Disability Awareness

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You Want Me to Talk about What?

several people sitting around a table, including Lois Strachan

It’s not often I feel nervous when going to facilitate a session on disability at an organisation. Yet that was definitely the way I was feeling as I climbed out of the Uber to run a recent day-long training at the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB).

I wasn’t nervous about facilitating a daylong session, nor for presenting to students at CTSB – facilitation is one of the things I do on a regular basis and my relationship with CTSB over the past two years has meant I’ve spoken for them at a number of events, including presenting a keynote at their AGM, and another at a fundraising dinner, and I presented the commencement address at their graduation in 2018. So neither of those aspects made me anxious.

Rather, it was the topic that had my nerves working overtime – they’d asked me to speak about romantic relationships. And that topic is definitely out of my comfort zone.

Here’s the thing – I’m happy to tell the story of how Craig and I met (it was my guide dog, Leila’s fault). I’m equally willing to talk about how we accommodate my visual impairment with things like household chores. But going any deeper than that is just too personal for me. So, what made me nervous was how I’d reply if the conversation drifted into areas where I wasn’t comfortable.

In the end, the session proved to be both easier and harder than I’d anticipated. I described what I thought a good relationship might look like, and some signs that might indicate a relationship isn’t healthy. I shared stories from my life to illustrate what I meant in each case. Then the group spent a few hours asking questions and sharing their own experiences about relationships.

What made it easier than I’d initially feared was the fact that the group respected the boundaries that I wasn’t really comfortable talking about. What made it harder was to listen to some of the stories of what the students had experienced, and were still experiencing.

I left the CTSB with a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have in my life. Not to mention a sense of respect and awe for the strength, resilience and determination of the students I’d been privileged to spend the day with.

PS: Fiji also had loads of fun, since she got to meet two other guide dogs, which happens only rarely when I speak at organisations.
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A Video of a Working Guide Dog

Do you know how hard it is to video Fiji guiding me across a road? It should be easy, right? But maybe not so much when you have one hand on the guide dog harness and the other hand providing dog treats at each step of the process. Because that leaves no hands to hold the phone to record the whole thing.

So, when a friend asked if she could video Fiji working as part of a lesson for one of the schools she works with, I jumped at the chance. Even better, she asked if Fiji and I could speak to the learners as well, which I’m always happy to do. Okay, I got to speak to the learners. Fiji only had to look cute- which she does very well!

Shani gave me the video – so here it is!

Craig, please add link here.

Conquering the Revolting Door

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To some people stepping into a revolving door may not be much of an issue. But for me, standing there with my white cane, stepping into the revolving door was a matter of deep thought and planning.

Here’s why I find revolving doors scary:
1 Stepping in– as a blind person you have to figure out when it’s safe to step in without being hit by a door blade.
2 Walking through – it’s not easy to assess the appropriate walking speed to avoid connecting with the blade in front or being smacked on the back of the head by the one behind you.
3 Stepping out – sometimes it will sound different when it’s okay to step out of the door… but sometimes it’s not – I’d hate to spend the rest of my life walking round and round in circles captured by the revolving door.

Is it any wonder I call them revolting doors?

Let’s go back to where you left me – standing with my white cane on the outside of a building, with the revolting door in front of me. What happened next?

I found the right-hand side of the revolting door and gently extended my hand along the doorframe until my fingertips brushed against the edge of the blades as they passed. I let a few blades pass me so I could get an idea of how fast they were turning. That way I could gain a sense of when it was safe for me to step into the door and how fast to walk.

I knew the door would stop moving if I touched the blades so there was no risk of being knocked out by a mindless rampaging blade. Once or twice I accidentally tapped the tip of my white cane into the blade in front of me and the door froze. I’ll admit it was reassuring to discover how sensitive the door was.

And so I made my way through the door.
Stepping out was my biggest worry. In the shopping centre where I was putting my skills… and my courage… to the test I wasn’t able to use sound to judge when it was time to step out of the door. But a very kind gentleman, who I hadn’t realized was walking alongside me, told me I could step forward into the centre and all was okay.

Did I manage to travel through the revolting door totally independently? No, I didn’t. but here’s what I did achieve – I managed to push my way past the fear of using a revolting door on my own. Even if I did get help stepping out of the door, I’m sure I would have figured it out on my own eventually, and not spent the rest of my life walking in circles.

Next time I’ll do even better. Because I’ve proved to myself that there’s nothing to fear

So, maybe those doors aren’t so revolting, after all.
XXX

At Long Last!

There have been times that it’s felt like the never-ending story, but I’ve finally finished the first draft of the update to my book, A Different Way of Seeing. In fact, I’ve even spell checked it.

So, what’s the next step towards getting it released as an audio book, you may ask?

