christmas, and ghost walks in the fall. 

And because we collaborate I now know to weave historical context into my descriptions. I know to describe monuments and architectural gems, but also tiny visual details like graffiti, postering campaigns, and the spray paint markings that work crews leave on city streets.

My walks are written and organized with the needs of Blind and Low Vision audiences in mind, with attention paid to all the senses, but on every walk, sighted guides and sighted participants seem to enjoy themselves, too. I don’t think we identified it at the time, but our approach was influenced by Universal Design. By integrating the description and the narratives from the start we avoid the need to rejig our work and provide supplemental accessibility so that one group can catch up with another.

Instead, we all journey through the same story together.