What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 04: I Don’t Have Super-Abilities

The image shows Lois using her sense of touch to explore the Athens Museum

You wouldn’t believe how often people ask me if my blindness has given me extra sensory abilities – whether I can hear, scent, and taste better than a sighted person, and have a more sensitive sense of touch.

My honest answer? I don’t think so.

I don’t believe my other senses have improved since losing my sight. But I do believe that I pay them more attention than I did when I was able to rely on my sight. Which means they may appear to be better than they were.

When I was sighted I relied most on my sense of sight to give me input. I believe most sighted people do the same thing. Since losing my sight, I have used the input I gain from my other senses to fill in the gap caused by my visual impairment. My ability to interpret the world around me is dependent on what I can feel, hear, and smell. So I pay far more attention to the input I gain from my other senses than I used to.

When I’m walking to our local train station I use my other senses to help me identify where on my route I am – whether it be the scent of a particular plant, or the sound of a specific dog who always barks at Fiji and myself as we pass. Whether it’s a patch of gravel that helps me realize I am approaching the station itself, or a dip in the road that identifies the spot where we need to turn and cross the road we’ve been travelling for the past 10 minutes. My other senses compensate for my lack of sight and help me navigate the world.

My lack of sight means I experience travel very differently. Of course I miss out on the sightseeing that a sighted tourist would be able to do. But I regularly pick up things that a sighted person, who relies primarily on their sense of sight, might miss. For me, travel is a multi-sensory experience that incorporates every sense I have at my disposal. Which gives me a vastly different, but no less rich, experience of a destination.

When was the last time you focused on the input you could gain from your other senses? Why not take a moment to notice what you hear? Smell? Touch? And see what an extra dimension your world gains. Now, imagine doing the same when you are next in a new city or country.

There is so much that I wasn’t aware of because I was able to use my eyes to interpret the world around me. I’m not saying that my other senses completely fill in what I used to be able to see, but they certainly give me an alternate way to explore the world.

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 03: Don’t Assume I Need Help

Lois using a phone

One day a courier delivered a package to my home. This was back before the pandemic changed the way we live our lives. Back in the day when couriers expected you to actually sign for a delivery.

On this particular day, the courier handed me the parcel and started to walk away.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Don’t I have to sign for the parcel?”
“Don’t worry,” he said in all seriousness, Ï know you can’t write so I signed it for you”
And then he left. While I stood there, stupefied with shock.
It’s not the first time that’s happened. And usually I make a point of calling the courier back and showing him that I am quite capable of holding a pen and signing my name on the delivery papers. But this time it simply happened too fast.

In truth, I can almost certainly do more than people believe I can. I think it’s because they don’t understand the techniques I use to accomplish tasks, and automatically assume it’s not possible. Which is why so much of my work is about explaining the tools and techniques I have at my disposal as a blind person.

Even people who know me well sometimes struggle to understand what I can and cannot manage, and occasionally default to assuming that a task is not possible for me. A colleague who has known me for several years once offered to make tea when she visited me. Because she thought I couldn’t do it myself.

I understand that people are often just trying to help. My husband sometimes gets frustrated when he offers help because he sees me struggling with a task. And it’s true he could probably do it quicker and easier than me. That’s part of the reality of being blind – things just take longer.

So, why do I insist on struggling? Mostly it’s to prove that I can live an independent life, not only to the world, but also to myself. But it’s also because I have a nagging fear that if I fall into the trap of letting others do things for me, that it will undermine my confidence in my own abilities.

While that fear might sound groundless, it’s happened to me before.

After my previous guide dog, Eccles, retired, I spent two years without a guide. During that time I depended heavily on my family and friends to help me get around. And I became exceptionally good at obeying their verbal instructions – when they told me to step up, I would do so; when they tole me to turn right, I would do so. I became a perfect little robot!

What I didn’t realize was that I was slowly losing the ability of interpreting the world around me using my own senses. Until I was on training with Fiji, my new guide dog, and it became horribly clear how out of practise that skill had become. Happily, with a lot of support from the guide dog trainers and my beautiful young Fiji, I managed to rediscover those skills and everything worked out fine.

But that fear is still with me. And it’s one of the reasons I feel uncomfortable letting people help me.

