Cane and able

Cane and able … not the story of the original rival siblings, but one also involving pride and internal conflict.

I recently had an unexpected trip to Johannesburg. There was little time to prepare during a busy day and , it was only when my husband and I were standing still on the ‘skellylators’ (our family word for escalators) that I began to think about this trip – body still and mind begins to move.

I realised that I was traveling alone. No securing husband, just me and my faithful, rather battered white cane.

Usually, when I go on a solo adventure, I mentally visualise the places I am going to and the colors of shops, the landmarks and the likely course of action. This time I was just there unexpectedly and had to ‘go with the flow’. When I feel vulnerable I make an effort to embrace my weakness and know that I am never alone. God is with me always. That morning I read from an ancient letter, “Let your gentleness be evident to all, for the Lord is near you …and the peace that passes all understanding will guard your heart and mind” . Boy I needed that peace, so decided to just be gentle and ask whoever I met whenever I needed it.

I checked in online, but went to the counter anyway to find out which gate I needed to find for boarding. the lady asked if I needed assistance and I automatically said, “no”. The thought of sitting in a wheelchair when my legs are perfectly healthy seemed like a false pretense. (Will think more about this for the future). I also enjoy the adrenalin rush of finding my own way.

I would never travel without my mobility cane. Whilst it is a symbol of blindness and someone needing help (why din’t I get the assistance offered?) , it frees me to do stupid things and to ask stupid questions like, “ is this gate 7?” Whilst standing under a bright blue number I also get into unexpected conversations with interesting people I would otherwise never meet.

I became very aware of the surroundings for future reference. For example, in the SA airports the bathroom signs are round and bright yellow. I still can’t see which one is for who (although our law allows you to choose your gender anyway) and could not distinguish the disability one. My cane gave me permission to ask for directions to the disabled loo. Some folk falter before answering, thinking that this is only for wheelchairs (I had this conversation in the queue with the girl who had directed me earlier) , but can you imagine being in a large noisy bathroom with sounds of hand dryers, flushing loos and intercom announcements and trying to hear which door has opened and which cubicle is free. The disabled loo – which is probably very able (unless it is blocked) – is either free or not . A much simpler option for the vision impaired.

When joining a queue for boarding I looked for the brightest bag or shirt and tucked myself in behind that person. As long as they kept moving in the direction I needed to go, I was fine. At one stage the blue bag that I was following had to veer left to board through the front door of the plane and I had to veer right to board from the rear door. I walked slowly until I spotted another colourful blob to follow. (I think he was quite amused when I asked him if I could follow his bright shirt.)

There might come a day when it becomes too stressful to follow moving blobs and blurs of landmarks, but until then… my cane makes me able.

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Weather to see or not

Yes, I know that whether is spelt wrong, but that’s what I want to talk about – how the weather affects our vision.

I love the excitement in the air around the changing of seasons. I am now woken by the cacophony of twittering birds preparing for the winter rather than by the sharp summer sunlight piercing through the cracks in the curtains. I find the gentler light more peaceful on the eyes and more peaceful to the soul. The overcast days of autumn allow me to see better than the few cloudy days in summer which seem to refract the light increasing the glare. Even people with good eyesight may notice how their vision is affected by the weather.

This morning the sky was filled with rows of cotton-puff clouds, as if a giant aero-plough had tilled the sky ready for planting . I dropped all plans of daily routine in exchange for a walk in the crisp morning air. I coaxed my friend away from her chores to join in the early beauty of this mild day. As usual my sunglasses were perched on my head (their usual place during most waking moments of my life) and that is where they stayed for the entire walk.

Everyone’s eyes are sensitive to different lighting. Some people need more light to see better and others need less. Some people see better in morning light and others see better in the evening glow. Have you ever wondered what natural lighting your eyes prefer?

I had never thought about safety and glare until I went out glasses -free on a misty morning which turned into a clear bright day. I spent most of the time with one eye closed and the other one nervously peeping through as many eyelashes as I could knit together – needless to say, not very safe for moving about.

I find that dying my very blond lashes darker also helps slightly with the glare. I am not sure if any of the guys would dare to try it.

The surface of the ground also affects the amount of light radiating into our eyes. Sun reflecting off snow, water or desert sand can be really harsh compared with green fields and muddy footpaths.

So, come rain or shine, whether you can see well or not, may your eyes never need to weather the weather.

Design de-sign

I love entering an environment that is so cleverly designed that you feel safe and clearly directed, as if an usher were guiding you. Colours, light and acoustics all play a role in how a foyer or room makes you feel. I am not sure if sighted folk are aware of the subtle influence or whether I have just become more cognisant of these elements as my sight has deteriorated.

Recently I went to an exhibition of the final interior design students at the BHC building in Cape Town. Entering an unfamiliar building is always a bit stressful for me, especially on a bright, sunny day, as my eyes take a while to adjust to the new lighting leaving me totally blind for a few minutes – hence the white cane.

