Tartan Trilogy : The Journey

I was up early on January 27th 2012 – well before I needed to be.  Whenever I undertake a long journey I have a rigorous pre-travel routine, which has become more complicated since  Trudy’s arrival on the scene.  On this particular trip Trudy’s kit took up more suitcase space than mine!  (Probably my fault for packing more dog food than necessary in case we got stranded somewhere).  The motto “Just in case” unfortunately determines most of what I pack when I go away.

Sight-impaired people often find public transport a real headache.  Travelling by train in the UK has been made easier thanks to station stops being announced on the train’s PA system.  It is not very often nowadays that we have to resort to counting stops or checking the time to ascertain where we are on a train journey!  But the noisy, smelly and busy platforms, crowded trains and huge gaps in between the train and platform can be off-putting.  As for which platform to go to and which train to board, that’s another mountainous obstacle.  Booking Assisted Travel beforehand reduces the stress of an unfamiliar train journey, but nevertheless it is not easy to put your trust in a “system “.

http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/disabled_passengers/

Hereford Railway Station has the most expert staff when it comes to assisting passengers who need extra help.  Down to a T, they are faultless.  Even so, until I was a hundred per cent sure that I was on the right train to Crewe I could not relax.  As it was early the train was quiet and I found myself settling back very quickly.  Trudy’s agenda was to hoover up beneath the seats and wriggle as far away as she could on the lead.  After she had licked the floor and eaten all the stray crumbs, she grumbled and curled up in a big lump to catch up on some missed sleep.  Labradors have it so easy.

Crewe was where I needed to change in order to catch the train to Glasgow Central.  When I had Googled Crewe Station a few days earlier, I was dismayed to learn that the station had 12 platforms and several cafes.  In other words, it was BIG.  This meant that as the train approached Crewe I became steadily more anxious.  What if there was no staff member waiting to meet me and assist me with the connection?  What if I actually missed the connection and never got to Gourock?  Suddenly my whole  life seemed to hang on making this one train connection.  It became my ultimate goal, my springboard, my future.  Crewe Station was Rivendell, Mount Olympus, Utopia, Paradise.  I had to get there, and equally I had to leave.  The Quest was gigantic and seemingly impossible.

On arrival, I was met by an extremely cheerful young man who took charge of my suitcase and bad me follow.  Off I went into the nether regions of Crewe Station, Trudy hoovering in the lead, completely oblivious to where we were heading.  It paid to be trusting.  In a few minutes I was comfortably established in one of the cafes I’d read about, relieved that at least I would make it over the border to Glasgow.  The chirpy lad was unquestionably sure of his trains, and that meant that I was sure too.  Ironically, I actually informed a fellow passenger that this was the correct platform for Glasgow Central – such is the ebb and flow of public transport!

The second leg of the journey felt like the real start of my adventure.  For one thing, I am so used to Arriva Trains that sitting in a train which was owned by a different company felt decidedly unorthodox.  It was like being in a stranger’s house.  This train was very crowded, and Trudy received far more attention than she had done on the way to Crewe. 

I could feel the tip of her tail thumping against my foot as one by one, people described her as “marvellous” and “beautiful”.  Her ear flaps were pinned back against the side of her head as she licked the cream off the luscious compliments.  She was the picture of stoicism  – the perfect working dog, saintly, bordering on smug. 

So when she dived into an un-manned crisp packet and virtually devoured the contents before anyone could intervene, the food crime appeared all the more shocking and unthinkable.  I was expecting a Tabloid journalist to tap me on the shoulder and berate me for “creating” a thief.  I felt the shame of a disappointed parent.  The aisle was narrow and there were people jammed in every available space, so Trudy’s intention to finish off her ill-gotten gains was harder to contain.  I succeeded in retrieving the crisp packet, only to realise that my hand and sleeve were covered in slimy, half-chewed crisp remnants fresh from the mouth of a Labrador.  I pretended I was not with her.  I was disgusted.  Trudy was disgusted too, for she wanted the crisps.  The atmosphere was a tangible bubble of bad mood.

Then we reached Preston.  I remember Preston because the train suddenly became colder.  This was my first awareness of being “on holiday”.  It was snowing outside, and I began excitedly sending texts to friends and family relating that I was at Preston, and “guess what guys?  It’s snowing!”  The PA system decided to pack up here so I rapidly tried to recall how many stations lay in between Preston and Glasgow Central.  There was a swift change of guard, and the new one was Scottish –  so we truly were on the way to Glasgow!

