It took me awhile to get used to get over my pre-conceived ideas about blindness, and to begin to associate it with myself. I freely used words like “tolerance” and “understanding” and “adaptability” with nonnative speakers, language, culture, and cuisine. But when it came to accepting my own vision limitations, I was having none of it. This is the start of my journey in changing my attitude about my very own Retinitis Pigmentosa.
I had a lot to learn about judging others and accepting myself.
~ ~ ~
“Perhaps the best solution is to simply tell people that you are blind.”
“I’m not blind. I have a vision problem” I replied immediately.
Have you ever been around someone you don’t know well but who rubs you wrong, or downright irritates you? For me, that someone was Bob*(not his real name). I tried to be polite but from the start everything about him bothered me. First, he had the audacity to show up without telling me in advance that he was blind! So that was a shock. Fuming, I guided Bob through my parent’s house until we arrived at my apartment. There he sat on my sofa, determined to suggest that I was blind and that I should inform people of it! I glared at him—not that he would notice.
Bob was the Mobility Instructor assigned to my case by the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS) I had recently contacted.
“Blindness is a continuum,” he said. Not every blind person has lost all his vision. Some people still have some vision but are legally blind. That means they have to be at 20 feet to see what others can see at 200 feet. Or perhaps they have less than 10% of vision remaining. Sometimes blind people can only see light, but not shapes. What can you see?”
“I don’t know. My problem (notice that I did not say ‘my blindness’?) is more of what I don’t see. I don’t see edges, or corners or even the dog all the time!” I joked. The truth was I ran into tables and open cupboards, missed steps. Poor Buddy learned to get out of the way or that I would fall over him.
“Are you legally blind?”
I recall being told something like that more than twenty years earlier but I stubbornly refused to admit it. “I’m not sure.”
“From what you tell me I think you can benefit from using a cane. Have you ever thought of that?”
“You mean a blind man’s cane? No, no! I don’t think I really need that! I’m just clumsy,” I muttered.
Bob was not to be deterred. “Would you be willing to try it out for a session? Perhaps around your neighborhood?”
I nervously covered my eyes, not even realizing the irony of that action.
“How long is a session?”
“Ohhh, an hour or so I believe would be enough.”
“Ack!” I muttered even more quietly under my breath. “Sure, why not?” is what I said aloud to him.
Bob then proceeded to take out a variety of canes for me to try out. We walked around the house and even went to the basement where we found my mother washing clothes. Bob jovially introduced himself. I held onto my cane. Embarrassing to have that stick in my hand! I don’t know why. My mom didn’t even appear to notice.
As far as I was concerned Bob could leave and good riddance to him!
As soon as he left, I picked up my cell phone and punched in numbers. “Jim! He didn’t even tell me that he was blind before he came. Can you believe I cleaned up my entire apartment?!”
“Was this your annual spring cleaning?” As usual, my best friend who lived in California took a comical tack.
“Jim, can you please stay with me here!”
“Who is ‘he’ anyway and was he 100% blind?”
“Hmph! I’m talking about Bob, my new mobility instructor. Remember I told you he was coming over tonight to meet me? He never even let on beforehand that he was blind! And yes, he is 100% blind!”
“And do you always tell people you have a vision problem?” he asked pointedly.
“Why is it that blind people project their blindness onto others?” I huffed, ignoring him.
“As if you are an expert on blind people now. Isn’t he the first blind person that you ever met?” James laughed. “You are in denial, big time!”
“Oh, shut up!”
It was easy to fool myself before I called the BBVS. People who lose their vision gradually can get by for a long time without coming unglued. We just keep adapting. Suddenly a big chunk of vision disappears. This dislodges the fictitious comfort we’ve built up around ourselves. That’s what happened to me. Bob’s visit bugged me so I refused to call him.
But Bob did not give up. He called me. “Amy, this is Bob, your mobility instructor. It’s been awhile since we talked…”
“Mmm. Sorry, uh—so busy with my job lately.”
“I know how that is. But your cane has come in now. Shall we take that trip in your neighborhood soon and you can try it out?”
“Ahhhh—-” I couldn’t think fast enough, “Well—” Why not?
We set up the time and date for one week later in October for us to traverse my neighborhood.
The big day arrived.
“Oh, you’re early!”
“Take your time. I’ll have a smoke.” Bob planted himself outside his driver’s window and extracted a pipe. He then filled it with an aromatic tobacco and puffed on it as he talked to his driver and waited for me to gather my wits about me.
“Okay, I’m ready.” I wasn’t but the sooner we got started, the sooner we could finish.
“Let me introduce you to your new cane,” Bob joked. He then reminded me how I should hold it and instructed me to lead the way, “just get a feel for it now.”
We took to the sidewalk with me in the lead. The sun caressed our shoulders as we explored the area. My cane seemed to me just like a pool cue and I regretted not having life-sized pockets low on the ground in which to shoot a series of colored or striped balls. The thought made me smile.
“Try walking with your eyes closed,” Bob called.
Just then I jabbed myself hard in the stomach with the cane, and yelped. “Ack!”
The life-sized billiards game turned into a dagger or fencing sport. “Ahhh! Where’s my shield?” I bemoaned the fact I was not a knight living back in Shakespearean times, and thus not properly armored.
“Speaking of yielding, let me show you how to cross the street.”
I smiled at the misunderstanding but took my cue to pay attention.
“When you hold your cane vertically, it indicates to drivers that you are stopped and do not intend to cross the street. That’s important. You then listen for sounds of traffic, and yield the right-of-way to them if you hear vehicles. If you hear nothing, then you proceed to cross.”
“Oookaay.” I could handle that, especially since I could still see with my eyes at the moment. “This cane stuff isn’t so bad!”
I soon changed my tune. When I saw Rhet McCohn*(not his real name), my neighbor and the town mayor, I desperately longed to tap my cane out of sight. “Oh no! I look like I’m cross-country skiing, except there isn’t any snow!” As Mr. McCohn watched us file past his house, I then closed my eyes for real. No time like the present to try my skills! He must be wondering what we’re doing, why I’m using this cane.
I imagined myself stopping, holding my cane vertically as if I were going to cross the street. Except I would turn to face him. What would I do? Twirl my cane like a drum majorette’s baton? Use it as a teacher’s pointer and gesture dramatically? “As you can clearly see, I am now learning how to be blind!” Or would I use my cane as a musician’s baton and conduct a silent symphony and introduce Bob as the Master conductor? I did none of these things, of course. I kept on going and tried not to blush. Let Mr. McCohn think what he would!
I don’t know how Bob knew Mr. McCohn was there but he greeted him with, “Nice day to be out and about, wouldn’t you say?”
I noticed Mr. McCohn didn’t have anything at all to say.
We arrived back at the house, and I guided Bob up the stairs to my sofa again for our debriefing.
“You moved at a good clip,” he approved, “especially towards the end.” His voice took on a teasing tone. It’s as if he knew just how embarrassed I felt in front of the town mayor who lived kitty-corner to my home. “Did you close your eyes at all?”
“I did,” and wondered if Mr. McCohn did too.
Maybe Bob wasn’t quite as bad as I originally figured. After all, a blind teacher with a sense of humor might really have something of value to teach me. I held my cane vertically and thought, “Okay, I’m stopped. But ready to yield.”