Monthly Archives: May 2012

Stressful Street Navigation

On a request from a reader, this post will explain how a blind person moves about on the streets. I’ve decided to write it in a semi-fictional fashion, mainly because it will make a much more interesting read than a dry factual description. By semi-fictional, I mean that either I, or my blind friends experience, or have experienced these things whilst moving out an about. Thus they are true, but they are put within the context of a fictional story.

I had been clockwatching for the past hour. This meeting had really taken forever. I was sleepy and wanted to get out. I had a dinner appointment with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in a long time in a fashionable tapas and cocktail bar only a 10 minute walk away. I wasn’t all too familiar with the route, but I kind of knew which direction to go in and it was a little too close to grab a taxi or get the bus or underground. Besides, the weather was lovely.

“So that’s all settled then,” said Ms Green, my uber boring and serious boss. “Everyone knows what they’re doing now, so I suggest you all get the project started ASAP and we’ll meet again next week to discuss the progress.” I looked at the watch again. I loved the fact that since I was blind and used a Braille watch, I could look at the time whenever I wanted simply by flicking open the lid and feeling the hands of the watch under the table. And nobody noticed that way. At least, I thought they didn’t.

I went over to my desk kicking a bin someone hadn’t bothered to move which made a terrible noise. “Crap,” I thought as May, our team assistant ran over to move the bin. “I’m so sorry,” she said in her loud squeaky voice. I cursed over helpful team assistants as well as open offices, picked up my handbag, unfolded my cane and walked over to the lift. While waiting for it to arrive, I checked my iPhone to see if anyone had called or texted, but VoiceOver only informed me that 2 people had liked my facebook status and that someone else had commented on the facebook status of a friend which I’d also commented on.

After two eternities, one waiting for the lift, and one waiting for it to descend from the 9th floor in which my office was, I was outside. I knew they had dug up my usual path from the door of the building and down to the turnstiles, but where they worked changed every day, so it would be exciting to see what would happen today accident wise. I prayed I wouldn’t step into red paint, something I’d done two days earlier, or tare my new dress on some other crap which was in my way. I was gonna have a good night out in a dress and heels and I wouldn’t have time to go home and change. But all that met me today was a temporary fence which wasn’t tall, but I reckoned I wasn’t supposed to climb it, so I walked to the left, cane in front as usual. “I wonder how the heck a normal person navigates this,” I thought as I discovered that left of the fence lead into the bushes, so I walked right. Only to discover that it was blocked by something tall. I stopped in front of the fence, listened to hear if anyone were around, and lifted my right, then left leg over, I realised immediately as I walked a couple of steps forward that I’d made a bad decision, because right in front of me was a steep step down. “You cool?” The voice came from right in front of me and startled me so much I involuntarily stepped down the step which was steeper than I realise and landed on uneven ground. “It’s tony,” said the person who was now standing next to me. “No!” I screamed inside. Tony was a guy from the office I, despite trying to deny it to myself, had a massive crush on. “Yeah, what’s up with this fence thing anyway?” I said fast. “It’s not easy. You should have taken another way from the office around the back. Want me to take you out?” Yes please,” I said and took the arm he offered me. “Did you stand there when I came?” “Yep, I watched you climb over the fence and nearly caught a glimpse of your underpants.” “Shut up!” I laughed. “I’m sure you are a woman with good taste,” he replied smoothly as we went out onto the street through the turnstiles. “Doing anything interesting?” he asked. “Meeting a friend for tapas and you?” Off to a live football game with my brother and a couple of mates. We should hang out one day.”

I couldn’t believe his words. And I must have been looking pretty stupid standing there smiling as he ran to the tube station to get the train. “Are you ok there?” An old lady grabbed my arm. “You do know the lights are green now?” and with that, she dragged me towards the crossing. I hate being grabbed. I think it’s rude. If I need help, I either ask, or if someone asks me politely if I need help, \I either politely accept or decline. So because this old woman was rude in my eyes (I know she wanted to be kind, but I’d had a very tiring day,) I wriggled my arm free which got her out of balance. “So sorry, I said, annoyed, but now worried that she might have fallen over. “But I’m not actually crossing this road and I’d rather you ask if I need help than grab me.” “I only wanted to help,” she said and went away in a huff.