Having survived Crewe, I was not overly anxious about Glasgow Central Station.  I’m very glad, for this station dwarfed Crewe by far.  It was like a micro-city, with swarms of passengers buzzing hither and thither.  Thankfully the Assisted Travel was still up to the mark, as otherwise I would have disappeared into the underworld and never emerged again.  In Glasgow Station I giggled like an over-excited kid – I was actually over the border, out of England, venturing into another country!  My ears tuned into Scottish voices, some of which I could barely comprehend.  I slid about in my own  Englishness, for it felt totally inadequate in this environment.  I so wanted to add a bit of Scot to my identity!

My third train was a relatively short journey from Glasgow Central to Gourock.  By sheer coincidence I found that I was sitting opposite someone who was destined for the Murder Mystery Weekend in Dunoon.  Trudy actually introduced us and hence made the discovery  – in return for which I forgave her earlier food crime.  The Snout has its uses. 

Thus I reached my destination of Gourock Railway Station nearly seven and a half hours after leaving Hereford.  The smoothness of the journey gave me untold confidence when it came to returning home three days later.  Ironically this time I did miss the connection at Crewe which delayed my return to Hereford by over an hour.  The event was almost an anti-climax and I smiled recalling the anxiety which had plagued me just a few days earlier.  I can even whisper to the world that I think I now feel confident travelling by train.  “If there’s a railway station,” I heard myself saying to someone a couple of days ago, “Trudy and I can get there”.

The second part of the Tartan Trilogy (in progress) will recount the Murder Mystery Weekend itself – tune in if you dare!

http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/disabled_passengers/

http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus/campaigns/talkingbuses/talking-buses-news/guide-dogs-discovers-the-forgotten-passengers/

 

My Phoenix will not let me die

I am not a particularly outgoing person, and three years ago you would have had to drag me into a room full of people.  Social ease does not come naturally to me.  Yet I have learned to present a confident persona largely as a result of my role as a volunteer Speaker.

When I trained with my Guide dog Trudy in 2008 I received the “Qualifying Pack” which all rookie Guide dog owners are given at the end of training.  One of the leaflets in this pack gave details about becoming a volunteer Speaker for Guide dogs.  Something stirred inside me and I wondered if I would be any good at it.  After all, I had started out at University wanting to be a Teacher.  I love the art of language, and to me a string of well-chosen words beats any fireworks display.  This  drive to express myself and communicate passionately with others left me in no doubt that I would end up being a Classics Teacher. 

But it was not to be.  Twenty years after my arrival at Oxford I found myself dwindling in a nursing home, afraid to be seen in public, unsure of who I was.  Losing my useful vision at the end of my first year as an undergraduate was the end of my world.   The disappointment of having to abandon my degree  left me in tatters, and I lost all hope of having a life.  The grief I felt took over my mind and dismantled my thoughts.  I was unable to function, and thus began my default career as a psychiatric patient.  I  seriously thought that I would never emerge whole again.  

But after many struggles which spanned twenty years I did emerge.   Somehow I reached the peak of the mountain, and my reward was Trudy.  Training with a Guide dog had been my dream since leaving Oxford.  I knew that a dog would free me from the confines of sight loss, so I had to get myself back on track.  At the time I did not anticipate that it would take so many years.  But Trudy was worth the wait.  When I trained with her I had been a resident in the nursing home for seven years, and never envisaged leaving.  Trudy literally led me out of the front door and showed me the world outside. 

So the leaflet in the Qualifying Pack renewed my sense of purpose and gave me direction.  I moved into my own flat and began to seize every opportunity to rekindle the life which had so nearly died inside me.  Could I really be a Speaker?  Why not!  I was extremely apprehensive, for my mental breakdown had stolen my confidence and given me a morbid fear of strangers.  Yet I knew that if I didn’t seize this chance I would probably never feel fulfilled.  I reasoned that even if it was disastrous, at least I would have given it my best shot.

I expected to have some training in Public Speaking before I was let loose on the public.  However this was not the case.  After registering as a volunteer for Guide dogs, six months later I received a phone call requesting me to give a talk at a nearby village Primary School.  I cannot properly describe the terror which took hold of me as the appointed day grew closer.  What was I thinking of?!  Me! The semi-reclusive blind woman with a cleft palate speech impediment, giving a talk to a schoolful of kids!  I always struggled being part of an audience, so how was I going to address one?

