In my view being visually impaired is more of a social hazard than a practical one. Most practical problems and dilemmas are surmountable, even if they require assistance from a sighted person. Social difficulties faced by visually impaired people however, are on-going. This might explain why 180,000 visually impaired people in the UK never leave home alone.
There are no easy solutions to the social isolation and discomfort often experienced by blind and partially sighted people. I think that raising public awareness is a start. Here follows a list of some everyday social hazards which visually impaired people often face.
1. Bumping into and apologising to lamp posts and other inanimate objects when in a busy street/place
2. Answering people when they are not actually talking to you – e.g. if someone walks by speaking into a mobile phone
3. Continuing a conversation when the person you’re speaking to has moved away
4. Entering rooms through the wrong doors and not being able to find the exit.
5. Not being able to find a seat and accidentally sitting on a stranger’s lap
6. Being unaware of having food-stained clothes/teeth, missing buttons or odd socks.
7. Not being aware that someone is addressing you.
8. Stumbling or tripping over objects such as cables or steps. Looking like a fool.
9. Not being able to recognise body language or read facial expressions. Often tone of voice can be misconstrued.
10. Not being able to tell how many people are in a room and where they are sitting.
11. Dropping food on the table/down your top/on the floor and struggling to locate food on your plate.
12. Finding yourself alone and separated from the main group.
There are several more examples I could add to this list, but this gives a good idea of the everyday social hazards which visually impaired people face.
Those who have been born with no sight may well have learned to express themselves confidently in social situations. Research has shown that people born with little or no sight usually have excellent spatial awareness. The human brain is able to convert audio messages into “images” which enable blind people to picture their surroundings from the sounds they hear. But the older you are when you lose your vision, the harder it is to place yourself accurately in relation to your surroundings. Statistically, most people lose their vision later in life so it is likely that a significant number of visually impaired people will experience social awkwardness.
As you can see, several examples on the social hazard list result in the visually mpaired person feeling that they look stupid, are the odd one out, or are excluded from a group. In a busy social scene such as a Night Club or pub, people tend to move hurriedly with their heads down, more often than not chatting to friends. This often leads to the visually impaired person being shoved aside or knocked, which is quite frightening when it happens out of the blue. If you happen to be holding a drink when someone bangs into you and it spills on the floor, there you are again – the accident-prone idiot who raises a laugh! Obviously it helps to be able to laugh at yourself, but this is often a nervous reaction rather than seeing the situation as genuinely funny. Particularly if someone has only recently lost their vison they may be feeling paranoid and vulnerable, and probably depressed. Laughing at your own social blunders is not an easy thing to do at first.
A lot of visually impaired people I know find it very hard to make new friends. Some have adopted an aggressive manner to deal with their social unease. This means that people usually avoid them, which increases their isolation. Some others feel unable to assert themselves in a group for fear of making a fool of themselves. But it is not always about the unease of the visually impaired person. Strangers often feel awkward approaching visually impaired people either because they are afraid they might cause offense by offering assistance, or because they are afraid full stop. My own experience has shown me that if you walk down the street using a long cane most people give you a wide berth. Walking down the street with a Guide dog however has the opposite effect. I have to add about ten minutes onto every route to allow for people stopping to talk. Interesting, considering nothing about me as a visually impaired person has actually changed! So it is clear that the social unease experienced by visually impaired people is exacerbated by other people’s reactions. Put these issues together and you haven’t got great ingredients for baking friendship pie.
I don’t think I will ever completely eradicate my social anxieties. I readily laugh at myself and my faux pas, but if I’m honest I’d rather just fit in and not have to laugh at myself. One thing which definitely improves with time though, is confidence. Although I’m not an extrovert, I know that I can address a bus load of passengers if I need assistance. My inhibitions do not control me, so I rarely end up in the wrong city nowadays!
Many visually impaired people are advised by professionals and friends to “get out there and make friends” to end their isolation. Of course this is desirable, but it is never going to be straightforward. Attending classes for example, poses its own set of obstacles. Unless the premises and equipment are accessible, the visually impaired person is at an automatic disadvantage which means that right from the start they will be separated from the main group. It can take a long time for a visually impaired person to feel established in a group and to make a contribution comfortably. For many, the easiest thing is to stay at home.
