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!
I was chatting to a professional photographer while waiting to soundcheck for my set at the Inclusive Arts Festival at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town last weekend. You can imagine my reaction when he said with utter conviction that he wouldn’t cope if he were disabled since he couldn’t bear being totally dependent on others.
Naturally this engaged the inner coach in me – I started asking questions about the assumptions he was making about disability, independence and dependence and ability. And it turned into a short but fascinating conversation about how many people view disability.
I’ve found that conversation spinning in my brain for the past few days and it’s given rise to several thoughts on the topic.
I suspect it’s going to take me a few articles to think through all the aspects of this question that have been percolating in my mind, so be warned… this is the first of a series that’ll look into what I believe independence means to someone with a disability, the concept of independence as a continuum rather than an absolute, some of the tools that give us greater independence, and why so often a disabled person feels that asking for help constitutes a failure on their part.
Finally, I find myself feeling intensely frustrated… saddened… surprised that someone who had spent a week immersed in the world of performers with disabilities could be so blind to the talent, skill and, above all, the independence they showed. How could he have missed it – it was right in front of his eyes…
As I sit considering what clothing to pack for my imminent adventure in Germany and Poland I find myself idly constructing a list of the pro’s and con’s of travel from my own particular perspective.
the pro’s are fairly easy. I love experiencing new places and using my remaining senses to build a picture of the place we’re visiting. I know it’s a very different way to see the world. People often say they don’t understand why I travel, let alone how. For me there’s something special about experiencing a place using my senses of hearing, taste, scent and touch. And, of course, discovering the stories that surround the cities and sites we visit so I can use my (rather over-active) imagination to imagine myself into the lives of the people living there.
I also learn more about my own life and skills when I travel. Somehow, leaving my usual routine gives me new insight into what I’m able to do and often gives me a more objective way of seeing my own life.
Travel also teaches me about different cultures. While I’m privileged to live in a wonderfully diverse country, travelling makes it easier to observe diversity since we’re actively trying to experience the reality of a different place and people.
For me, those are a few of the pro’s of travel. So what are the con’s?
Let’s be honest, most of us love our home comforts – knowing where everything is in our kitchen, being able to arrange our clothing the way we like, and especially the comfort of our own bed. We don’t have any of those familiar comforts when we travel. For many that’s a decided disadvantage. And I’m no different – I like my own space and the way I’ve adapted it to serve my needs.
For me there’s also the challenge of leaving my beloved guide dog behind and being dependent on a sighted guide. Okay, I know that sighted guide is my husband and that he really doesn’t mind assisting me and describing what’s around me. But still, its hard to leave behind the glorious sense of independence that working with Fiji gives me. Besides, she’s so attentive and loving (and occasionally demanding) that it’s hard knowing I can’t simply reach down and feel her curled up next to me. I miss that when we travel.
These are the thoughts buzzing round my head as I prepare for my trip. And, while I can’t wait to head off on my latest adventure, there’s a small part of me that’s already looking forward to coming home.
“So, how would you navigate your way round a large public space in a shopping centre? What technology would help you do that?”
Those were two of the questions I was asked when Fiji and I spoke at an architectural company who specialize ? in designing shopping centres, school and university campuses and large apartment buildings. It was one of those sessions where I really got to test my own knowledge and skills in trying to offer the architects suggestions on how to make their designs more friendly to blind and visually impaired people, both those of us who work with a guide dog and those who prefer using a white mobility cane.
More importantly, it got me thinking about how much I’ve learned over the past two years – if someone had started asking me things like that when I first sat down to write A Different Way of Seeing, or when I first started working with Fiji I probably would have been lost for words… or at least lost for ideas to put into words. Yet, when I was standing in front of the team of architects I found myself not only able to answer the questions but to offer a few thoughts on emerging technologies that may really help architects to design large public spaces that are accessible to those of us without sight.
Of course, I had the added advantage that Fiji was being her usual beautiful and talented self, so I could probably have got away with it even if I hadn’t been able to answer the questions posed by the architects… but I could, so her being beautiful and talented was merely an added bonus!
I really enjoy doing this kind of work, and Fiji loves doing any kind of work, so it was a wonderfully stimulating day for us both.
I know I don’t usually post on a Wednesday, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me when you hear my reason for doing so – today is my and my amazing beautiful clever guide dog Fiji’s second anniversary!
“Wow,” I hear you say, “Two years?” And I know exactly what you mean. In some ways it feels like it was only yesterday that I found my brand new guide dog curled up asleep on my bed on the very day I met her – as an aside, I was chatting to one of the trainers in the kitchen of the training centre at the time, and had no clue that Fiji was making herself so at home in my room. At the same time, we work so well as a team now that it feels like we’ve been partnered forever.
In the two short years we’ve been working together I already have so many stories about Fiji and the things she and I have done… that I could probably devote and entire book to her, instead of the mere chapter I dedicated to my previous dogs, Leila and Eccles in A Different Way of Seeing. I don’t think Fiji’s done more than they did, but I’m living the adventures with Fiji in the here and now, where those with Ecce and Leila are drawn from my memories.