SoObviously, there are some things that I can’t do because of my blindness. And, of course, it’s not always imperative for me to refuse help all the time. But it’s also unnecessary for me to spend every minute of every day proving that I can do things independently. But it’s difficult to find a balance.

What message do I want you to take from this article? There are two – first, to understand why I am sometimes stubborn about struggling to accomplish tasks on my own. And secondly, that I can almost certainly do more than you think I can, even despite my blindness.

Next time you feel compelled to reach out and do something for me, please rather just ask if I need help. Then it’s up to me whether I accept your help, or if I want to do it myself. Even if it looks like I’m struggling, respect my right to make the choice. Even better, ask me what tools and techniques I’m using, so you can understand my world a little better.

Paws for Thought on Winning

IMG 0702

Hi Everyone, it’s me – Fiji!

The most exciting thing happened to me last week – I won a competition!

Here’s what happened:

There was a competition at dad’s work, with prizes for the best face mask that people were wearing. And, without telling me, dad entered a picture of me wearing a mask.

Now, before you start questioning why I was wearing a mask, let me assure you that I know that dogs don’t have to wear masks when we go out. And I promise mom knows that as well. But mom asked me to put on a mask for a photograph a few months ago – I think she was trying to make a point on Facebook or something. And I was more than happy to oblige her… especially since I knew I’d get a tasty treat if I played along. And I’ll do almost anything for a treat!

Dad entered that photograph into his work competition. And I was one of the winners. Doesn’t that make you want to wag your tail with joy?

I admit that my prize is a bit odd. It’s a wine glass that looks like a face mask. I thought I might be able to use it as a water bowl when I go running with dad. But it’s made of glass and I wouldn’t want to break it. Besides, it might be difficult for me to drink from it considering its shape.

So maybe I should give it to mom. Maybe I can exchange it for more treats. What do you think?

Mom and dad found it very funny that one of the winners, Zinia, was a nice human lady wearing a dog mask. And another was a dog wearing a human mask – me, of course.

Zinia mask1

Maybe one day I’ll win a competition where the prize is dog treats. That would be wonderful!

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 02: We See Different Things

The image shows a close-up of Lois face.

When I first lost my sight I could see streaks of bright gold light when I was in direct sunlight. Over the years I’ve lost that ability.

Last week I wrote about the fact that blind people are not all the same – that we have individual strengths and preferences in how we accomplish tasks. The same can be said of our blindness – blindness is a spectrum that covers a range of degrees of visual impairment and partial sight.

Basically, I’m saying that we all see different things.

Even those of us who are totally blind may have different experiences of how that appears to us. For me, as an example, I “see” a blank background colour that differs (I think) as a result of the level of light in my immediate surroundings. It can be any base colour from a rose pink to a dark gray. But that’s not all I “see”

My vision is filled with a constant flickering of pure white, gold, green, red, and blue pinpricks of colour that flash on an off as I watch them. I often refer to them as being like visible pins and needles. They are very pretty and are constant – whether my eyes are open or closed.

But most of my friends who are totally blind “see” something different.

Looking beyond those of us who are totally blind, I have friends who have various degrees of residual vision. Some can still see a computer screen, though they need to use a screen magnifier to be able to read what is showing. Some can see blurred outlines of objects around them, but only if there is a significant contrast between the colour of the object and the environment around it. Some have a little usable vision during the day but are night-blind. And some people have eye conditions that mean their levels of vision varies from day to day.

There are almost countless variations on what we can each see as a member of the blindness and visually impaired community. Which is another reason why the tools and techniques we use may differ from one person to another – why some of us use mobility aids like white canes and guide dogs to navigate, where others may seem to be able to navigate around without difficulty in some circumstances and struggle in others. Why some of us have smart phones and computers that talk to us, and why some of us use screen magnifiers. And why on some days a particular person may see something that they may not see on another day.

In truth, visual impairment is a continuum that ranges through a wide variety of visual experiences. And that impacts on the way each individual member of the blind and visually impaired community engages with the world.

What I’d Like You to Know about My Blindness 01: We’re Not All the Same

the images show hands tracing across a braille bookI’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like people to know about my life as a blind person – things that I wish were more commonly known that would foster greater inclusion of the visually impaired community into society and the workplace. Because they would help people to understand my world a little better.