Finishing the first draft may sound like a huge milestone, but the truth is that I still have quite a way to travel with this project.

After all, I haven’t even read the entire manuscript myself and know I’ll make considerable changes before I’m even vaguely happy with it. Then I want to get input from a few people, both those who have already read A Different Way of Seeing, and those who have not. And update the manuscript according to the feedback I receive from them. And only then will I take it to a professional editor.

Only then can I start the process of getting it converted into an audio format. Like I said, there’s still lots of work to be done. But at least I’ve completed this step…

For those of you who’ve been waiting for me to share some of my experiences at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda, I’ll be getting there soon, I promise…

Finding a New Way to Communicate

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For years I’ve believed that people with a disability have strong problem-solving skills. This was proven yet again when I was visiting India recently.

One of the maintenance staff on our floor of the hotel was hearing impaired and non-verbal. Which wasn’t a challenge until he arrived to service our room and I was on my own. In case you haven’t realized where the challenge lay, he could only communicate in writing or using gestures. Which I couldn’t see. In turn, I could only communicate with gestures, since my usual default – the spoken word – wasn’t going to be of help.

I suppose it must have looked funny to an observer, but our initial interaction was intensely frustrating to us both, standing in the doorway trying to figure out how we could communicate what we needed to say. Eventually, in sheer frustration, he turned and left, returning ten minutes later with his supervisor.

Over the next 24 hours I tried to figure out a better way for us to communicate. And, when he knocked on the door the next day, I was ready. I smiled and waved him inside.

But it looked like I wasn’t the only one who’d been giving the matter some thought. He entered the room, tapped his fingers on the bathroom door, the bed and the counter where the tea and coffee were, and then tapped his equipment trolley.

I nodded and smiled, indicating his communication had been received loud and clear. Then I picked up my white mobility cane and my room keycard, and left him to do his job. And returned 30 minutes later to a spotless room.

As a person who is visually impaired, I tend to rely on the spoken word to express my needs. As a professional speaker that’s my trade. This experience taught me the importance of including different types of communications in my presentations so my message can reach more people in my audience.

It also reinforced my belief that we, as persons who are differently abled, are great at solving problems since we have to do it on an almost daily basis. And that’s a skill that is highly sought after in the business world today.

Going Solo

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Do you have any idea how bizarre it was for me to realize that I’m using my white cane to walk around independently for the first time ever?

Please don’t think I wasn’t taught to use a white cane when I first lost my sight. I was. But somehow the only time I used my white cane was on my lessons with the O&M instructor. Otherwise I asked family, friends, and fellow students to help me get around. Which is probably why getting a guide dog was such a revelation to me – I was able to walk around independently for the very first time.

In my defence, and in hindsight, I’d probably say that my inability… refusal? to connect with the idea of using a white cane was part of my adjusting to losing my sight. I was dealing with so much at the time, and learning so many new skills of living as a blind person, that my poor overworked brain just couldn’t cope with it all. And it was just easier to ask people to help me get around.

And that became the pattern. Even once I started working with a guide dog, on the rare occasions my dog wasn’t with me, I’d need someone to help me get to where I needed to go.

So, walking round my neighbourhood totally on my own, accompanied only by my white mobility cane, is such a profound difference for me.

It doesn’t mean I’m going to depend on my beautiful guide dog any less. I can’t even begin to find the words to describe the remarkable bond that exists between Fiji and myself – and how natural it feels to work with her. But it’s great that I’m developing cane skills for those times when she’s not able to be with me.

Talking about how natural working with Fiji feels, I found myself praising my white cane when I encountered a car parked on the side of the road on one of our walks… but at least I didn’t try to give it a treat for good behavior!

At least, not yet! ….

And now to move onto another topic for a while, in case you’re bored of hearing about my O&M lessons!

Taking Small Steps

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Walking on my own across the road to my neighbours house should be simple, right? I mean, it’s less than 10 metres. So, it should be easy.

Well yes, it should. But I’ve never done it

At least, not before my second Orientation and Mobility lesson with Golden Dzapasi, of the Cape Town Society for the Blind. Which is totally crazy, since we’ve always got on really well with the neighbours and I’ve visited the house tons of times. I’ve just never walked across the road entirely on my own. Someone’s always walked with me

Till now.

Not that I’m going to bother the neighbours all the time just because I can – that’s not the point. Besides, it’s not very neighbourly. But at least now I can get there if I need to.

And it’s quite liberating.

Now, if I could just find a way to reassure my guide dog that learning to use my mobility cane doesn’t mean she’s going to be out of a job…

Overlooking the Obvious

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Have you ever realized there’s a better way of doing something you’ve been doing routinely for years?

