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It's The Same World

by Amy L. Bovaird, Girard, Pennsylvania

Reality Bites

"You have retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive vision disorder. The first symptom is night blindness and the last could be blindness. This could happen in a year, five years, or somewhere down the line. It's different with everyone."

"What! I just came in for a stronger prescription!" I thought my life would instantly change that day, but my vision loss was gradual. Still, I wondered how I would adapt to a blind world down the line, and when exactly that would occur.

Now, twenty-two years later, "down the line" is here.

My eyesight played constant tricks on me. Objects popped up into my path--cardboard boxes, a baby stroller, the dog, a trash can, a steel pole. Objects in plain view would vanish--my keys, change, a book, or my cell phone. More recently, words on a page would break up, disappear and maybe fall into place a minute later.

Anything higher than my elbow and lower than my thigh became vulnerable to injury. I regularly got bumps, scrapes, and bruises. Occasionally, there were stitches. I gave in and sought help before I broke a limb.

My eye doctor referred me to the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services. They teamed me up with Bob, a blind mobility specialist, to help me survive getting around in my daily life.

I will never forget my first "cane" experience.

Bob fitted me with a sleep shade to simulate total blindness. Then he handed me a long slender cane that I would tap to sense my environment.

Our route consisted of walking a quarter mile from my house to a wooden footbridge I knew from childhood--then home again.

The instructor put me in the lead and called out suggestions to guide me along:

"Stay on the sidewalk. Sweep your cane back and forth to find the hard surface. Feel that? .... If your cane touches something soft, you've wandered onto someone's lawn .... Nice smooth, sweeping strokes .... You're doing great!"

Or I was--until my first loud, up close scare. I listened. Didn't move. Couldn't.

"You aren't in any danger, Amy. Keep going."

That sounds like ... a big vehicle! What if the driver doesn't see me? What if I walk into its path? What if the driver backs over me?

I heard screeches, scrapes, mumbling, and bangs. Then, they faded.

"You were fine," Bob reassured. "The garbage truck stopped next to you, not in your pathway. Keep going. That's it. Take your cane out further. Nice smooth sweeps."

A train whistle startled me. "The train tracks must be ahead, just under the bridge we will be walking on."

In five minutes, I tapped my cane on the wooden slats. "BINGO! We've made it to the footbridge."

"Keep going."

We had just crossed the other side of the bridge when a succession of powerful rumbles and "shhhhhs" filled my ears. I strained to distinguish the sounds. What IS that?

"Oh! That must be the school busses leaving to pick up the kids. There's a school up the road.

"I hope we don't get caught up in the traffic. We'd better head home."

I changed direction and surged forward.

"Amy! Whoa! Come back."

Where am I? I froze at the sound of a vehicle very close by.

"You've wandered across the road. Come back."

"Where is 'back'?"

"Stop. Do you hear more traffic?"

"Ye-ees, uh--to the right. So, where am I?"

"The opposite side of the road. Listen to my voice. Can you hear me? Come on back."

I walked and tapped until I found myself on the sidewalk again. "See? You made it."

Safe again! "We should be nearing my house by now. Can I peek?"

"Yes, you can take off your sleep shade now."

"Can you believe it? My house is the next one over. Bob, we did it!"

"Of course we did."

Though I had known this street my whole life, this exercise showed me how unfamiliar even the area I knew could be without sight. My companion was blind. Yet I had asked him questions as if he could see the layout of every street and obstacle. He had existed in my world and I, in his. We had reversed roles. When I expressed all this to him, he frowned.

"Amy, listen to me. Our worlds are the same. I interact with everything around me nonvisually while up to this point, you've always relied on your vision. Now you're coming to understand that this world can be perceived and experienced both with sight and without sight. Without your sleep shade, you know where you are by paying attention to all of the visual clues. But when we cover up your eyes, you have to learn to be more aware of all of the nonvisual clues--and that's what I do, all day, every day. The strategies that one of us uses are no less legitimate than the strategies that the other uses, and they are no less safe."

In the coming days, I thought about Bob's words. How could someone who had been sighted all her life function in a strange new place where everything would be unfamiliar ... and potentially dangerous? Maybe this was why I had feared going blind.

But Bob was right. It is the same world, and not two separate ones. The difference is only in how we perceive the environment around us. Although our frame of reference might be different, we interact with the same variables. I am still coming to terms with thinking of my cane as an extension of myself, something that I need to help me perceive and move throughout the world around me. I no longer consider that my impending blindness will thrust me into a strange new world. On our walk, Bob proved to me that everything is right where it's always been. He simply reminded me that I have to get used to finding it in a different way.


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