Monday, 30 June 2014

Blindfolded walk - Stephen

Stephen with his guide
Stephen is not visually impaired, but we thought that this story was appropriate to share on the Blindlife Blog because he discusses in a very articulate way the challenges that he experienced whilst taking part in a blindfolded walk.

I spent six weeks as part of my medical course at an eye hospital, the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology (TIO) in Kathmandu, Nepal. After having an unforgettable experience, I was inspired to raise money for one of TIO's partner organisations, The Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP), to give something back.

So I did an eight hour blindfolded walk for over 10km in May 2014 through the Peak District (walking from Totley to Grindleford and taking the train back to Sheffield).

It went extremely well - better than I could have hoped.

We had a stream of challenges which had me doing things like taking a selfie, salsa dancing, walking with my shoelaces tied together, giving someone a piggy-back, climbing stairs without guides, buying a water bottle etc.

I was personally just imagining a simple trek up Fulwood and then back, but the person who planned the trek route, Sultana, brought me through various types of terrain. It kept things interesting and made it a real challenge as we traversed muddy parts, steep slopes, rocky roads etc.

Although this was definitely challenging and I had to be constantly focused on my every step, the most unsettling part of the walks were always when I was told I was in an enclosed social setting (i.e. cafe and train back to Sheffield). The reason for this was that visual input determined a huge proportion of my communication/social skills, from eye contact to body language. So, it was odd not knowing if I was facing someone when talking to them or not being able to pick up social cues.

Being blindfolded also heightened all my other senses. When you don’t have any concrete visual input, a lot of your interpretation of reality is up to your imagination. I exaggerated the sound of a small waterfall into the massive ones I encountered during my time in Nepal. I was able to identify my guides by the shape of their shoulders/arms and I became hyper-aware of the nuances of touch, like when someone was showing worry, care, humour and etc.

When we stopped to eat, I wasn't sure what I was eating beforehand and I distinctly remember being incredibly satisfied by a croissant filled with egg salad, as the texture/tastes were a wonderful surprise.

From the guide's point of view, it was clear that leading someone who is blind/visually impaired is difficult. I needed them to speak to me constantly about my surroundings and the instructions had to be clear and concise. I can imagine that guiding can be exhausting, especially in the uneven terrain we walked through when every little change in the ground is of concern.

All in all though, it was a fun day and a great learning experience for everyone. The weather co-operated, my friends/guides were extremely supportive/trustworthy and we all had a good laugh.

I'd like to thank my donors, blindfolded talent video submitters, challenge proposers, the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind for their handcrafted blindfold, the Himalayan Cataract Project for their support/encouragement and my supportive friends/guides (Sultana, Mohammed, Pei Jean and Karen).

Friday, 16 May 2014

My first six months using a guide cane - Graham

Having nearly done myself a mischief a few times stepping off buses and trains in the last year or two, it became apparent to me that the time had come. I realised that I might be ready and possibly overdue applying for a guide cane from the Sensory Impairment Team at Howden House.

I had already tried using a symbol cane, a flimsy white wand, the purpose of which is just to let others know you have a sight issue, but it never really cut the mustard and I felt a bit self-conscious just carrying it limply in front of me.

A guide cane however, is a different kettle of fish. bigger and more solid. It's not quite as business like as a long cane with a ball on the end, but I didn't need this level of help. I still have some sight and don't really need to sweep as I walk about, but for steps, kerbs and difficult lighting conditions, the guide cane seemed to be the right 'weapon of choice' for me.

Following a short bit of training, I was away.

Using the cane seemed very natural and easy for me to use and I don't go anywhere without it now. As well as solving my 'getting off trains and buses' problems, because of the size, it is a much more effective symbol cane and for the first time I am aware that people are giving me space on pavements and I get served in pubs much more quickly. I was surprised however, to find that I still get 'chugged' outside the bus station and on Fargate, just as often as before and beggars also seem to find the cane invisible. I don't get asked to do market research any more though. It seems that blind/sight impaired people's opinions are not relevant to big companies? I think it is more likely that the researchers just don't know what to do when confronted with someone who seems sight impaired?

On the downside, using a guide cane does mess about with your self-image and self-confidence. I am naturally a very confident person, but whilst using a cane, I feel more disabled in a strange kind of way and don't feel as confident as I used to. I feel more disabled than I did before and my partner seems to relate to me whilst using my cane in a different way, as if I am more in need of basic help. I think she is more self-conscious about it than me. I have noticed that she never asks me to put the bins out. She just does it, in spite of me offering and I haven't been asked to wash the car since getting the cane, in spite of still being fit.

I was talking to a fellow sight impaired person a week ago or so and they said they wouldn't use a cane as it is a negative badge that makes others have pre-conceptions about you before they meet you. I can see their point, but the safety benefits and the fact that that I don't have to wash the car any more make it, as badges go, one of the best I have had to wear!