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.
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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.

Paws for Thought on My Solo Adventure

The image shows a blonde Labrador

Before I tell you my story, I want to make sure you understand that I wasn’t trying to run away from home. I love mom and dad and my doggy sisters, Emily and Allie, and know I have everything I could ever need at home. Well, apart from lunch, which I still don’t get, despite having asked for it forever. But I have absolutely no reason to run away – home is simply the best place in the whole wide world!

But that didn’t stop me going on a solo adventure when I noticed the gate wasn’t closed properly. I looked around to check no-one was watching and then just quietly walked out, leaving my sisters waiting for mom to let them back inside. Then I trotted down the road and started sniffing around on the sidewalk.

A car pulled up beside me and a friendly human voice asked me if I was lost. I looked up and frowned at him – of course I wasn’t lost, I knew exactly where I was. At least I sort of did.

The friendly man encouraged me to jump in his car. Which of course I did because I love going places in cars.

After a sadly brief drive, the friendly man called someone and a different, but equally friendly man invited me to come into his house. So, I walked in and made myself comfortable.
To be honest, I thought the men looked familiar, so I was totally relaxed at being in a different place. Besides, mom and I travel to new places all the time. At least, we used to. Not so much at the moment, for some inexplicable reason.

A few minutes later, I heard dad’s voice calling me. After a quick sniff around the garden, which I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet, I hopped into dad’s car and we went home.

I could feel dad was upset about something but had no idea what – clearly one of my sisters had been naughty while I was on my solo adventure. And mom was in floods of tears when we arrived home, so it must have been something really naughty. But I ignored her because it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.

Mom hugged me and I wagged to show her that everything was okay. Through her tears she kept asking if I was okay, which startled me, because I was just fine. I tried to tell her all about my solo adventure and eventually I think she understood, because she stopped crying and hugged me again.

But, you know, I never did figure out what my sister had done. Or even which one had been naughty. Because neither of them seemed to be in trouble. I guess humans are just strange!

Lois’s Note: It turns out that Fiji was rescued by our local vet, who lives a few roads away. Throughout the experience Fiji seemed oblivious of the panic she created by wandering off. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life! Thank goodness for Andrew and Michael – the brothers who run our veterinary clinic. And, when all is said and done, I guess that all’s well that ends well.

Digging in the Musical Archives – The Girl in the Mirror

The images shows Lois singing into a microphone

It may sound odd, but sometimes I don’t know what my song lyrics are about. I find myself studying the words and shaking my head in bewilderment. Girl in the Mirror is one of those songs.

At a best guess, I can see that I may have been questioning my identity after losing my sight – to me it is hard to know who is the reflection in the mirror by the end of the song. And it leads to the question of whether I am still myself or just a reflection of who I was when I was sighted?

Perhaps you see something completely different in the lyrics. That is totally fine with me – songs, like poems and metaphors should mean something different to each of us. That is why we connect with some lyrics more than others.

Listen to Girl in the Mirror, played by my band, tuesday’s child, here – with two additional songs thrown in for good measure: https://www.loisstrachan.com/music/

The Girl in the Mirror

There’s a girl in the mirror every time I pass
Held captive there behind the glass
Who is she? Why is she there?
And I wonder

There’s a girl in the mirror; she looks like me
If I saw through her eyes, what would I see?
Who is she? Why is she there?
And I wonder

Chorus:
Mirror, mirror upon the wall
Is there anybody there at all?
Mirror, mirror upon the wall
Or is my mind simply creating it all?

There’s a girl in the mirror she’s smiling at me
Trancelike, hypnotic I can’t turn away
Who is she; why is she there?
And I wonder

Chorus

Am I creating it all?
Simply creating it all?
Am I creating it all?
There’s nothing real there at all.

Chorus

There’s a girl in the mirror she’s there every day
And as I watch her, she’s turning away
The girl in the mirror turns and slowly walks away.

Social Distancing for the Blind Community

The image shows Lois walking along the side of a roa

As we all continue to experience the challenges of lockdown, social distancing is becoming almost a regular part of our lives. But have you thought about the challenges social distancing poses for someone who is blind or visually impaired?