There’s one room in my home that I avoid. It’s a fairly large, open space and, although I’ve lived in the house for years, I’ve always shied away from crossing that room. At least there is an alternative, even if it means I have to walk around through the passageway.

You may be asking why I go to these extraordinary lengths to avoid walking across that large, open room. Partly it’s because there aren’t “landmarks” to help me navigate it. Mostly, it’s because I know there’s a coffee table lurking somewhere in that space and it’s just waiting to leap out and bite me on the kneecaps. For those of you who’ve read my book, A Different Way of Seeing – yes, it’s that room, and that coffee table!

When I had my first Orientation and Mobility lesson with Golden Dzapasi, the O&M Instructor from CTSB (Cape Town Society for the Blind), I happened to mention my unwillingness to navigate the room.

And that was where we started. Golden had me walk round the perimeter of the room identifying each item of furniture as I encountered it. And that was when I realized I’d been overlooking an obvious solution to the problem…

Why was I trying to walk through the middle of the room at all? When I could take one or two steps to either side of the door and use the perimeter furniture to help me navigate the room? Not to mention keeping out of the way of that pesky coffee table?

The realization was simultaneously liberating and embarrassing. I mean, it’s a technique I use to navigate round other places without even thinking about it. And yet, it had never occurred to me in this specific room. In the week since that lesson I’ve been able to move around the room with speed and confidence… and not a single knee-bite.

All I can say is, that if that was the result of my first lesson with Golden, I can’t wait to see what other mobility skills he can teach me. Which reminds me, I have my next lesson today, so I’d best get ready…

Guide Dog or White Cane – and the Winner is…

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A few days ago, I had two meetings at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. For various reasons that aren’t relevant to this post, I wasn’t able to take my guide dog Fiji with me. Instead I used my white mobility cane.

I have many blind and visually impaired friends who prefer to use a white cane as their primary mobility aid and they’re superb at it. But me, well… Let’s just say that because I generally use a guide dog, my cane skills aren’t that great.

Both rely on effective O&M skills – orientation and mobility for those who don’t know our jargon. Orientation is the ability to know your location using your other senses, and mobility is the ability to get from one place to another.

Here’s what I mean. I’m not used to walking into obstacles. Fiji usually walks me round things that are in our way. When using a white cane, I feel that life is much like a full body contact sport. I only know obstacles are there when I hit them with my cane tip, bounce off them, or fall over them. Also, I think I missed out when they were handing out senses of balance since I don’t have one. It’s okay when I’m with Fiji because she helps to balance me, especially when walking down stairs, which is probably my least favourite part of getting out and about. This absence of a sense of balance is magnified wen I’m using a white mobility cane – I simply don’t feel steady on my feet. And finally, I seem to battle to find straight. Again, that isn’t a problem with Fiji since I can leave it up to her. But when using a white cane, it’s up to me and I seem to spend my entire journey tacking from one side to the other.

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I know my cane skills would improve significantly if I were to use them more often, especially when travelling on my own. Because traveling independently with a cane leaves me feeling anxious, incompetent and unable. Which I hate.

I recently decided I needed to do something about that.

I’ve already contacted the O&M Instructor from the Cape Town Society for the Blind to set up a lesson so I can brush up on my obviously rusty cane skills. I also want to get a new, longer white cane since I’ve started walking faster since working with Fiji and a longer cane will give me a slightly longer reaction time when I encounter obstacles. I’ve also set myself the goal of becoming braver about using my cane independently so I can practice the skills I need.

Does this mean I’m going to use Fiji less? Absolutely not. Fiji will always be my first choice as a mobility aid. But it will definitely be valuable for me to be more comfortable using a white cane for those times when I can’t have Fiji with me.

To go back to the start of the post and answer the question, I firmly believe the winner will be me…. Because any way I can improve my levels of independence will help me be more effective in what I do.

Filling in the Blind Spots

the image shows the cover of a book and the text: A Different Way of Seeing: A Blind Woman’s Journey of Living an ‘’Ordinary’ Life in an Extraordinary Way

I’m taking a moment away from my time in France to update you on my progress with turning A Different Way of seeing into an audio book.

As I think I shared in a previous post, I realized I’d need to update the content since so much had changed since writing A Different Way of Seeing. I wrote that update as a separate volume, which I found myself referring to as Filling in the Blind Spots.

I’m currently creating a single script from the two volumes which will be used as a basis for the audio book. which will most likely land up being a single recording comprising both books.

At the same time, I plan to release Filling in the Blind Spots as an e-book.

I still have a few details to work out, but the edited manuscripts are almost ready to go so hopefully it won’t take me too long to move onto the next phase – creating the audio and e-book. I’ll let you know more as I make progress.

And now, back to France…

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