I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like people to know about my life as a blind person – things that I wish were more commonly known that would foster greater inclusion of the visually impaired community into society and the workplace. Because they would help people to understand my world a little better.
I thought it might be useful to share some of the things I wish people knew about blindness in general, and my blindness in particular. This is the first of a series of articles in which I’m going to do just that.
The first thing I’d like you to know is that we are not all the same.
I understand how tempting it is to assume that all blind people are the same – that we all use the same techniques, can do the same things, and have the same preferences. But it is just not true. We are all different. While we may have blindness in common, we are individual people with individual strengths, skills, likes and dislikes. And we may use different techniques to accomplish a task. I have blind friends who can do things that I cannot. And visa versa.
Let me give you a few examples.
I am a guide dog user. I love having the ability of navigating the world around me with my beautiful Fiji walking beside me. Many of my visually impaired friends prefer to use a white cane. Both are effective ways of getting around. Neither is better than the other. They are simply different.
I am not a braille user. I know how to read braille, but prefer accessing information on my computer using a screen reader, which is an audio programme that reads what is on the screen. That’s just my preference. Yet I know of many blind and visually impaired people who prefer using braille to access information. They have a braille display for their computer, read books in braille, and use a braille keyboard on their smart phone. Others may use a combination of audio and braille. It depends on each person’s preference.
A few months ago, my husband and I went to our local Mugg & Bean. I was presented with a braille menu. Which would probably have taken me a month to read – while I know the alphabet, my braille reading skills are almost non-existent. At the same time, I think it is commendable that the Mugg & Bean chain have braille menus for those who need them. Because many visually impaired customers will appreciate them.
I feel I ought to repeat the point of this article – to show that each individual blind or visually impaired person is unique. Some of my visually impaired friends will probably disagree with some of the articles I write in this series. And some will agree. Because we are not all the same.
So, while I would love for you to join me for this whole series of articles, please don’t fall into the assumption that what is true for me is also true for any other blind person you encounter. Chances are that they will feel much as I do – but it’s always better to take a little time to ask them about their own experiences and preferences.
Any idea what I’m going to write about next? Why not join me next week and find out…
As we all continue to experience the challenges of lockdown, social distancing is becoming almost a regular part of our lives. But have you thought about the challenges social distancing poses for someone who is blind or visually impaired?
A few weeks ago, my guide dog, Fiji, wrote a guest blog on my Beyond Sight Blog about her feelings about social distancing. Yes, it was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective for me to share, but the challenges are real – and not just for guide dogs!
Here’s how I experience social distancing, and some of the ways you can help me, and people like me, to ensure we keep safe when we’re out and about.
If I’m walking along a busy road and there is masking noise, like passing cars or wind rustling tree leaves, I might not hear you approaching. So, I might get closer to you than is safe. It would really help me if you could recognise that I might not be able to take evasive action– either make a sound so I know you’re there, or take the initiative and ensure we are a safe distance apart.
The painted lines in shopping queues are invisible to me and my white cane (or my guide dog) Unless you’re aware of a shopping centre that has created tactile lines, I have no way of knowing where the marks are. It would really help me and my guide dog if you can give us verbal guidance of where we should stand, and when we can move forward.
Never before has the #JustAskDontGrab Campaign been so important for the visually impaired community. I, like most of my blind friends, have countless stories of people grabbing us in order to attract our attention, or in order to move us physically. Nowadays that is simply not a safe option. We need people to speak to us when offering help.
Yes, there are technologies we can use to help us maintain social distancing. I could use the Be My Eyes app and ask a sighted volunteer to help me navigate safely. Or I could make use of a Sunu Band, a band that is worn on the wrist and gives tactile feedback when I’m approaching something. Or someone. Both are options for me.
But let’s be honest, I’m not keen to wave around my iPhone when I’m out and about in public. It’s just asking for trouble. And the cost of the Sunu Band puts it out of reach of most blind and visually impaired South Africans.
Which means we have to do the best that we can using our own skills and the help of those around us. People like you.
So, next time you see Fiji and I walking down the road, please speak to us to let us know where you are, and be willing to step out of our way as we walk past. Next time you spot me in the queue at Blue Route Mall with my white cane, speak up and let me know how to move from one painted line to the next as the queue progresses. And please, please don’t reach out and grab for Fiji or myself to guide us – ask us what form of help will be most safe and most comfortable for us all.
Thank you – Fiji and I really appreciate your thoughtfulness!
Like most South Africans, I was excited when we were allowed to exercise at the start of Level 4 lockdown. To be honest, the ability to get out and walk with my highly frustrated guide dog was wonderful. I didn’t even mind having to wear a face mask. Yet, when it came to our first walk, I encountered an unexpected problem
As I stepped outside my garden for the first time in six weeks, with a deliriously happy guide dog at my side, I realized the mask I was wearing was restricting my hearing. Not too much, but enough that I was aware of it and it made me a little anxious about walking.
I use my hearing as an important tool to help me navigate the world around me. Usually, I use it to listen for approaching traffic. Now, when we need to be aware of social distancing, hearing also helps when that traffic is made up of other people. Particularly with more people around due to the limitation on the hours we’re allowed to exercise.
Obviously, the most important criteria for a mask is that it must be as effective as possible in preventing me from potentially catching the virus. What’s the point, otherwise? It must cover my nose and my mouth adequately and be secure enough that it’s not going to slip off my face. Beyond that, I’ve learned that some designs work better for me than others.
If I can, I’ll prefer not to wear a mask with loops that hook behind my ears to keep them in place. Because that’s what affects my hearing. Rather, a mask that ties behind my head allows my ears to be free and my hearing is unobstructed. Although I need to be sure the mask is tied tightly enough that it won’t come undone when Fiji and I are out and about.
My favourite mask so far is the one I’m wearing in the image – not just because the bright colours make it beautiful to look at – yes, masks can be fashion accessories these days – but mostly because it is held in place by two pieces of elastic that I pull over the back of my head. It is secure and my hearing is unobstructed. So that’s the first mask I reach for when leaving the house.
Make no mistake, I’ll use a mask that is held in place by other means when that particular one is in the wash. After all, it’s more about managing risk than being comfortable. But it’s definitely my preferred mask.
I am grateful that I am able to have a selection of masks to choose from. I know many of our people are not so lucky. If I only had a mask that restricted my hearing, I would wear it. But I’ll admit I’m grateful to have masks that not only work well, but are also safer for me when I walk.
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.
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.
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.