A few weeks ago, my guide dog, Fiji, wrote a guest blog on my Beyond Sight Blog about her feelings about social distancing. Yes, it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective for me to share, but the challenges are real – and not just for guide dogs!

Here’s how I experience social distancing, and some of the ways you can help me, and people like me, to ensure we keep safe when we’re out and about.

If I’m walking along a busy road and there is masking noise, like passing cars or wind rustling tree leaves, I might not hear you approaching. So, I might get closer to you than is safe. It would really help me if you could recognise that I might not be able to take evasive action– either make a sound so I know you’re there, or take the initiative and ensure we are a safe distance apart.

The painted lines in shopping queues are invisible to me and my white cane (or my guide dog) Unless you’re aware of a shopping centre that has created tactile lines, I have no way of knowing where the marks are. It would really help me and my guide dog if you can give us verbal guidance of where we should stand, and when we can move forward.

Never before has the #JustAskDontGrab Campaign been so important for the visually impaired community. I, like most of my blind friends, have countless stories of people grabbing us in order to attract our attention, or in order to move us physically. Nowadays that is simply not a safe option. We need people to speak to us when offering help.

Yes, there are technologies we can use to help us maintain social distancing. I could use the Be My Eyes app and ask a sighted volunteer to help me navigate safely. Or I could make use of a Sunu Band, a band that is worn on the wrist and gives tactile feedback when I’m approaching something. Or someone. Both are options for me.

But let’s be honest, I’m not keen to wave around my iPhone when I’m out and about in public. It’s just asking for trouble. And the cost of the Sunu Band puts it out of reach of most blind and visually impaired South Africans.

Which means we have to do the best that we can using our own skills and the help of those around us. People like you.

So, next time you see Fiji and I walking down the road, please speak to us to let us know where you are, and be willing to step out of our way as we walk past. Next time you spot me in the queue at Blue Route Mall with my white cane, speak up and let me know how to move from one painted line to the next as the queue progresses. And please, please don’t reach out and grab for Fiji or myself to guide us – ask us what form of help will be most safe and most comfortable for us all.

Thank you – Fiji and I really appreciate your thoughtfulness!

25 Tips for Bloggers

Logo

Here’s a link to a great travel podcast with tips on travel blogging. Actually, I’d say the tips can be used by any blogger to help them get started.

The podcast is the brainchild of travel writer and podcaster Alexa Meisler, from the Break into travel Writing blog and podcast. I was fortunate enough to be a guest blogger on her Aspiring Travel Bloggers feature a few months ago. In this podcast episode she gathers together a tip from the first 25 bloggers in the series, including one from me.

You’ll probably find a few themes running through the various tips. And I’m sure they will either teach you something to help you grow your blog or reinforce some of the things you’re already doing. Either way, they’re well worth a listen.

Link: https://breakintotravelwriting.com/25-travel-blogging-tips-for-new-travel-writers-and-bloggers/

And, if you’re a travel blogger who hasn’t heard Alexa’s podcast before, this is one you’ll probably want to subscribe to – she shares some fantastic interviews and content.

Paws for Thought on Social Distancing

the image shows a grinning Fiji wearing her harness

Over the past few months I’ve become used to the strange things happening around me. I’m okay with mom wearing a face mask when we walk, even if the voice commands she gives me sound a bit muffled. I’m used to mom and me not going out to different places. I can accept that mom needs to spend most of the day working at the computer. I’m even used to dad being around all the time. But the one thing I just can’t figure out is social distancing.

Most of the reason I’m perplexed is that my guide dog training didn’t include a class on social distancing. Mom’s tried to explain it to me but I just don’t get it.

As a guide dog, I know I shouldn’t walk up to people and distract them. So that’s not the problem. But it doesn’t mean I’m trained to walk a specific distance away from them. Or that I’m comfortable walking far into the road if mom and I need to pass slower walkers – first and foremost I’m trained to keep mom out of danger, and I don’t think it’s safe walking into the road like that.