But visually impaired people do have some distinct advantages in social settings. These often lie in the subtle details such as what perfume/aftershave someone is wearing, defining laughs or coughs etc. Unless there are medical complications, with practise it is possible to sharpen your memory and pay closer attention to detail. Visually impaired people are often more susceptible to atmosphere, and more astute at detecting other people’s emotions. Sometimes not having visual stimulus can fine-tune your intuition. Although you may not be able to tell precisely who is in the room and who passes by, you will probably remember who says what and at what point.
Obvious as it may seem, many awkward social situations could be avoided or diffused by simple verbal communication. Most visually impaired people would not object to being asked if they need help. It’s a simple yes or no answer, and far more preferable to being stranded at the side of a busy road or in the middle of a room.
Guide dogs are adept at warding off gremlins, as I know from first-hand experience. The gremlin who inhabits my flat is often at his most peevish in the early hours of the morning. Trudy, whose criminal alias is The Hereford Hoover, is instantly awake the minute he pokes my eye to wake me up. She bounces out of her wicker basket which is adjacent to my bed, grabs one of my slippers and whacks the gremlin out of my day. It always works.
Even on the most drab and melancholy Monday mornings I can’t help chuckling at the gusto of my Guide dog. I usually attempt to get back to sleep, but the wagging rudder thumps incessantly to remind me that I owe her one for chasing away the gremlin. Once my arm is out of bed rolling up her Labrador ears into long tubes, sleep loses its appeal. So at the point when Trudy’s warm, wet tongue slides over my hand I invariably get up. Trudy is all fur and tail. She wraps her paws round my feet, sprinting off as I grope around for the slipper which is nearly always still in her mouth. I daren’t invoke the gremlin by checking the time – but it’s usually around 6 am by this point. I’m still half-dazed, only just aware of a hot-breathing hound baiting me with my own slipper. She pretends to lose interest, but each time I draw near she hares off again with her stolen booty. After much hiding and seeking, pleading and grumbling, I finally reclaim my slipper – damp and crumpled after its encounter with a Labrador.
Fighting gremlins probably isn’t in Trudy’s job description, yet she is an expert. She seems to sense when the insidious creature is lurking round the corner ready to ruin a morning or afternoon. Up goes her tail, beating rapidly to ward off the malevolent spirit. The climax of the ritual involves a complicated war-dance with Trudy wielding one of her toys above her head. Her current favourite is a massive pink turtle called Myrtle. Trudy won Myrtle at the Guide dog of the Year Awards and Myrtle is thankfully still intact with all her limbs attached. Whenever the gremlin is about to steal my smile, Trudy grabs Myrtle and flies towards me snorting and panting. Even if I’m not up for a tug of war game, Trudy charging towards me with Myrtle hanging out of her mouth is guaranteed to make me laugh Laughter is toxic to gremlins so my unwanted guest vanishes instantly. One of Myrtle’s bonus features is that her tummy makes rude noises when it’s held in a certain way. This feature has proved invaluable in the war against gremlins.
You may be wondering about these gremlins. I suspect there are many types and breeds skulking about in worldwide dwellings. But the character who sneaks around in my flat is particularly destructive. He tips over milk bottles, pokes me when I’m about to nod off in a chair, and sets off the smoke alarm when I’m really really hungry and just want a piece of toast….! He pervades my mind and needles under my skin if he’s not dealt with in time. Trudy will not tolerate him. If he slips a morsel of despair into my lunch box she will take it out and replace it with a chewed sock. I wouldn’t say it tastes much better, but it’s the thought that counts. Chewed socks, stolen receipts, the entire contents of my bag – they are all brought in dribs and drabs to cheer me up. One of the things I love about Labradors is that they never arrive on the scene empty-handed. Even though Trudy’s presents are usually recycled socks, scraps of paper or stolen items from my laundry basket they are still presents from her to me. The generosity of Labradors is unbeatable, and gremlins scarper at the sight of it.