On this day, the well lit entrance eased me into the foyer where I was greeted, not by a butler, but by a wide yellow walkway that immediately surprised me and filled me with joy…. maybe a yellow brick road association. The pathway (if that’s what you call it in an indoor setting) began wide and seemed to gather us up and then, it’s flowing lines swayed us towards the front desk. The colour even continued up the desk creating a sense that it was awaiting our greeting. In theme, it was in fact attended by a very sunny lady welcoming us to enjoy the exhibition. At first I couldn’t work out why I felt so safe in a new space . I love the folk I was with and was celebrating their daughter’s talent (who was named top student the following day….brag, brag), but I don’t think I have ever found an unknown space so low vision friendly. The design of the flooring actually guided us along unconsciously … clever, social engineering. I love it.

This kind of design would be so useful for something like a customer service desk in large retail stores. Many people don’t read actual signs, but look for simple pictorial or visual cues to direct them. I love buildings where the tiles, doors and walls are an indication of where to go. Having only peripheral vision, I am very aware of this, especially in places where there are a lot of people moving in different directions … like auditoriums and bus stations. I feel less stressed when the way to a specific place is marked by the change in tiling or denoted by planter boxes or benches. Airports are my favourite (when they are designed well). Large groups of people form all languages and cultures use non-verbal clues as they find out where to go. I love it when there is a tastefully demarcated corridor from the disembarking shute to the conveyer belts where your luggage gets belched out and then the tiles lead you towards the exit.

There is a particular part of a shopping centre in Cape Town that exhausts me, even on quiet days. The floor is so intricately patterned and the lights so busy, that I detour to avoid it completely. If I was a kid in that space I would play up and have a tantrum from sensory overload. My tolerance for shopping has short-circuited there twice. My family know about it so when we walk past there I just pull down my dark glasses from their almost-permanent perching place on my head, whip out my white cane and hold onto the nearest volunteer tricep until we get to a place where they can see the serenity of the clear line between the floor and the wall.

I know that music and temperature subconsciously affect a person’s behavior, but until recently I had not noticed the impact of the visual cues.

In these modern times I know there are certain standards for buildings being ‘accessible’ for persons with disability. There is wheelchair access, being the most important (cos you have to at least be able to get into the building), but I do think there is a lot more that can be tastefully done for making spaces more friendly for low vision folk. This would also include seniors and those with mental challenges who also like to get around as independently as possible.

I really appreciate thoughtfully decorated public spaces that keep people moving in the right direction or waiting patiently with the least possible stress.

Well done to the designers who have achieved this. Like the interiors, they are not just pretty facades, but clever subliminal experts.

Finger licking not so good.

Having hands is a wonderful privilege. To be able to feel and touch and hold and twist.

Our fingers can interpret texture, temperature and substance … and that is why, when you reach out to touch one thing and it happens to be something else which you do not expect, it can make you ‘gril’
(no single English word for this )- shocking shiver and shriek. For those who have good eyesight I am sure you have eaten a fruit whilst distracted by watching TV only to taste that you have bitten into something rotten. As you peer down and see half a worm you probably reacted beyond the scale of reason and have this firmly etched in your memory.

Recently I have glimpsed shapes, thinking that they are one thing , only to reach out and touch it and realise how wrong my interpretation was. Whilst cooking dinner, I rinsed off my hands (not literally) and flapped the dripping digits over the sink while I scanned the counter for the dish towel – it is seldom where it should be. I spotted a crumpled white object that seemed to have straight edges and so lunged for the prize, only to plant my hand firmly in the butter which stood boldly exposed in the silver foil. Yuk! A few days later I was putting lids back onto bottles of pickles, dressing and mustard. I reached for the small pale lid and slid my fingers into a splodge of mayonnaise.

Someone with worse vision than mine once joked,” don’t worry, you’ll get a feel for it”. Well, my favourite worst place to feel stuff is in the fruit and veggie market. My fingers are destined to plunge into the frot spot on any aging product. It seems like there is a magnetic attraction between my fingertips and the worms and wounds of any soft centred food. When I unexpectedly hit the spot my whole body shakes and weird noises escape my lips. It must look really funny if replayed on a security camera.

Getting a ‘hole in one’ is fantastic for a golf handicap , but it makes fun of my handicap on other types of greens…of course!

Acknowledgment: Thank you Glynne for being my shopping chaperone.

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I am going …what?

I am going … what?

It’s hard to fill in the blank in that statement, ‘I’m going …’. The shock of hearing that you have a degenerative eye disease is enough to make you think you are dreaming.  Thoughts waft through your semi- conscious brain saying, “This is not happening to me“; “this only happens to people I don’t know “ or “I will wake up tomorrow and find out it was just a bad dream”. That word ‘Blind’ is terrifying to a sighted person.  And so begins the first stage of grieving – denial.  I love denial. It is like having permission to live in the cuckoo land of unreality. It works so well … at least for a while.