I’m really glad mom and I haven’t had to go to the shops, because I think it would be hard for me to remember to stop at the painted lines on the floor that keep people a safe distance from each other. But then, I’ve never been able to figure out why people stand in queues. Or how to do so – I’m trained to go straight to the counter. So shopping would be doubly stressful for me now.

At least mom is able to hear where other people are when we walk and take evasive action. Because it would be very confusing if my training told me to do one thing and social distancing told me to do something else. But, you know, even though I trust mom’s judgement, I’d still like to do something to help. Because I’m a guide dog. And that’s what I do.

If you have any clever suggestions on how I could help mom maintain social distancing when we’re out and about, I’d love to hear them.

Digging into the Archives Again: Seas of Time

the image shows Lois on stage singing into a microphone

Here’s another song from my archives – this one is complete but I can’t remember if I ever put it to music. If I did, it’s probably a keyboard song… it just feels that way to me.

It’s a song about the way I experience the process of writing. though it may appear a little whimsical. Especially when I think of the times I sit at a blank computer screen waiting – sometimes for what feels like an eternity – to find words to express what I want to say.

Anyway, here it is:

Seas of Time.

Waves of Words spiral round
A blank page lying on the ground.
Unwritten thoughts catch at my mind,
Washed ashore on seas of time.

Thoughts are tossed through time and space.
Trapped in the mists of this ancient place.
Pictures form as words collide,
And then are lost as waves subside.
As rhythm, structure, form and rhyme
Come sailing in on seas of time.

My ship lies at the harbour wall.
A refugee from the rising storm.
The page lies anchored line by line,
A product of the seas of time.

A Guide Dog’s Joy and Excitement

the image shows Lois wearing a brightly coloured mask, standing outside with her guide dog, Fiji.

After almost six weeks of being confined to home during the Level 5 lockdown, I wasn’t sure how my guide dog would react to once again wearing her harness and working with me. Okay, I knew she’d pull like crazy, because that’s what she does after a few days without working. So I had no illusions about how much pulling a six-week break was going to warrant!

After working together for over four years I was fairly certain that the break wouldn’t impact on her ability to work. Or her enthusiasm for guiding. By now Fiji and I know each other pretty well. What did concern me slightly was whether her excitement would override her excellent training – would she remember what she’d been trained to do?

I decided to have back-up with me the first time we walked, just in case. So my husband joined us for our first time out. As did our youngest dog, Allie, who walked with Craig. At least, that was the plan.

What a bad mistake it turned out to be!

Allie is used to running with Fiji. And I really mean with her – they run side by side flawlessly. So, poor Allie didn’t understand why she and dad were walking behind Fiji and mom. She whined, and she pulled, and she did doggy star-jumps to try and catch up with Fiji and me. Which totally put Fiji off her game.

Fiji kept trying to see what was bothering her sister. At first, she tried turning around to see what was going on. When that didn’t work, because I kept her moving forward, she tried to walk into the middle of the road to try and catch sight of Allie out of the corner of her eye. In desperation we tried allowing Craig and Allie to walk ahead. Only then Fiji was the one pulling like a steam train to get back out front.

So we figured we’d just have to deal with two slightly crazy dogs. But at least Fiji and I got to be out front.

Apart from that, Fiji did well on her walk.

The second time we walked, Craig hopped on his bicycle and cycled round the neighbourhood, checking in on us every now and then as we walked.

Which was fine. Except that every time he cycled past us, Fiji wanted to dash off after him. When he was going in the same direction as us it wasn’t so bad – we simply walked a little faster until he was out of sight. But whenever he appeared in front of us and rode past, Fiji immediately tried to turn round and run after him. I didn’t know whether to laugh at her enthusiasm, or growl at her naughtiness.

Since then Fiji and I have been going it alone. And she’s working brilliantly. Maybe she’s burned off the initial excitement and she’s once again used to walking her routes. Maybe she was just distracted by Craig’s presence… and Allie’s. Regardless, Fiji and I have slipped back into the easy rhythm of working as a team. And I totally love the experience.

I’m grateful that Craig was willing to help me manage my anxiety on our first two walks. But it is immensely liberating to be able to walk on my own with my beautiful Fiji.
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