I thought it might be useful to share some of the things I wish people knew about blindness in general, and my blindness in particular. This is the first of a series of articles in which I’m going to do just that.

The first thing I’d like you to know is that we are not all the same.

I understand how tempting it is to assume that all blind people are the same – that we all use the same techniques, can do the same things, and have the same preferences. But it is just not true. We are all different. While we may have blindness in common, we are individual people with individual strengths, skills, likes and dislikes. And we may use different techniques to accomplish a task. I have blind friends who can do things that I cannot. And visa versa.

Let me give you a few examples.

I am a guide dog user. I love having the ability of navigating the world around me with my beautiful Fiji walking beside me. Many of my visually impaired friends prefer to use a white cane. Both are effective ways of getting around. Neither is better than the other. They are simply different.

the images show Lois sitting at a computerI am not a braille user. I know how to read braille, but prefer accessing information on my computer using a screen reader, which is an audio programme that reads what is on the screen. That’s just my preference. Yet I know of many blind and visually impaired people who prefer using braille to access information. They have a braille display for their computer, read books in braille, and use a braille keyboard on their smart phone. Others may use a combination of audio and braille. It depends on each person’s preference.

A few months ago, my husband and I went to our local Mugg & Bean. I was presented with a braille menu. Which would probably have taken me a month to read – while I know the alphabet, my braille reading skills are almost non-existent. At the same time, I think it is commendable that the Mugg & Bean chain have braille menus for those who need them. Because many visually impaired customers will appreciate them.

I feel I ought to repeat the point of this article – to show that each individual blind or visually impaired person is unique. Some of my visually impaired friends will probably disagree with some of the articles I write in this series. And some will agree. Because we are not all the same.

So, while I would love for you to join me for this whole series of articles, please don’t fall into the assumption that what is true for me is also true for any other blind person you encounter. Chances are that they will feel much as I do – but it’s always better to take a little time to ask them about their own experiences and preferences.

Any idea what I’m going to write about next? Why not join me next week and find out…

Paws for Thought on My Very Favourite Thing

Hi everyone, it’s me – Fiji!

My very favouritist thing in the whole wide world is guide dogging for mom. And running with dad. And Breakfast. And supper. And playing with my doggy sisters. And… Hang on a minute, mom wants a word with me….

Mom just told me that I can only really have one favouritist thing in the world. But I don’t agree with her – I think I can have as many favouritist things as I want. Because they are all my favouritist when I’m doing them.

Anyway, my other favouritist thing in the whole wide world is crunchwater. Because it’s cold and it’s yummy.

Crunchwater comes out of magic boxes in the very coldest part of the fridge. Dad or mom makes crunchwater by filling the magic boxes. I don’t think it’s actually crunchwater at this stage because occasionally some slops over the edge of the magic box and it tastes just like ordinary old water when we lick it up. So there’s definitely something magical about the little boxes and what happens in the coldest part of the fridge –the bit that mom’s just told me is called a freezer.

My doggy sisters and I get crunchwater as a special treat. Dad takes a magic box out of the freezer, removes pieces of crunchwater and tosses them towards my doggy sisters and me. And we leap into the air trying to catch them. Well, I leap into the air and usually catch my piece because I’m a guide dog and I’m just clever that way. My sisters aren’t quite as good as me – Emily mostly catches her crunchwater, but Allie is a bit hit and miss. To tell you a secret, she’s more miss than hit. But we love her anyway.

Emily and I crunch away at our crunchwater and it’s gone in a flash. As I eat it, my mouth and teeth get all cold for a bit, which is one of the best things about it. But Allie kind of nibbles at hers – she bites off a slither at a time and it lasts much longer that way. Sometimes it even leaves little pools of liquid crunchwater on the floor.

Dad and mom sometimes also have crunchwater, but they don’t eat it right. For some strange reason they put it into a glass with other liquid. I can’t understand why they do that… what a waste of wonderful crunchwater! But, as I’ve said before, sometimes humans are just weird.

Note from Lois: Craig and I first saw the term crunchwater in a tweet by Thoughts of Dog – @Dog_feelings and it just worked for us. That
Twitter account has given me hours of laughter and amusement and is well worth visiting!

