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by Susan Toland, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
It is no coincidence that I now live only a few blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. When I was a toddler, I was determined to do everything by myself, so my grandfather dubbed me "the Declaration of Independence." The name still suits me. To appreciate this, you need to know that I am legally blind. That means that I have minimal sight in one eye and none in the other, and no depth perception. I get around without the assistance of a dog guide or a white cane; however, I can't read street signs or facial expressions, and I hold printed matter inches from my eyes to read it. So you will be relieved to learn that the state of Pennsylvania, in its wisdom, will not grant me a driver's license.
From 1956 to 2007, my family and I lived a suburban life within the city limits, in the Torresdale section of Northeast Philadelphia. A car was required for everything, and walking was looked on with some suspicion.
I returned from college in the Midwest in 1973 to find myself drawn to all that Philadelphia's Center City neighborhood had to offer--galleries, theaters, libraries, universities--and the people who animate them. The challenge was to find my way into and around this new landscape alone. My parents prepared me well for this. My mother, forward-thinking woman that she was, made sure that I learned how to take the Route 66 trackless trolley and the Market-Frankford subway line into town and memorized the underground stops. My Dad explained the genius of Thomas Holmes's design for William Penn's Greene Country Towne; laid out between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, the logical grid of streets interspersed with refreshing leafy squares.
From shopping trips with Mother, I already knew how to find my way to the former Bonwit Teller's at 17th and Chestnut Streets. For some time, I went everywhere starting at the clock embedded in the sidewalk there. I'd hear Mother's directions in my ear, "Face 12. Now walk two blocks to your right …" This system worked, but became cumbersome and a little silly. I began to develop a personal geography of landmarks based on the width of certain streets, the distinctive shapes of specific buildings, and glimpses of trees in one of the squares. These became the shorthand that anchored my understanding of the city. That's not to say I didn't get hopelessly turned around or end up blocks from my destination. Discovery is often a hit or miss process.
Gradually, I became confident enough to venture into town in the evening. That meant that I had to develop a new lexicon of nighttime landmarks--the configuration of lights on the skyscrapers, the street lamps that defined a square as distinct from a street, the subtle changes in traffic noise, and the flow of headlights toward or away from me.
My low vision frustrated my efforts to find a full-time job for nearly ten years after graduation, but finally, I went to work at a Center City hospital. The daily trek to town allowed me to deepen my acquaintance with the city at my leisure. I grew to know it in every sort of weather. I learned first-hand about the frailty of public transportation, which is vulnerable to downed wires, slippery rails and transit strikes.
Though I might have envied the Center City dwellers that were impervious to these inconveniences, my life still revolved around my parents and our home in the Torresdale neighborhood, which Dad christened the "Center of the Universe." I was a city girl at heart, but never imagined leaving home. After all, how could I abandon the "Center of the Universe?"
We lost Mother and Dad within ten months of each other. When they were gone, my family home became a house of ghosts and, without a car, my life there threatened to isolate me and keep me dependent on the kindness of willing relatives and friends.
Gradually, I began to see past my grief. Though my roots were in Torresdale, transplantation started to seem possible. Encouraged by my family, I lifted my head and looked south toward town. I knew that in Center City, I could manage food shopping and other errands on my own, and that I could go to a movie or concert at the last minute without being tied to train schedules. With mixed anxiety and hope, my advisors and I started visiting likely properties. When I walked into what is now my condo, I knew instantly that my future would be here in Old City, cradle of my own independence.
I love going out to the suburbs to visit my family and friends, but I'm always happy to come out of the Market East Station onto the familiar streets of my neighborhood, always glad to be home.
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