I turned right, and walked confidently forward. I knew I had to walk quite a while before hitting the T junction I needed to cross to get to the right bar, so I relaxed as I took in all the impressions around me. A car drove by playing loud Jamaican dancehall music which made me gently sway my hips to the rhythm. A mother shouted at her protesting child in a language which sounded like it came from India and a drunk man I passed, kept shouting “Grrrrrrrrreat goal!” randomly. The smell from the Turkish bakery mixed with the sweet scent from the newsagent next door and made me hungry. So far my journey was going well and I felt that I navigated elegantly the parts of the street which was cluttered by using my cane less vigorously. A couple of people asked if I needed help to which I said no. To the ones who asked “Are you ok?” I walked passed ignoring them as this is a question I don’t like. I don’t understand why so many people feel the need to help a blind person who doesn’t actually look lost. Or maybe I did look lost? Are you ok, was a question I found alarming from strangers at any rate giving me the feeling there must be something wrong with me.

I had reached the T junction and I hated this, because I was never sure how to actually cross this bit. I knew the first one was straight forward, but though I only really had the options of crossing left and right at the second one which sounds easy enough, it wasn’t quite so easy because I had to walk almost slightly diagonally and then turn right a little to get to the crossing. So not a straight t-junction. The first time I’d tried to find this bar, I’d gotten completely lost, because somebody on the street told me it was straight across the road, a mistake sighted people often make because it may look like it’s straight when actually walking there is far from it. Also, this crossing had no sound so I looked for the light to feel for the cone underneath which would start spinning when the light went green. But, I regretted that move when I bumped right into a person with numerous bags and caused him or her to even lose one. “I’m so sorry,” I said stepping away from him/her. He/she did not reply, but bent down to pick up something I had managed to knock out of the bag. I turned the other way to hear if someone was standing next to me, and I was lucky. “Can you tell me when it’s green please?” I asked. “Yeah.” It was a teenage boy. Oops, I don’t like asking kids for help, especially not teenage boys. Not because they don’t like to help, but because it’s makes me feel even more uncool than I usually feel when walking outside. “It’s green,” the boy grumbled, and I followed the others across the street till I reached the next crossing.

As I manoeuvred my way to find the next and final crossing, I heard someone shouting my name that came running towards me. “Oh, my, gosh! It’s been ages man. How are you?” The girl embraced me in a tight hug. She smelled like fresh mint and sweet perfume. “Fancy seeing you here,” I said when we broke apart. “I know man, how have you been?” Good thanks and you?” “Stressful at work, but everything’s going well. Hey, I need to go, but I’ll take you across and we should so go for a coffee and catch up soon. I want to hear all your 411.” “For sure,” I said. She left me at the entrance to the little arch way in which the bar was. I knew I knew her, but I just couldn’t place her voice and subsequently, I wasn’t entirely sure who I’d just greeted so warmly. I mostly do recognize my friends of course, but some have more memorable voices than others and people I haven’t met a lot, I have more of a problem recognizing, I am always too proud to ask who they are so I just play along.

The bar was crowded, but not full. This time I’d found it on my first attempt, and not nearly destroyed the door on the coffee shop across the archway which had already been open, but which I thought was the closed bar door. I listened until I thought I could hear the counter and started walking slowly. Walking fast in a bar by myself is a bad idea since I never know where bar stools and tables are. At the counter, someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned hoping it was my friend. “Hello, Excuse me, but can I say something?” It was the voice of a middle aged man I didn’t recognize. I nodded. I had a suspicion of what he would say, but then, it could be something I really needed to know like I somehow got paint on me or something nobody else had bothered to tell me and laughed at all day. “You are so brave and inspirational.” I sighed. “Don’t be patronising I said. Before he had time to reply to defend himself, Juan, the funny and handsome bartender turned towards me. “I think this lady is looking for some Cuban porn stars yes?” I giggled as I always did at the name of that cocktail. “Two if you’re still doing two for one,” I replied feeling my tense face muscles relaxing in a smile. “Did you know I am Cuban?” I had paid for my drinks and he guided me to a table near the window. “Really?” “Yes,” he said pulling out the chair for me in a gentlemanly, not patronising way and put the drinks in front of me. Enjoy!” he shouted as he turned on his heels. In that moment my friend came over to me and grabbed one of my two drinks while she started babbling none stop. “Yes Juan, this will be a great night thanks,” I thought and laughed out loud at something my friend had just said.

Basic questions on blindness

Sometimes, I like typing the words “blind people” into Google to see what I come across and I get results that make me laugh out loud and some that makes me sigh in exasperation. And I understand people out there have a lot of questions about blind people they’ll most likely have unanswered. Either because they don’t know any blind people, or because they know someone, but they are too shy to ask.

Also, blind people don’t exactly put information out there on the internet for anyone to read, because, the idea of it is a little ridiculous and because the understanding of lack of knowledge on the part of the sighted are not understood. I am only recently beginning to see how much interest there is around questions on blindness and what opened my eyes to that, was my post on blindness and dating which has had loads of hits. I can see what people search for when they find that article and usually the questions are so extremely basic that I’m wondering how people don’t know better.