More from the Lyrical Archive: A Song about Abandonment

Cds MG 8496

When I first wrote this song, I realized something about myself that I hadn’t been aware of – how much I fear abandonment.

It’s not like I’ve ever been abandoned. Sure, like almost everyone, I have lost family and friends along my journey. I mean, the trigger for the song was the death of my mom on my 23rd birthday, which I suppose could be seen as a kind of abandonment.. But, reading the lyrics, I’m left with the sense that my fear goes deeper than that. And I can see how it’s played out in various aspects of my life.

Just as a final word before sharing the lyrics with you, I want to say that the words are symbolic, and are not based on a real event. No-one I know has died in the way described in the song, I promise…

Away

Red was the colour of the single rose you gave to me,
The day before you left
Black was the colour of the night sky when you said goodbye

Then you turned and you walked away
Said you’d be back some day
But that something’s are not meant to be
We just couldn’t see

Gold was the colour that the dawn broke as you hit the road
Blue was the colour of the sky behind that you left behind

Then you turned and you walked away
Said you’d be back some day
But that some things are not meant to be
We just couldn’t see

Some things we are not meant to see, so we can let them be
Some things we are not meant to know, so we can let them go

Black was the night that they found you there, lying there
red was the colour of the blood that ran into the golden sand
And took your life away

And I remember how you walked away
Said you’d be back someday
That some things can never be
I still don’t want to see

Blindness, the Sense of Touch and Social Distancing

the image shows Lois wearing a mask 
the image shows Lois wearing a mask

Touch is important for a person who is visually impaired. It is one of the easiest ways to discover information about an object or the environment, either using your fingers or the tip of a white cane. But touch is also fundamental to the way a blind person communicates with other people. Which adds yet another level of complexity to the way we operate as we try to safeguard ourselves against COVID-19.

What do I mean by that?

When a sighted person is taught how to attract the attention of someone who is visually impaired, they are told to lightly touch the person on the arm or shoulder, and then identify themselves. Obviously, this isn’t an option when trying to social distance. Here’s a few suggestions I think might be an alternative.

Let’s say you are walking down a street with several people around, and see me approaching. If you know me, you can simply call out my name to attract my attention – from a safe distance, of course.

If you don’t know my name, it becomes harder. Unless I have Fiji with me, in which case I’ll probably take notice if anyone refers to me as the woman with the guide dog – I mean, how many women with guide dogs are likely to be nearby?
If I don’t have Fiji with me and you need to attract my attention, you could try referring to something specific about me or what I’m wearing – like calling me the lady in the red jersey, or woman in the blue raincoat. If you just try to attract my attention by calling out, “Excuse me!” I’m probably not going to pay attention – I’ll assume you’re talking to someone else and just continue on my way.

So, if you’re trying to attract my attention without needing to touch me, call out to me from a safe distance in a way that I know it’s me you’re talking to.

Touch is also fundamental when a visually impaired person is being guided by someone who is sighted. Even though we are trying to avoid unnecessary trips away from home, sometimes they are necessary. And sometimes we need a sighted person to guide us.

When this happens, the blind person would usually place a hand lightly on either the elbow or the shoulder of the person guiding them. Again, here are my thoughts on a few alternatives, taking the risk of COVID-19 into account.

Depending on the particular situation and what the people involved are comfortable with, there are several ways of guiding a visually impaired person. In the ideal world, a sighted assistant could walk a few steps ahead or beside me, and I would use my white cane or Fiji to follow them. It would make it easier to do so if the sighted assistant speaks or gives some other audio cue for me to follow. That way there would be no physical contact between me and the sighted assistant.

There are other ways to do it – using my white cane as a form of tether with each of us holding one end or, using some other form of tether like blind runners do. That way there would be some distance between me and the sighted assistant, while still giving us a secure way of remaining connected.

As a final suggestion, if physical contact cannot be avoided, I’d probably rather place a hand on the sighted guide’s shoulder and walk slightly behind them. Especially with the current recommendation to cough into your elbow, I’m certainly not going to be holding anyone there.
.
As always, it’s best to ask the individual visually-impaired person what works for them – these are my preferences, but we are all different. So, it’s best to ask.

I’d like to thank members of the LCS Assistive Technology community for sharing their ideas on both these questions – I really appreciated your confirming my thinking on these topics.