Gremlins are intent on bringing gloom into your day, but Guide dogs are gremlin grabbers! I really came to understand this when I was separated from Trudy at the start of my radiotherapy treatment. After only two days without her I became aware that the nefarious gremlin inhabiting my flat had gathered a formidable army. I was utterly defeated and could not function. I did not even have any inclination to fight. I knew that I needed Trudy back, so back home she came. The moment she bounded through the door the gremlin legion lay down its arms and marched away. They have not returned en masse since.
I think that most dogs are capable of being gremlin chasers, but as I’ve never lived with a pet dog I can’t be sure. This got me thinking about stereotypes. The Guide dog stereotype is a noble, obedient,, long-suffering dog with almost no will of its own. As a Guide dog Trudy is exemplary, but thankfully she does not match the stereotype. She can be noble – even supercilious at times when she spies a misbehaving pet dog who should know better (according to the Laws of Hound). She can be obedient too when I really need her to be. But she is so stubborn there are times when a battle of wills determines the outcome of certain situations. We have stand-offs, sit-downs and strikes in the oddest and most inappropriate places. If Trudy had to wear a school tie she’d turn it inside out with the ends askew. I’d almost certainly catch her smoking behind the bike shed with a can of lager in her free paw. Yet she’d pass her exams and probably get into Oxford. She’s that kind of “told you so” dog.
It makes me smile when I explain to audiences about the matching process of Guide dogs. So much time and effort is put into matching the right dog with the right owner. How did Worcester Guide dogs know I’m stubborn, love food and prefer to do my own thing?! It concerns me that it might be obvious! Being matched with a Guide dog is a bit like registering with a dating agency. They pool your common denominators and mix up the rest, so at some point during your partnership you and your dog become one being. I think this is what makes Guide dogs experts at chasing away gremlins. Trudy knows before I do when something is amiss. This means that the lone gremlin who wakes me up in the early hours does not stand a chance. In fact I think Trudy is quite capable of chasing him away for good, but then I’d have a homeless gremlin on my conscience.
So next time you spy a Guide dog with a wagging tail and a glint of mischief in its eye, think of the gremlins it has probably chased away that day. If your smile lasts for at least four seconds any gremlins you know may take a hike at the same time…..
One day last week I experienced what it is like to feel totally free. Free from worries and concerns, free from everyday life, free from my body. Although it was not an outer-body experience as such, I literally did soar into the sky.
The Black Fly is a ride in the small(ish) amusement park at West Midland Safari Park in Bewdley, Worcestershire. This impressive man-made structure gave me the gift of pure freedom. Some people may consider The Black Fly to be their ultimate nightmare. It rears up into the air, spinning and tumbling in all directions at lightning speed. A metal clamp is all that holds you in as you’re offered up to the gods. You become pin-sized and insignificant as the die is cast to determine whether you live or die.
Whilst clamped inside The Black Fly for the second time I tingled with the thrill of abandoning myself to Fate. If I were to die there and then, I reasoned, it would not matter. All my fears surrounding cancer and its implications vanished. I genuinely felt that whatever happened to me was immaterial, for I was truly and tremendously happy.
The screams of my ride-mates sounded shrill on either side of me. As we raced with the wind, the wails of terror and excitement were tossed into the air. I could feel the wind’s coat-tails fluttering against my face. I inhaled and felt utterly intoxicated. .But unlike my ride-mates I did not feel the need to scream. In fact I was paralysed – not through fear, but ecstasy. I wanted to stay there forever. If only I could trap those two minutes in a jar and replay them for the rest of my life!
The world was far below me, continuing its relentless grind. I really had no desire at all to go back to it. I felt removed from reality, almost invincible. Who needs illicit drugs when such an incredible buzz can be gained from a theme park ride? I am now an adrenalin Junkie, and I’m intending to feed my addiction in a few weeks with a return visit to The Black Fly.
Having said that, the buzz which shot backwards and forwards through my entire body was not simply due to an adrenalin rush. I honestly felt as if all my worries had been lifted away from me. All I had to do was to sit back and let the huge metal pendulum hurl me through the air.
As I twisted and dipped over and over again, I was only vaguely aware that I was still me. If it wasn’t for the ear-shattering screams telling my brain I was still among humans, I might have begun conversing with Angels.