independence

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

On Independence – You’re Never Too Old to Learn

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I’ll admit I was a tiny bit nervous when accepting Afsana’s offer to accompany me to Makhanda so I could perform in the Blind Date Show at the National Arts Festival.

I wasn’t nervous about Afsana accompanying me – I knew she’d be a great travelling companion and that I’d be in safe hands. Rather, it was the unfamiliarity of travelling with someone other than Craig that gave me pause. While I’ve known Afsana for several years, we’ve never really spent much time together and I wasn’t certain how well she understood the challenges of travelling with someone who’s not only blind but is also a Type 1 diabetic. Oh, not to mention her occasionally boisterous guide dog, Fiji!

Yet, what a great traveling companion Afsana turned out to be! We spent hours chatting – on the flight to Port Elizabeth, on the two-hour bus journey to Makhanda, and over several meals before meeting the others who were performing in the show. And Afsana connected with Fiji as well, even teaching her a new command (“Reverse, Fiji”).

When Craig joined us at the end of our second day in Makhanda I made a discovery that’s given me lots to think through. When Afsana and I were navigating our way round Makhanda I did so with a greater level of independence than normal. And certainly a greater level of independence than when Craig joined us.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Craig deprives me of my independence. He doesn’t. But, when I’m with him I fall into the habit of letting him do most of the work when he’s guiding me. It’s just so much easier since I don’t have to concentrate as much on what’s happening around me.

Whereas, since Afsana left it to me to tell her when I might need guidance, I tended to work it out on my own.

What I need to figure out is whether or not I should break the habit of letting Craig do more of the work, or if it’s okay since I manage on my own the rest of the time. In reality, I guess the answer is somewhere between the two. Regardless, understanding how I manage my own independence has taught me that I’m never too old to gain insights into how I live my life. Which is valuable to me.

And, having the opportunity of getting to know Afsana better remains one of the highlights of a truly unforgettable time in Makhanda. I’m so glad I accepted her offer to come with me on the trip.

The photo was taken by Afsana and shows Fiji and me sitting at the back of the bus travelling between Port Elizabeth and Makhanda.
XXXXX

Putting My Skills to Good Use

You might remember that I started lessons on using a white cane shortly before I left for my trip to India. I shared a few articles on what I was learning just before I left. Today I want to let you know how I put those lessons to good use during my trip.

I spent five days working in the hotel. During the day I was on my own, except when I encountered people from housekeeping who came to clean the room or bring bottled water for those oh-so-necessary cups of tea. I didn’t mind the solitude. It gave me a chance to catch up on a project that’s been awaiting my attention for far too long – turning my book into an audio version.

But here’s the thing you might not have realized – being on my own meant I’d have to navigate my way round the hotel independently if I wanted to leave the room for any reason. And, since my trusty guide dog was back in Cape Town, I’d need to use my white cane to do it.

I know it sounds insane, but I’ve never navigated a hotel on my own. Not once despite having visited 21 different countries since losing my sight. I’ve always had a sighted guide to assist me.

The first time I walked to the bank of elevators on my own I was a little nervous. Even though there was no way I could get lost. Then I had to get to the restaurant level and find my way there from the elevator. Luckily, the restaurant played music so I listened closely as I stepped out of the elevator and used the sound as a beacon to guide me. Before I knew it, I was in the restaurant ordering lunch.

Buoyed by my success I decided to find my way down to the lobby to meet Craig when he returned from his day of meetings. And, to my joy, that also worked.

You may be wondering what made this trip different – why I felt comfortable navigating the hotel independently where I’d never done so before.

Part of the answer is that I felt more comfortable navigating independently. Even though I’d only had a few lessons, simply using my cane gave me the confidence to push my boundaries. And another part is that I had a really good incentive– to be able to get to the restaurant. Sure, I could have ordered room service, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay the room service prices when I could just walk down to the restaurant instead. If I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and used my white stick.

Now that I’m back in Cape Town I’ve restarted my mobility training. By the time you read this article I’ll have been taught how to navigate one of our local shopping malls on my own. Who knows what I’ll be willing to try next?

The video shows me navigating my way down the hotel corridor towards the elevators using my white cane.

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!

On Independence 01: How Could He Have Missed It?

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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…

Pro’s and Con’s of Travel: My Personal Perspective

Cds 2016 11 26 08 38 08As 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.

Explaining the Realities of Blindness to Architects

Cds 2017 04 18 20 49 34“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.

Celebrating a Mind-blowing Anniversary

Cds DSCF5911I 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!

A Walk in Tokai Forest

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…

Brrummm Brrummm Brrummmm

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?

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