Date: 24 March 2020
Category: Disability Awareness, Audio,
**Craig, not sure if the podcast link will provide us with an image; please let me know
You’re walking down a road and see a person with a guide dog or a white cane approaching you. Do you offer to assist them? And if so, how?
One day, an elderly woman grabbed my arm and propelled me across a busy road. Then she walked off, no doubt feeling good for assisting the poor blind lady. Here’s the thing – I didn’t need to cross that road. But she didn’t give me the chance to say so.
The topic of how to engage with a visually impaired person and offer help became a hot topic on social media recently, due primarily to Dr Amy Kavanagh’s #JustAskDontGrab campaign. The campaign aims to change the way sighted people offer assistance to those of us in the VVI (blind and visually impaired) community.
In many ways I agree with the aims of the campaign. If I’m standing at the top of a flight of stairs figuring out the safest way to navigate them, I might get startled if someone suddenly reaches out and grabs my arm. It puts me at risk of losing my balance and falling down those stairs. So, #JustAskDontGrab has its place.
But truthfully, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What if there isn’t time to connect verbally before I put myself into danger? What if it’s a noisy or busy environment where I might not realize you’re talking to me? You need to consider what’s happening there and then.
But here’s the thing, most blind and visually impaired people who are out in the world are very capable of navigating our way around it. Almost all of the time. Except for the very rare occasion when we’re not. And we’ll usually ask if we need help.
Am I saying you should never offer assistance to a member of the VBI community? By no means. Because maybe it’s the one time we actually do need assistance. Just please, , rather than reaching out and grabbing our arm, or our guide dog, rather verbally ask if we need help. And, if you think we might not hear you, lightly touch our arm and then ask.
It sounds so simple, right? Yet, there’s so much happening in that moment that you reach out – metaphorically, of course – to offer assistance. And that’s the subject of a conversation Jeff Thompson, of the Blind Abilities Podcast Network, and I had a few weeks ago.
I’d love for you to listen to the podcast and let me know what you think. Whether you’re sighted or a member of the VBI community, I’m interested to know your thoughts.
Besides, you never know – it may help next time you’re walking down the road and see a person with a guide dog or white cane and try to figure out whether or not to offer assistance.
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.
On our recent overseas trip Craig and I stayed in 7 different places – that’s 7 different places in less than 14 days. As you can imagine, I need to have techniques to learn my way round a new place as soon as I can.
Every apartment has fixtures: furniture, doorways, windows, even pictures on a wall. I use the fixtures to orientate myself and find my way round the place I’m in.
As an example, here’s how I navigated my way round one of the apartments in Warsaw. The apartment had a large combined bedroom/dining room/kitchen, with a passage down to a second bedroom and the bathroom. The front door into the apartment was on the long side of the passage, with the bathroom on the right and the doorway into the bedroom/dining room/kitchen on the left.
There was a thick mat that stretched most of the length of the passage. I used it to indicate where the doorways into each room were – when I felt the edge of the mat I knew to slow down so I wouldn’t stub my toes on the doorframes.
The main room had a window opening onto a busy street. It seemed like the traffic never stopped. While that was a little annoying in the early hours of the morning, I could use the sound to judge which way I should be facing so I wouldn’t fall over the bed, the table or the chairs. Using those fixtures it took me only a few hours to find my way round the apartment as if I had lived there for years.
Of course, it’s not always that easy. Some apartments, especially those with big open spaces, are more confusing to get around without help. But I usually manage to find some way of navigating a new space without needing sight.