Louis on the Block, Bergvliet

Cds IMG 3086
It is really not hard to find an enticing restaurant in Cape Town, no matter what your preference in cuisine happens to be. I am constantly amazed at the number and variety of restaurants we have. But I sometimes wonder if finding a restaurant is as easy for someone living with a disability?

Disability access is a subject close to my heart. I’ve decided to write reviews of places that impress me – and those that horrify me – in terms of how accessible they are. I suppose my recent article about the SAB Newlands Brewery should technically be considered my first, but this is the first that will appear under the Accessibility Review category.

Recently Craig, Fiji and I had dinner at Louis on the Block in Children’s Way, Bergvliet. Not only did we have a great, reasonably priced meal with good service, but I was impressed by how disability-friendly they were.

My guide dog, Fiji, was warmly welcomed into the restaurant and was offered not only a bowl of water but a snack as well, which Fiji was distraught that I refused on her behalf. Now, while it might sound very unfair that Craig and I got to eat while Fiji did not, the truth is that if she learns that she might get food when we do she will learn to beg – and a begging dog is downright unpleasant at a restaurant.

What really impressed me about Louis on the Block was that the restaurant was also accessible to those with physical disabilities. Though there were steps up to the main entrance, they had a wider door that was easily accessible to a wheelchair..

No, I didn’t happen to notice it. Nor did I ask (though I must do so when going to restaurants in the future). But at one point in the evening the restaurant’s owner and one of the wait staff crossed to the double door to assist a lady in a wheelchair to enter and join one of the tables having dinner.

The whole experience left me feeling very positive about the restaurant and enhanced my enjoyment of the evening.

Well done for going the extra mile, Louis on the Block!

Yes, I Know I Don’t Drink Beer, But…

Cds IMG 3080Considering I do not drink beer, a brewery tour might sound like an unusual way for me to spend an evening. But that’s exactly what I did two weeks ago. Craig, a few friends and I toured the SAB Newlands Brewery… and what an experience it was!

I’m not going to dwell on how the beer is made, nor how the Newland’s plant keeps the process environmentally and cost effective – if you want to know that, you should visit the Brewery yourself. This is purely about my experience of touring the plant as a blind person.

On arrival, Craig and I were given a comprehensive briefing on what we could expect during the tour and what potential risks we might encounter. I know the safety officers had to give special permission for me to take my white cane on the tour with me – this was one occasion that leaving Fiji at home was definitely the right thing to do! We also had to sign a disclaimer protecting SAB against any injury sustained on the tour, but so did everyone else, so it wasn’t just because I am blind.

Generally I found the tour fairly easy to navigate. We climbed up and down staircases and walked from one area of the plant to the next as the guide explained the beer-making process. At no time did I feel unsafe or overly rushed and our tour group accommodated the presence of a blind woman without difficulty.

Then we entered the bottling area. Huge machines were busy washing, filling and stacking bottles and there was so much noise we had to don our headphones, both to protect our ears and to allow us to hear our guide’s explanation of the process.

Considering that 2.2 million units of beer are produced by Newlands Brewery every day, (bearing in mind they still bring in extra beer to meet Cape Town’s daily consumption), I guess the noise was to be expected – they could hardly shut off the line while we walked through. But let me explain the experience from my perspective:

There I was standing on an elevated walkway without sight, with the pounding of the machines making my hearing useless, and the design of the walkway making it impossible for me to feel my way with my white stick… I felt totally isolated, totally powerless and totally unable to move. I just stood there frozen on that walkway.

My blind friend, Chris, compares that feeling as being like having a bag thrown over your head, your hands tied and then being tossed into the back of a steel van and being powerless to protect yourself as you are thrown from one side of the van to the other. That might sound a little extreme, but having no ability to use any of your senses is petrifying.

Thankfully Craig helped me by placing my clutching hands onto secure handholds and helping me find my way, step by step, over the walkway and down the steps on the other side… but it was a close call. Mind you, staying where I was was hardly an option – I had to either go forward or back, didn’t I?

After the tour we sampled a few of the SAB beers produced by the Newlands Brewery and had a chance to chat to the other people on tour with us, which rounded the evening off well.

There is no way that anyone with mobility challenges could take the tour – the number of staircases and the elevated walkway would be insurmountable for someone in a wheelchair. However, the tour is not problematic for someone who is blind and, if all the guides are as knowledgeable as ours was, there will be sufficient detailed information to make sense of the process being described. Definitely an interesting experience, even for someone who does not drink beer… and yes, I still don’t drink beer!

Paying Tribute to the Wonderful Women in my Family

CurryWith today being Women’s Day I felt it was appropriate to pay tribute to two women who played a significant role in shaping my thinking when I lost my sight.
Though each of these women surely deserve far more than just a few words, today I want to focus on what I learned from their extraordinary courage.

My mother, Cynthia Lois Agar Gowans (18 April, 1940 – 14 November 1993) was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) shortly after we moved to South Africa from England. MS is a degenerative condition that affects the immune system and causes muscular weakness and increasingly impaired mobility and balance amongst other symptoms.