If you are sighted and have little or no experience with blindness, this post answering the most basic and common questions are for you. I will do my best not to be too condescending, and I hope this will help when you first encounter someone with little or no sight.

How do blind people use a computer?

We use normal computers, but we install screenreading software on it so that it either speaks to us, or displays information on a Braille display. Braille is the name of the letters for the blind invented by Louis Braille and we read it with our fingers. Because of this, we can use computers as efficiently as a sighted person. Most of us learn touch typing from a young age as well, and so blind people tend to type rather than using voice recognition software.

How do blind people manage to match their clothes?

That is a matter of learning which colours go together and which does not. When I buy clothes, I always remember the colour of each and every thing I own and can match that way. I have a little machine as well called a colour indicator which tells me what colour a certain clothing item has. It’s not accurate, but if you have two tops that feel exactly the same and you know that one is blue and one pink, you will be able to tell the difference by using that machine. Cutting the label on one of them is also a handy trick. For simplicity, I only own black socks so as not to mismatch there.

Do blind people have a concept of colours? The short answer is no. Being completely blind myself, I only classify blind as not being able to see anything at all apart from perhaps some light, so even though some people are termed as legally blind can see colour, they’re not part of this article, because I do not know anything about seeing a little bit. But I am digressing. Blind people have, if they are born blind, no proof that they have a concept of colour. However, I know for me and for some other people I’ve heard of, that we have our own image of colours in our head. So for me, if you say that the shirt is maroon, I’ll immediately understand what you mean, but whether it is the same maroon that you can see, or even the same maroon other blind people imagine, we’ll never know. I enjoyed painting when I was little, and my mum used to put different kinds of grain in the different colour pots so I could mix and match to my hearts content. I recently heard of a blind Turkish painter who uses exactly that same technique.

Are blind people able to cook, clean and do other housework?

Of course. Although I have to say not everybody have parents who are willing to teach them from a young age and so sometimes they can find it hard. But blind people can operate cookers and ovens as long as they have buttons. We can cut fruit and vegetables and all that. Of course, certain things are hard, like separating egg yolk from the white, but if you have a blind friend who cooks well, let him/her make you a gourmet meal if he or she so wish. Sometimes the fingers look as if they are a little bit too close to the knife or oven, but unless you hear a loud piercing scream or a series of swearwords, assume it’s all under control.

Laundry is not a big deal. My fully sighted parents always had one basket for the dark and one for the light clothes and this is a great tip for the blind. I’ve already talked about how we recognize our clothes, so as long as the washing machine is easy to use and have buttons, it’s all fine and hanging the clothes out is a piece of cake.

Cleaning is possible, but a blind person doesn’t always have a way of knowing whether a spot is left etc, so a cleaner is a good idea. However, maintaining a clean house in between having a cleaner is something everyone can do if they can move. And even sighted people have cleaners.

Shall I tell my blind friend if he/she has smeared make-up, a spot on their shirt etc? Yes please! You can be friendly and discreet though.

Do I always help a blind person who looks lost or who walks along and doesn’t look lost?

If someone looks lost, ask if they need help, but if they say no, leave them alone immediately. If they look fine, but you want to do a good deed, look for an old lady who looks like she may need your help more. Or an old man.

Can blind people live independently?

Yes and thank goodness for that. A blind person with no additional disability and who has learned the necessary skills all children should learn can live and maintain a pretty and happy home.

Is total blindness black?

I’ve heard some people say it must be gray, however I have know idea. I have detached optic nerves, so in my case it is colourless. Don’t try to understand it, because you probably won’t be able to and I can’t explain any further.

What is it like to be blind?

Let me ask you this: What is it like to see? I think coming up with an answer to that is pretty impossible just like it is in my case. How do I know what being blind is like? I can’t compare it to anything. It’s all I’ve ever known. Only someone who has been able to see before could maybe answer that question for you.

Do all blind people need the same kind of help?

No. And the important thing here is to let the blind person you are with tell you what he/she needs. It might be fine helping with cutting up the food for one person, while for someone else that is an insult. Some people like to hold your elbow and some like to walk next to you etc.

I cannot think of any more basic questions, but if I forgot to cover something, please leave me a comment. Let me just end by saying that blind people get educated, get jobs and careers, date, go travelling, have sex, have children, go grocery shopping, have dreams. In fact, our lives are remarkably similar to YOURS and we are as different as all the sighted people out there. Just bare that in mind when you meet a blind person for the first time. Or a person with any other disability for that matter. And by the way, you can say watch TV and see you later to a blind person. They are figures of speech and we use them ourselves.