An entirely rational fear of going blind probably isn’t something which most people in their late thirties and early forties even give a passing thought to. However, after multiple retinal detachments, it’s now pretty much top of my greatest fears list. I fear more for my ‘good’ left eye than I do for my bad right eye, because I rely on it for everything. If my left eye was in the same state as my right, I wouldn’t be able to drive, I wouldn’t be able to see people’s faces properly, I wouldn’t be able to read, or do my job, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy beautiful colours, or watch the birds in my garden, or admire art exhibitions, or go geocaching… the list is endless. Sometimes I get very gloomy and depressed thinking about all the things I wouldn’t be able to do, and other times I just try not to focus on it (pun intended).
However, my sight problems have also made me think a lot more about how I might do certain things if the worst ever does happen to my ‘good’ eye, and it’s also made me wonder how people who are blind or severely visually impaired manage with certain tasks. A while ago, I explored one aspect of this in terms of how visually impaired (VI) people cope with cooking. You can read about this in my posts Dinner in the dark and Blind baking. The latter also contains a YouTube video of my sister attempting to bake a cake with her eyes closed: I defy anyone to watch it and manage not to laugh, although hopefully it will also make people think.
As a result of all this wondering about how people cope, and internal torture as I contemplate my own visual future, I seem to have developed an increased awareness of VI people when they cross my path as I go about my daily life. A few times now I’ve seen a guy with a white cane on campus at the university where I work, walking purposefully along, swiping his cane from side to side in front of him. One day, he was walking along a very narrow, uneven path, flanked on one side by a bank down to the road and on the other side by a somewhat unruly hedge. I wanted to stop him and ask him how he managed it; whether it was difficult using the cane and how he copes on the rest of campus. I often notice things on campus and mutter to myself, “That would be a nightmare for a severely visually impaired person!” Of course, I didn’t stop him. Mainly because a lesser fear of mine is that of talking to people I don’t know.
Instead, I went home and listened to a podcast about how severely VI or blind people navigate. I learned that they rely on sound a good deal, and that some tap their cane along the ground and listen to the sound coming back to help them orient themselves and get around. I learned that weather conditions can have a huge impact on navigation. Apparently snow is the worst, because of course it covers paths making it very easy to rapidly become completely lost. One person said that she hates the rain because it dampens down sounds and makes it much more difficult to hear things properly. She said that she can’t wear a hood as that blocks out even more sound, and she can’t use an umbrella as it’s too difficult to navigate with a cane or a guide dog in one hand and an umbrella in the other. So as well as the annoyance of the rain making navigation more difficult, she also inevitably gets soaked.
Some time after listening to all this, I was standing waiting in the railway station one day when I spotted an older man with a white cane making his way through the door. He walked past me and then stopped, fished his wallet out of his pocket, and proceeded to hold several bank cards very close to his face and scrutinise them carefully. This took a few minutes, but he must have found the one he needed, as he put the other one back in his wallet and moved to return it to his pocket. As he juggled wallet, card, and cane, he then dropped the card. Immediately, he knelt down and began running his hands across the floor, searching for it. Just imagine for a few minutes, having to run your hands over a filthy station floor in order to locate an object you’ve dropped, without knowing what they may come into contact with as you do so. I quickly moved to find it for him, but then realised that he probably wouldn’t a) be able to see me properly, and b) realise that I was trying to help him. So I said (which seemed a bit of a weird thing to say), “Do you want me to pick it up for you?” “Yes please!”, he answered with relief in his voice, adding apologetically, “Sorry”. I wanted to say, “No, no – don’t be sorry!”, and ask him how much he was able to see, and what was wrong with his eyes, and how he managed on the train… but I didn’t. Instead I just said, “Don’t worry”, as I retrieved his bank card from where it had fallen almost underneath one of his feet, and placed it in his hand. “Thank you”, he said, before moving off slowly to the ticket office.
Afterward, I wondered how long it would have taken him to find his card if I hadn’t picked it up for him, or whether anyone else would have helped him. There were a few people around, but they all seemed busy with ticket machines / children / timetables and didn’t appear to notice. Public places present so many more difficulties and variables than the home environment, and it seems just sheer common sense that people would surely help if they’re fortunate enough to have decent vision and see someone else struggling.