I remember my mom having to steady herself with a walking stick when collecting me from junior school, needing special adjustments to enable her to drive her motor car when I was in middle school and catching the bus home from school when I was in high school because my mom could no longer drive. By the time I lost my sight, my mom was bedridden and I recall spending long hours with her chatting and watching television while she lay propped up in bed.

Yes, my mom had a strong support system and wonderful caregivers but I still find myself pondering how she endured the inevitable weakening of her body with such fortitude. I’m not saying she didn’t ever complain, but only on rare occasions did she give in and rail against the hand that life had dealt her.

My mom passed away just under two years after I lost my sight. , I can only hope that I live up to the example she gave me with the incredible courage and fortitude with which she withstood her MS.

My grandmother, Sylvia Jessie Agar Simpson (22 May 1909 – 8 October 2002) was a wonderful hostess whose reputation was founded on her engaging conversation, her interest in people and the world around her, her intelligence and wit, and in her ability as a captivating storyteller, (and of course, her delicious food!).

I have vivid memories of my gran sitting in her favourite comfy chair in the corner of the lounge with all us grandchildren gathered at her feet listening spellbound as she related a story from her childhood. And not just us kids – all the adults would stop what they were doing to catch the fascinating stories of people and times gone past.

What we didn’t realize was that this was one of the creative ways my gran coped with her increasing hearing loss. By telling the stories, gran remained in control of the conversation and didn’t have to struggle to make out what others were saying to her. Additionally, it was likely that questions that were directed to her were about the story, and that helped her work out what people were asking. It was such a simple, yet effective, way of managing her hearing loss.

My gran was also a great correspondent and wrote a vast number of letters to friends and family round the world until shortly before her death at the age of 92. Even gran’s blind granddaughter received letters on a regular basis, because gran knew that Craig would read them to me. On one memorable occasion she posted me a curry recipe because I wanted to make a curry for Craig but had no idea how to do so (back before I could find recipes online) So, while telephone conversations with my gran grew increasingly hard, she found a way to communicate with everyone without difficulty, always with her characteristic humour, wit and intelligence, and of course, her enthralling stories… reading gran’s letters almost felt like I was in the room listening to her speak!

So today I want to pay tribute to my mom and my gran: to my mom for teaching me courage and the determination not to let my disability conquer me, and to my gran for giving me the gift of stories and the understanding that even challenges can be overcome if you can find creative ways to do so. Both these women had a profound influence on my life and played a huge role in me becoming the woman I am today.

Eventually… A Sub-Title!

For some time I have been puzzling over what to sub-title my book, A Different Way of seeing.

Initially I had “My Life Without Sight”, but it didn’t really work for me because the book is not a biography, or a memoir – it’s a combination of how I accomplish everyday tasks and some anecdotes illustrating what I’m saying.

Eventually, after a whole lot of discarded non-possibilities, I decided to get input from another writer friend, Christopher Venter, who runs the Blind Scooter Guy blog that I referred to in a previous article (see my post on 10 June 2016). Chris and I threw around a few ideas and eventually I found something that resonated with me.

So, as I continue to work towards publishing my book, the full title will be

A different Way of Seeing: A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an “Ordinary” Life in an Extraordinary Way

What do you think? Does the sub-title work for you?

Illustrations Bringing My stories to Life

Somewhere along the way on the journey of writing my book, A different Way of Seeing, I came up with the idea of having an illustration at the start of each chapter. And that idea stuck.

So I did what any other author would do in the same situation – I phoned a friend. Well, actually, I spoke to a friend, who happens to be a professional animator, when I saw him at a Toastmasters meeting.

We chatted. I sent him the book. He read it. And then he started drawing…

Gertan Agenbach did an amazing job of bringing my stories to life with his quirky drawings – they are going to be a real asset to my book!

As a sneak peek, here is one of the drawings…

6 Earning my keep

Braving the Paving –Learning New Skills carefully

It’s been a while since I posted a lesson from my new-ish guide dog, Fiji. So here is another one.

Learning a new route with Fiji is a lot like learning a new skill. In both cases I experience a similar feeling of anxiety – perhaps I’m not doing it right, perhaps something might go wrong and I’ll land up making an irretrievable error(have you ever felt that way?). As a result of that anxiety I find myself working slowly and methodically through the brand new process/skill/route because it is unfamiliar to me.

Once that new process becomes more familiar I start to speed up and move more confidently through the task.

Recently one of the houses in our neighbourhood paved over a very uneven patch of the grass sidewalk. For several weeks we had to skirt round the obstacle by walking in the road, often with the assistance of the guys doing the work as it is a busy intersection. A few days ago we got to walk on the paving for the first time.

In the long run I’m sure we will be grateful for that wonderful flat paved walkway. However, our first few experiences have been just like learning that new skill – we’ve walked very slowly and carefully over the unfamiliar route… just in case.

And it was a good thing that we did, because on our second trip over the paving my foot slipped off the sidewalk onto the road. I was somewhat startled because Fiji is usually very good at keeping me safely on the sidewalk. It turns out that there is only a narrow strip of paving and beyond that is a hole where the home owners are presumably planning on planting a garden. Fiji was trying to navigate between the two edges and, if I’d been walking closer to her, I would have been fine.

