“I don’t know how you manage!” The most recent exclamation came from a Vicar who witnessed me heading straight for a wall. It is the usual comment uttered by helpful strangers who’ve offered an arm around a calamity of roadworks or found me a vacant seat in a bus. Why would a sighted person have any idea of the energy and concentration required to go from my home to the shops, the bus stop or even a neighbour in the same street?
Once upon a time, I had some usable side vision. This allowed me to avoid large obstacles like parked cars, opening doors and maybe a rubbish bin. I was young, with a young, quick mind. The brain had room to make rapid decisions based on the sensory data crashing in on it. In those days, I refused to carry a white stick. There were near misses, but I thought the gamble was worth the risk. To be singled out as different, just one of those shuffling blind losers, seemed worse than dying. I made myself push forward while trying to ignore the shock of screeching brakes as a car swerved to avoid me, or steady my thumping heart as a hole loomed up. Incidents like these could happen on the one trip. The following day, undaunted, I’d step out, cane less, prepared to cope with the next rash of trials. I was young.
Things change. Here I am in my sixties; less sharp, less confident and a whole lot less able to see shadows. I attempt fewer adventures. I rely on sighted guides more often. The temptation to give up is seductive. It’s courage that keeps me wrestling with my fears, which enables me to walk forward.
To keep fit and strong matters. Yet it’s hard to leave the safety of my garden. The local park offers pathways free of cars and bikes. The stress is less, unless the swans come ashore and decide to guard my way. Faced with four, hissing beasts, marching forward falters. I run.
The uncertainty lurking outside the park gates must be faced if I’m to manage a two mile walk.
So out I go. Rarely does the footpath beckon. It’s too cluttered with other people’s thoughtlessness. A rose bush falling over the fence gives a nasty scratch to the face. A builders van parked on the path to avoid being scratched by passing vehicles in a narrow, Victorian street, can provide another assault to the face from the wing mirror. Presented with the unpredictable threats to my person, the decision is unsavoury but obvious. I walk in the road.
Rather a suicidal decision if my sight is no better than hand perception. Preferable though, when faced with the alternative.
I can usually hear oncoming cars, when walking the sleepy, side streets. This is of course, if my sound scape is not marred by an idling vehicle.
I had an appointment in Oxford. The walk into the centre is uncomplicated. Head north for two miles along a busy road, simple! I left my gate.
The school traffic had thinned. The middle of my road should have been safe enough. I stepped out into a wall of low level noise. By the engine revs, a huge lorry was trying to get through the parked cars. Was it coming towards me or pulling away? Here lies the first tricky decision. Do I step into the road and move cautiously towards the lorry or choose the long way around? There’s always the footpath. To a sighted person, the decision is obvious. Get off the road and out of danger. I walk towards the lorry, refusing the safe option. My fear of falling over sidewalk clutter is that deep. The volume of noise should tell me how far and how fast it’s moving. Two vans suddenly start up and I’m lost in a whirlpool of sound. I join the footpath and walk straight into a wheelie bin. I haven’t even left my street.
The appointment was important so I press on. Stress is already grabbing at my concentration and I’m only a hundred metres along my road. Keep walking forward and I’m finally on the main road, footpath of course, towards the centre. The rhythm of walking settles my nerves. On I go, past a coffee shop with an A-frame advertisement outside. The sweep of my stick hits the outer edge. Another obstacle avoided. The traffic lights are somewhere ahead. I add their beeping to my sound-scan. Raised paving tells me when I’ve arrived and can fumble for the crossing button. Over I go, turn left, avoid the light gantry take twenty steps and I’ve hit something. A car is parked right across the footpath. I’ll have to feel around the car and find a space between it and the fence, or risk going out into the busy road. Unbelievable, people’s thoughtlessness at times.
Past the dangerous decision, I calm myself and push forward. Keeping a straight course is impossible without a trick or two. The gutter can be used as a guide by hitting the edge with every swing of my cane, or there’s always the fence line. More difficult this, because there’s often lamp posts, bus timetables and people’s overhanging foliage. Those three can give a nasty jolt when my ribs make contact.
Further along there’s a service road to a hotel, which needs attention. Side roads are safe enough because I walk about ten feet in. This gives cars turning into the road, a chance to see me. The service road had no footpath and so I crossed, listening out for turning cars. Perhaps it was a lapse in concentration, perhaps I forgot to indent. Rather than cross straight, I veered to the side and was heading straight for the oncoming traffic. It was the noise and a vague gutter shadow that alerted me to the threat. Yet I walked forward, reached the path, near to tears and again bewildered by the dramatic loss of sight.
Here’s the question. Do I give up and allow a taxi or a friend to guide me. Do I stay at home more often and contemplate life from a sitting position. Or do I just walk forward, take my chances and trust in the universe and the kindness of strangers. My nature is to choose the last option. Let’s hope my courage lasts the distance.
China Vision Trustee, Ellen Bassani (Disability Equality Consultant and Trainer) has been a Social Worker, a public speaker, a university lecturer, and for the last twenty-five years, a disability equality trainer. She has conducted a series of disability equality training programs in China. She regards her visual loss as her greatest gift and encourages others to validate their own disability-journey.