Here’s just a few special moments from my time with Fiji: there was the time I got back to the training centre after leaving Fiji there overnight and was met by a young blonde ball of lunatic Labrador- in one short week we’d already bonded that much. Or the time a pesky squirrel tormented Fiji by throwing twigs at her thus initiating a state of all-out war between Fiji and squirrels. Or the windy day I was trying to take advantage of a lull in both wind and traffic so we could cross Main Road , only to have Fiji flatly refuse to move because I had forgotten to give her a treat for finding the crossing.
From the way she constantly glances back over her shoulder when we’re walking to make sure I’m still there, to her bouncing down the hallway to pounce either her doggy sister Emily or me just prior to one of our walks. From the complete and utter exuberance with which she greets each morning to the contentment I sense from her as she curls up and falls asleep next to me every night. , From the intense focus she brings to both her work as a guide dog and her times of joyful play, Fiji has become an integral part of my life. Nor do I think I’ll ever lose the sense of wonder with which I contemplate our partnership as guide dog and human partner – she’s simply that awesome!
Happy anniversary, precious baby girl! May we look forward to many more years of discovering the world together!
Here’s another Fiji video – this time of when she and I went walking in Tokai Forest.
It was a beautifully warm morning. In fact, at over 32 degrees Celsius it was verging on being a little too warm! The sky was clear and there was a gentle breeze keeping it from becoming stifling. It was a beautiful day to walk in the forest.
I did have an ulterior motive for wanting to walk there – I wanted to assess Fiji’s dog and squirrel distraction levels in a safe environment. Occasionally I’ve noticed her being a little too eager to go and play with other dogs and with squirrels… though I’m not sure that chasing squirrels counts as playing – at least, not if you happen to be one of those squirrels!
Naturally, Fiji behaved perfectly when we were in Tokai Forest. Yes, she may have looked at a few dogs and noted when two squirrels sped past her, but at no stage did she veer off course or pull towards them. I was really proud of her as I know it must be hard for a dog to so totally ignore what their instincts are telling them. Well done, Fiji!
Hope you enjoy the short video of Fiji and I walking down the forest path…
In my book, “A Different Way of Seeing”, I mention that one of the hardest parts of losing my sight was losing the ability to drive a car. It really hit me hard that I couldn’t just climb into my fire-red City Golf – named the Jean Genie after a David Bowie song – and go where I wanted, when I wanted.
Uber has given me back that sense of independence. Being able to open the app on my iPhone, enter my desired destination and voila… A few minutes later I have a ride! Is unbelievably liberating!
Please don’t think I’ve been left stranded in the past. My amazing family and friends have always been willing to rearrange their schedules to help me get wherever I’ve needed to. But It’s hard for me to ask for that kind of help sometimes – especially since I know people have their own lives and their own commitments as well. Uber gives me an alternative for those times when friends and family can’t help me out.
Okay, so I admit that learning the app had its up’s and down’s. The first time I used the app on my own I got so frustrated that I had to get help from a friend – thanks, Cindy! Then there was the time I wanted to Uber to a family party at my in-laws… and I couldn’t get the “order Uber” button to work, so I had to ask my husband Craig to order on my behalf – we later found out that the credit card linked to my profile had expired. But generally, the more I use the app, the easier it is… or maybe It’s just that I become more comfortable with it.
Here’s what I love most about Uber:
- The in-built safety features – not only is there a permanent record of each of my trips and the details of the driver, but I can also send a link to whomever I’m meeting so they can track my journey. So, if anything untoward were to happen, there’d be a pretty good way to follow my route.
- Uber’s policy about guide dogs – Every Uber driver is required to accept a guide dog as a passenger, as part of their agreement with Uber. Some of my blind friends have been told by other taxi services that they won’t take guide dogs, which has effectively stopped my friends from getting to where they needed to be. But that won’t happen with Uber!
I can’t speak highly enough of the service that Uber provides, of the wonderful Uber drivers I’ve met and how well they’ve looked after Fiji and me, or of the incredible sense of freedom that Ubering has given me.
Maybe you’re thinking that the degree to which I’m waxing lyrical about Uber is a little extreme… and maybe you’re right. But if you had the ability to go places and do things independently for the first time in 25 years, wouldn’t you also feel the same?
I was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to read and review an advance copy of fellow blind female South African author, Leann Hunt’s new book, What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know.
Leanne’s book is a practical guide on how to assist a visually impaired family member, friend or colleague who is struggling to grow from dependence to independence. She describes the psychological impact of blindness as well as the various stages she herself worked through in coming to terms with her disability and gaining independence. Leann’s is an inspiring story that is full of courage.
Though I personally did not experience anything near the same level of isolation and dependency that Leanne did when losing her sight, I could relate to her story. The book gave me reason to reconsider my own journey through blindness and I found myself gaining additional insights into my own life from both the similarities and the differences in our situations.
I will admit to having reservations about the word “every in the title, what Every Blind Person Needs You to Know, as I believe it is too simplistic to assume that the same process will apply to all blind people. However, there are certainly aspects of Leanne’s book that will be useful to each reader.
I would recommend Leanne Hunt’s book, What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know as a valuable resource for anyone supporting a blind or visually impaired person battling to discover how to increase their level of independence.
You can purchase What Every Blind Person Needs You to Know at www.blindyetfree.com/books