After 6 months on the waiting list, I have finally begun mobility training at the Braille Institute. Although the waiting period gave me time to absorb some of the gravity of my decision to do O&M, my emotions are running amok. I feel proud of myself for taking this step, terrified of what’s to come and what this step means, and I also feel like a huge freak. I know I’m not supposed to say that; I’m supposed to be all positive and triumphant and say that blindness won’t get me down, but that is bullshit. The truth is all of it, every emotion no matter how un-PC it might be. I feel like having the cane is going to put a big freaky spotlight on me and how different I am. I am also excited about being able to walk down the street with a new confidence, not having to look down at the ground the whole time. And, I am scared of the fact that having the cane takes my own reality of my blindness to a new level. But, here I go, into this new phase of my RP journey, with all the dirty, gritty and gorgeous emotions in tow.
My first session with Tamar, the Rockstar O&M teacher, was at 8:30 in the morning and I was half awake, without a drop of caffeine in my system, when I walked into Braille to meet her. Tamar is amazing; I felt instantly comfortable with her and cared for by her and I knew that I was in the right hands.
She gave me a tour of the BI, much more extensive than the one Jane gave me on my first visit. She showed me all the classrooms that include music rooms with pianos and orientation classrooms with full scale kitchens and bedrooms. She took me into the garden and through suites of offices and learning centers for all the cool tech that exists for blind people and a department just for those of us with low vision. The place is a veritable city for the blind and I knew that day it would also become a sort of safe haven for me.
As we walked around the institute and all it’s buildings, Tamar had me stop periodically and listen to sounds or take pause to notice changes in the flooring. She pointed out the shapes of signs (all tactile and raised) so I could identify them without using my eyes. I discovered landmarks placed intentionally to orient people, such as wind chimes at the entrance to the garden. It all seemed so obvious as she pointed it out, but I also realized how much people rely on their sight, treating the experiences of their other senses as almost inconsequential. As a partially sighted person, I thought I was utilizing my other senses pretty well, but I learned that I am missing more than I knew.
After the tour, Tamar took me back to her office to talk about my vision and the goals that I have for the O&M training. I told her about my high levels of anxiety in crowds, new environments, and of course in the dark and the bright sun. I expressed concern about not being able to use the cane because of being woefully uncoordinated and an eagerness to become more confident with the cane and as a result more confident out in the general world. She told me about even more services that are available to me and showed me amazing apps on the phone; with all the tech available right now, this is a good time to be blind.
I knew it was probably time to stop chatting, but Tamar was great and started me off slow. She first taught me how to look for things on counters and table tops that I can’t see because of lighting or color or an object simply being out of my limited field of vision. I sweep one hand over the surface of the table in one direction and move up slowly, always in the same direction and eventually, whatever is lost will be found. Then it was time to stand up.
I got up from the chair and first, she showed me some safety postures to safeguard my face and body from collision with furniture, walls, people etc. I can’t tell you how many times I have bent over to pick something up and smashed my head into the corner of a desk, or walked through a doorway too quickly and ended up with bruised arms and hands. It is such a simple thing to block your face with your forearm stretched to the opposite ear, but it isn’t something I had ever thought about. Tamar recommended that I adopt this posture every time I bend down to get something; my face is already thanking her. She asked me to to walk across and around the room with my eyes closed, adopting the posture of protecting my face with my bent right arm and my tummy and legs with my outstretched left. I moved slowly and avoided collisions with walls and tables and chairs. I was scared, but also already feeling more confident.
After wandering the room for a while, she wanted me to work on using both hearing and touch to find things that have fallen on the floor. I stood across the room from her, my eyes closed, and she threw her keys on the floor near me. She then asked me to point to where I heard them fall and asked if they were right in front of me or further away. Then, she asked me to walk in the direction of where I heard the keys drop and bend down (arm protecting face of course) to find the keys using a particular method. I began in the center of an arc where I believed I heard the keys drop and moved my right hand to the right in a circular motion, making bigger circles as I progressed. Then I did the same with the left. I felt lost very quickly and told her I couldn’t do it, but she told me not to give up and that when you think you can’t find something, it is usually just another step or sweep of the hand away. She was right, of course. I realized that this whole experience is going to teach me to combat a lifelong problem; I have always given up too easily and too soon.
After a few more attempts at finding dropped keys, Tamar talked about the appropriate methods involved in being a good guide person. Obviously, I will never be the guide person, but knowing the right ways to do it will help me help other people who try to help me. I am right handed, so the proper position for me is on the right of my guide person with my left hand on their right elbow, walking a few steps behind them. She taught me about the importance of verbal and physical signals; for example, when coming to a narrowed passage, the guide moves their hand toward their back in a way that I can then grab their wrist and we can walk pretty much single file with me still being guided; and, please blind people stay at arms length as to not step on your guides heels. This was all happening in the safety of her office, but I knew that was temporary. It was time for me to be blindfolded and, with Tamar as my seeing eye person, tour the Braille Institute without the use of my remaining vision.