I was in denial for years as I pretended and found tricks and clever ways to disguise the fact that I couldn’t see well at all (understatement!), and I let the submerged fear out by running and running and running some more .  In our own time we all go through the grieving process as anger comes short on the heels of denial (thumbs up to all loved ones who stand by us through that!).This is generally followed by fits of bargaining with ourselves and God or both – a good time to take up a contact sport.

I found myself faced with questions about the value of my life that no ten-year-old should have to ask.  Now that I think of it, no one did ask for blindness – that treacherous ocean between sight and no sight that all VIP’s (visually impaired people) are forced to navigate. You have no choice about being there and as much as people are with you, they cannot extract you from the reality. It can be a lonely and also selfish time. The currents of depression, disappointment and self-pity threaten to suck you under and pull you along paths you don’t want to go, but eventually the acceptance spits you out and you can finally take a deep breath of relief and joy as you recognise that you are still you and will always be you!  You realise that you are okay, and when you wipe the salt out of your eyes you see, or rather, hear a whole community of thriving survivors cheering you on and suddenly you know you are not alone and it is not a shame to get help… it is actually fun.

Find something that makes you tick and get involved, whether it is using your talents for fundraising for cures, awareness for prevention of blindness, support groups, sports, writing or motivational speaking. Your life itself can be a motivation and an eye-opener to others. If you have a degenerative disease you will go through more grieving, but there are plenty of people and great organisations to help you thrive.

Let’s do this together.

 

…teh wood for the trees

can't see teh wood for the trees

You are probably very familiar with the full saying, “You can’t see the wood for the trees”, where you are so busy looking for the solution everywhere else that you are blind to the fact that it is right under your nose… like looking for your sun glasses and all the while they are on top of your head, or in your top pocket.

Well, I was looking everywhere for a magnifier App that could be used to zoom in on a piece of paper and lock on the page… so I could write on the line without the camera focusing on your hand or the pen.  I have spent hours searching , downloading ,and  at times buying Apps only to find out that it has been in my hand all this time…. built in on  my iPhone. If the magnifier was alive it may have bitten me on the nose.I am so excited about the journey of discovery. I would love to meet the clever person or team at Apple who created this awesome technology and left it in a treasure box so some unsuspecting visually impaired person would come across it and think it is a miracle sent from heaven!

Being a teacher at heart I now need to increase my skill on this function and then lay it out simply so that it can be taught to others looking for specific help with magnifiers.

….forget the trees, I have found the wood!

 

Where’s Wally?

WallyThis is a brilliant read for young kids and parents to bond over. If you have never read a ‘Where’s Wally?’ you have a missing link in your education. It is this little guy in a red and white striped top who is hidden in plain sight amongst people and objects of similar colours and shapes.  It is a lot of fun in a book, but not a concept that transfers meaningfully into the real life of someone with little or no central vision especially when it is inadvertently left unedited in your pathway.

I am talking about hidden levels and camouflaged steps accidentally abandoned in public spaces and even in modern constructions.

There are three buildings I have been in quite often lately and all of them are specifically for children, the sick or the elderly- two hospitals and an education centre.  I love the modern sleek designs, the gentle greys and muted stone hues that are earthy and relaxing. ..except on the stairs! When you intend to go on a trip , this is not really the kind you meant.  And, the ‘landing’ between stair cases, I don’t think was named implying a safe foundation where something generally considered  dangerous comes to an end…like an airport runway or the mat at the other side of the gymnastics vault. A stairwell landing should provide maximum safety for ascent and descent. In all these cases there is either no contrast colour for the edge of the step or a dull grey that is the same colour as the shadows on the steps, making it confusing even for the sighted.  (In one case the stairs double as the fire escape route, not making for a quick safe escape.)

When you think of having an access friendly building, one usually thinks of a ramp and a wheelchair friendly bathroom and occasional braille bumps on the lift buttons.  It is very seldom that the needs of a vision impaired person, or a short sighted senior , are taken into consideration. Colour contrasts, clear lighting and tastefully bold signage can easily be incorporated into the theme of the build.

When these aspects are short-sightedly (excuse the pun) excluded at the design phase , the afterthought can land up being a thick yellow or white  stripe sloshed on the edge of the step that looks unsightly and out of place and frankly ugly! And then, it is sometimes blamed on the unfortunate needs of the disabled.  I feel sorry for some of these beautiful, elegant   buildings as they nervously await an unavoidable desecration. Some steps are clear at only certain times of the day when there is a shadow on them.

There are so many attractively clear stairwells where the light catches the minimalistic shine at the edge because it was planned with high visibility in mind.

I think Wally would agree with me as he too wears  a large pair of black- rimmed spectacles, but  I get so passionate about this; I may need to watch my step!

Wally stairs