We now know how to navigate that sidewalk safely and have experienced not more problems… and as the route has become familiar we have started walking faster and with more confidence – and the initial anxiety I felt when walking on the paving has gone.

For me the lesson is that it pays to take the time to be cautious when learning something new, be it a process, a skill, or a route – by playing it safe you can discover the pitfalls and figure out how to navigate them. Then, once you are more comfortable, you can speed up.

My PechaKucha Video

Many of you have asked to hear the speech I gave at PechaKucha on 5 July… so here it is!

I’d love to hear how you top up your positivity tank, so why not take a moment to comment and let me know…

With thanks to Francois Rossouw for shooting the video, and Craig Strachan for adding the slide presentation for the total experience.

Blind New World

A while back I was listening to a podcast (yes, another one!). This was the Assistive Technology Update, a podcast that focusses on technology for those with special needs.

This particular issue included an interview with Jerry Berrier of the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. Perkins School have launched a new website initiative called blind New World which seeks to change the way people view blindness – encouraging inclusion and demystifying blindness for those who may be uncomfortable around a blind person or unaware of the capabilities of those who are blind.

And if you think that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s pretty much the purpose behind my new book, A Different Way of Seeing. So it’s no wonder that I reached out to Jerry Barrier and started a conversation to see what synergy we could create between their initiative and the work I’m doing as a speaker and author.

As a consequence of our conversations I will be contributing an article to the Blind New World blog later this month and I’m hoping that Jerry or one of the other Blind New World team will endorse my book.

Why not take a look at www.blindnewworld.org to find out more… and who knows, you may even see my article there!

A Half-Day of Hope

Cds IMG 0130Here are two photos of my recent workshop at Hope Cape Town. You may remember I was booked to go and speak to the community health workers from Hope CT a few months ago and really enjoyed the energy and passion of these incredible women and men who work mainly with children living with HIV+ and AIDS.

The NGO invited me back to run my half-day session Ready, Steady, Speak! On strategies to organise your thinking when answering questions.

It was wonderful to see the delegates stepping up to the challenge of answering some difficult questions as they worked through the programme – using the techniques I offered them to manage their anxiety, and the strategies I shared to help organise their thoughts when speaking. I was impressed at how effectively the delegates expressed their thoughts and opinions in the exercises.

Thanks to sue and Ana of Hope Cape Town for making it possible for me to run the workshop – and to the community health workers who are doing such an amazing job out there in the community.

If you’d like to find out more about the Ready, Steady, speak! Programme please contact me

What a Night – PechaKucha Cape Town, 5 July 2016

Cds IMG 3047Wow! What an experience it was talking at PechaKucha Cape Town on Tuesday this week! While I admit I felt nervous before speaking, the high after all the applause was pretty amazing!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with PechaKucha, here’s a brief introduction: PechaKucha is a speaking format where you have a 20 slide presentation, and are given only 20 seconds per slide. PechaKucha is an international movement that began in Tokyo in 2003, and now takes place in over 800 cities around the world. In South Africa You can find PechaKucha in both Cape Town and Johannesburg.

We had a diverse group of speakers on Tuesday – including a rock musician, a furniture maker, a coach talking about prejudice, an environmentalist, a dominatrix (I kid you not!), and of course me – 9 speakers in total, so the evening was crammed full of great ideas!

I decided to test drive a new concept – topping up your positivity tank (i.e. your positive attitude) to help you manage stress and overcome challenges. My presentation was well received, with Andrew, the MC of the evening stating that it was one of the best PechaKucha speeches he’d heard. Please don’t get the impression that PechaKucha is only for pro speakers – at least 2 of the people who spoke on Tuesday had never given a presentation before.

Creating, practising and performing a PechaKucha speech is a little different from a normal speech. Getting your message across in 6 minutes 40 seconds is not too difficult, but adhering to the 20 second per slide rule makes for some interesting challenges.

I was somewhat startled when I was on stage and Craig indicated I was speaking much slower than I had been when I was practising. That may not be a problem with a 45 minute presentation – or even a 20 minute presentation – but when you are limited to only 20 seconds per slide it has a significant impact… I had to cut several words from each slide on the fly… which was definitely an interesting experience!

It was wonderful to see so many friends and colleagues braving the cold and rainy weather to enjoy an evening of PechaKucha – thanks especially to Francois rossouw for videoing my speech for me, Craig for the awesome photos, and the ladies from our speaker mastermind group, Women Who Speak for change, for coming along to support. You are all amazing!

If you can get to a PechaKucha evening I’d really suggest you go – there are great ideas being discussed! And if you’re a speaker… or have an idea worth sharing… why not give PechaKucha a go yourself?

To find out more about PechaKucha in South Africa… or to apply to speak:
PechaKucha Cape Town: www.pechakucha-capetown.com
PechaKucha Johannesburg: www.pechakuchajoburg.co.za

Email updates

Lois shares updates on her book, speaking and the reality of living with blindness. Find out what Lois is up to – subscribe here.