My first obstacle (or test) was at the door. Although an exemplary guide will tell you if the door opens to the right or left, Tamar asked me to feel which way the door was opening by paying attention to her body movements and the sounds of the door. This sounds easier than it is. The idea is that I learn to gage in which direction the door opens and then take the door from my guide as we walk through the doorway, making sure to tell my guide that I have the door. We made it through the first door pretty easily and ventured out into the hall.
Tamar guided me over a carpeted floor and asked me to tell her when the flooring changed. It felt like a ride when we walked down a small hill in the corridor and ended up on tiled floor. She asked me to stop and listen and tell her where we were. I heard someone playing the flute (beautifully by the way) and I heard traffic to my right, so I knew we were by the music rooms on the Vermont side of the building. She led me to doors and asked me to feel the shapes of the designs on them; round signs indicate women’s bathrooms and triangular signs indicate mens bathrooms (at least I hope I am remembering that correctly). I had to feel the letters and numbers on classroom doors and tell her what they were. She taught me to glide just the back of my pinky finger across the wall next to me in order to gage when doors appeared or hallways ended. My senses were alive in a whole new way and I was actually having fun; but of course I was with Tamar (the expert) and in the Braille Institute where everyone is either blind or familiar with the world of blind people.
We continued along the hallway, my hand on Tamar’s elbow and then the carpet changed to what felt like a rubber mat. I learned that, at the BI, this means that you are approaching automatic doors that will take you outside. The doors opened and I felt a lovely breeze on my face. I heard the wind chimes and knew we were near the garden. Tamar then led me in and out of a set of doors in order to practice my newly acquired skill of paying attention to the direction in which the door opens and making sure that I let my guide know when I have hold of the door. I think I got the door direction right all but twice. Not too bad for a first day.
We finished the in and out of the door thing and Tamar led me back inside, asking me what I was hearing. I heard the hum of some sort of machine, perhaps a vending machine, and knew we were in the cafeteria. Then it was time for stairs; my heart leapt a little. She told me that a good guide will let you know when you are approaching a set of stairs and stop in front of them to give you a moment to find the bottom step with your foot and the handrail on your right (if there is one). Following procedure, we made it up the stairs and back down again swimmingly. I learned that the hand rails in public buildings are installed according to the criteria of the ADA; when you get to the last step, the railing straightens out to let you know there are no more steps. It was something I had never paid attention to before this first O&M lesson. Tamar also gave me the tip to pay attention to your guides body language and placement, because not every guide is a good guide who will tell you when you are at the stairs. So, we practiced on the stairs a few more times, with Tamar as her true rockstar guide self and a few times trying to be a less then good guide. As strange as it sounds, the stairs ended up being kind of thrilling.
After the stairs, we headed across the lobby; I knew we were in the lobby because all of a sudden the noise level increased and I could tell we were in a heavily populated area if the BI. We were almost at the Braille shop. It was finally time for me to get my cane.
When we got to the shop, I was at another emotional precipice. I was terrified that if I went through with it, if I actually bought the cane, the whole fucking blind thing would get real in a whole other new way, again. I was also excited because Tamar had made the session fun and helped me feel confident. First, we walked around the shop and she showed me all of the amazing things that exist to help the visually impaired in their daily lives; I think she was trying to give me a few more minutes to adjust to actually buying the cane. Then, we arrived at the cane section. What they have on display is just to give you an idea of options and sizes; the actual canes for sale are in the back. White canes come in two different materials, various lengths and with different tip options, so Tamar helped me find the right height and material and then it was time to actually buy one. I was scared. I was really scared. I was about to cross a line I had been imagining for years; I felt like I was about to become blind for real. But, I gathered my courage, took out my credit card and signed my name on the bold line. My cane is a 50 inch graphite with a round roller tip. Her name is Zelda.
Tamar, Zelda and I went off to a fairly deserted hallway for my first lesson in using the white cane. Tamar taught me how to hold it correctly and, using my wrist, how to move the cane in a 2 to 10 arc as I walk. She told me that when I step forward with my right foot, I should move the cane to the left, preparing myself for potential obstacles on the left before I step out with my left foot. She suggested I use the mental image of kicking the cane out of the way as I step forward. I reminded her again of how horribly uncoordinated I am and I gave it a go.
It was actually kind of amazing. For the first time in years, I walked without looking down at the ground. I knew the cane would see for me. I walked slowly and with a bit of a stiff gait, but I did it and Tamar said I was actually quite coordinated, that most people have a particularly hard time with the opposite step and sweep of cane thing. I was super proud of myself. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a damn good start. We spent the last ten minutes of the session with Zelda and I left in a great mood. It had been a really positive first lesson.
It has been a week since my first day with Tamar and Zelda. I have taken Zelda out and practiced with her in the house a few times, and I took her out on the bus once ( I left her folded up and just held her), but mostly she has stayed in my backpack. I realize that it is going to take time for me to be ready to introduce Z to the world, but I will get there at my own pace. I will see Tamar once a week for about three months and I am confident that Z and I will be a great team by the time my lessons are completed.