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!
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
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…
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…
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.
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.
“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.
Despite the ominous storm clouds that had dogged our way from Athens, the sun was shining down benignly when we arrived at the ancient Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. It may sound odd, but I believe the nearby storm clouds made our appreciation of the magnificent ruin perched precariously on the top of a cliff even more profound.
I Have no doubt the view from the ruins across the ocean must have been breathtaking, but it wasn’t the view that literally took my breath away – it was the sense of how exposed to the power of the elements we were and how totally insignificant I felt in comparison. And while my notoriously poor head for heights was happily absent for most of the trip to Greece, it struck back with a vengeance this once!
Hmm, I seem to have wandered from the point of this post – it’s not to focus on the weather or on my attack of height-head. I actually intended to write about how impressed I was that the site made a significant effort to be accessible to those travelling in a wheelchair.
I’ve commented before on how difficult it must be to make a protected heritage site accessible to wheelchairs. With the exception of the ancient Roman site at Fishbourne Palace in Chichester, UK which is easy to navigate using the raised wooden walkways that give wonderful views of the beautiful mosaiced floors, there are few ancient sites that have managed to find ways to make accommodations for those whose mobility is impaired. ,
I know my insights into the realities of wheelchair travel are imperfect at best, but here’s my attempt to describe what I imagine the experience of visiting the Temple of Poseidon might be like for someone using a wheelchair. Access to the entrance of the site from the parking lot was easy with only a very gentle slope up from the parking area which is large and would allow for easy movement of a wheelchair in and out of a vehicle.
I’ve hauled myself up enough so-called wheelchair ramps that are in reality no more than badly converted flights of stairs to know that the gradient of the access ramp at the site was gentle enough to make it navigable. And, while I imagine that accessing the actual site of the ruins might pose some challenges, at least the site had a viewing platform from which the magnificent ruins and the surrounding ocean could easily be seen.
While I didn’t check if there was an accessible restroom at the site, the giftshop was accessible and had wide aisles for ease of navigation.
I’ve found myself wondering whether it’s better to be able to walk through the ancient ruins yet not be able to see them, or to be unable to get into the centre of the sites but still be able to view them and am not sure if there’s an easy answer – like most things in life, I guess each has advantages and disadvantages. And certainly complete access is the goal to strive for in any destination.
But it was good to see that the Temple of Poseidon and it’s curators at least had taken the needs of those with a mobility impairment into consideration and tried to accommodate their wish to see this beautiful site.