Book Recommendation – Guiding Emily, by Barbara Hinske

the image shows the cover of the book Guiding Emily; the cover is a beautiful black Labrador

My previous article was about the non-fiction books I’ve been reading this year. Today, to show you that I haven’t been neglecting my love of fiction, I want to share a very special book with you: Guiding Emily, by Barbara Hinske.

I don’t often get to read books about people becoming blind as an adult. I guess it’s not really a popular subject for authors unless, like me, they have a personal connection with visual impairment. Yet, this is what happens to Emily, one of the main characters of Guiding Emily.

Guiding Emily tells the story of a young woman who loses her sight on her honeymoon – the impact it has on her brand-new marriage, on her family, friends, her work, and on the way she perceives herself. It’s also the story of Garth, a delightful young black Labrador who is determined to become a guide dog.

I found parts of Emily’s story hard to read because of the parallels with my own life. What Emily was experiencing emotionally, and the basic training she underwent, brought up strong memories of my own journey after I lost my sight. Emily’s journey is well researched and is credible – unlike some of the fiction books about blindness that I’ve read!

I’m sure I’m not the only reader who will find herself cheering Emily on as she triumphs over the mental, emotional, and physical realities of losing her sight and fighting her way back to independence.

I found the young Garth’s chapters of the story delightful. They were a tonic to brighten the more challenging parts of Emily’s journey. I laughed at his mischievous puppy self and the antics he got up to while being puppy-walked. He reminded me of my beautiful guides – Leila (who was also a black Labrador), Eccles, and Fiji. I could so easily imagine the puppy versions of my girls getting up to the same antics when they were being puppy-walked. Well, to be honest, I could also imagine them doing so after being matched with me. Which made the whole Garth part of the story even funnier and cuter for me.

Why am I telling you this?

My main reason for writing A Different Way of Seeing was to help people understand a little about the world in which I live as a blind person. I believe that we will only gain greater levels of inclusion in society and the workplace once people understand what we are able to do, and the tools and techniques we have at our disposal. Guiding Emily shows the way a visually-impaired person engages with the world around her. As Emily learns the techniques and tools, so too do the readers, even if they have had no previous experience with visual impairment. So, it is a great book for anyone who is interested to learn more about visual impairment. Not to mention that the book is simply an enjoyable read – with drama, betrayal, despair, triumph, and romance of a sort. But you’ll have to read it for yourself to find out what I mean.

Why not hop onto Amazon and get hold of a copy of Guiding Emily – I’ll bet you’ll fall head over tails in love with young Garth!

Trying to Instill a New Habit

Book

Though I’m a prolific reader, and have always been so, I seldom read non-fiction. In fact, I will seldom read more than a single non-fiction book in the course of a year.

It’s not that I have anything against non-fiction. It’s just that I spend so much time in the real world that I find myself escaping away into fiction books when given the chance. I know it must seem strange for me to read fiction almost exclusively, especially as an author of narrative non-fiction myself.

This year I decided to try and develop the habit of reading more non-fiction. I know there are tons of great non-fiction and narrative non-fiction books out there and set myself a target of reading one per month.

Here are the books I’ve read so far this year:

January 2020 –
Your Leadership Story: Use Your Life Experience to Influence and Inspire.
Author: Deborah Henley.

February 2020
Future’s Alchemist.
Author: Charlotte Kemp.

March 2020
Breaking Free from Bias: Preventing Costly Complaints, Conflict and Talent Loss.
Author: Marilyn O’Hearne

April 2020
Meet Me Accessibly. \
Author: Jonathon Mosen.

May 2020
How to Multiply Your Value and Create Extraordinary Impact.
Author: Unotida Nyoni.
And
How to Self-Publish a Book: For the Technically Challenged.
Author: Barb Drozdowich.

June 2020
From Stress to Success: The ABC of Stress Management.
Author: Jason Sandler.
And
The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece.
Author: Tim Severin.

Which means I’ve read a total of eight non-fiction books in the first half of the year. It looks like my effort to instill a habit of reading non-fiction might be working. More importantly, I’ve both enjoyed and learned from each book I’ve read.

I wonder what my tally will be by the end of the year. Will I keep up my intention… or will I slip out of the new habit?

Only time will tell.

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