The dire scenarios tormented me for nights on end, but I forced myself to go through with it.  When the day came I was relieved to find that most eyes were fixed on Trudy throughout my talk.  I was speaking during Assembly to 90 children,  but thanks to Trudy the dreaded “spotlight effect” did not take hold of me for long.  When I finished my talk the children plied me with excited questions, and I felt so elated that I almost soared into the air.  I was alive and free! This first talk was sixteen months ago, and now I am averaging about three talks a month.  So in a very round-about way I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a Teacher.  The topic of Guide dogs is easily as thrilling as Classics. 

As I have grown more confident, my voice has ceased to vibrate uncontrollably as I’m speaking.  I forget that I have a cleft palate which affects my pronunciation of certain consonants.  Somehow I have learned to project out of myself, and the audiences I speak to rarely get to see the quaking nervous wreck inside the Speaker.  I would not say that every talk I give is a success.  Recently I came home convinced that my public speaking phase was over, and that I would never have the guts to speak in public again.  But I guess the Phoenix within me won’t let my courage die forever.  This week I gave another talk in Hereford, and thankfully I hit the right note with the audience.  The buzz from a well-received talk fires up your soul and you leap into the clouds feeling literally on top of the world.

One of my favourite books is Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis.  Zorba’s dance epitomises the phrase “Carpe Diem” – seize the day.  His love for the moment and the simple pleasures of life, together with his incredible passion for music, has always struck a deep chord within me.  Zorba knows what it means to be free, and is desperate to teach others the essence of freedom.  One day I shall visit Crete and when I get there I will dance like Zorba.  Sometimes it pays to leap out of your every day life and risk the unknown.  Uncertainty gives rise to adventure, self-discovery and possible fulfilment.   If it all goes wrong and you find yourself heading over a cliff-edge, then you can always turn round and go back the way you came.

How correct is Political Correctness?

“A man cannot be politically correct and chauvinist too”.  Toni Cade’s “A Black Woman” (1970) is the first printed reference to Political Correctness in this sense.  In fact,  Political Correctness was deliberately developed as a political tool by the US political parties in the 1970’s.  So how has it changed our society, and is it time for Political Correctness to be modified or put back into context?

In the UK Political Correctness has greatly influenced our terminology and language.  In many ways this has had a positive effect.  Terms previously used to describe disabled people or those from ethnic minorities are now rightly recognised as unacceptable.  It seems almost inconceivable that when I was at Oxford in 1988 I was called a “handicapped student” by the authorities.  As attitudes have changed, so has the law.  The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and subsequently the Equality Act 2010 have made it illegal in the UK to discriminate on grounds of race, disability, sexual orientation or gender.

Unfortunately Political Correctness has been interpreted so rigidly by some Corporate and Management organisations that it has often led to resentment and ridicule.  An example of this is the infamous case in 2002 when the Home Office Minister of the time, John Denham, was criticised by the police for using the term “nitty-gritty” because it apparently alluded to the slave era.  This was during a debate in Bournemouth at the Police Federation conference.  Apparently police could face disciplinary charges for using this term, and some rank-and-file officers stated that the rules around language were a “minefield” and at times inhibited them from speaking.  This type of high-profile incident always sparks off heated debates about free speech and censorship.  Ordinary people often feel annoyed that corporate regulations and government mandates inhibit free speech.  The Big Brother State is repellent to most minds, and the majority of people have strong opinions about what we should and should not be allowed to do and say.

Following a Channel 4 programme Dispatches in February 2011, in which the term “kaffir” was discussed in detail, Nesrine Malik wrote an interesting article about where to draw the line between the right to exercise free speech and the need to ban inciting and offensive language.
She states  that “language informs our attitudes as much as it reflects them”.  It is certainly true that the words we use influence the way we act towards different groups of people.
But Political Correctness filters into our everyday lives in other ways too.  Because many people are afraid of causing offense, they are often reluctant to approach a disabled person or to discuss controversial issues surrounding sexuality or race.  This can make it harder for people from diverse groups when they’re out and about.   Political Correctness has inadvertently created an invisible barrier which in effect is socially divisive.  I have encountered a whole range of attitudes throughout my life.  I have a cleft lip and palate which affects my speech and appearance, I am visually impaired and have used a long cane as well as a Guide dog, and I have experienced mental health issues which in the past have earned me labels.  I am relieved that nowadays people tend to think about what they are saying rather than coming out with expressions such as “handicapped” or “nutter”.  But it seems to have gone to the other extreme.  Many people are nervous about asking me questions.  This sometimes makes me feel quite isolated.   It has become acceptable for people to lower their eyes and move away rather than to confront a potentially awkward situation.   In this sense, Political Correctness has become a convenient concept for the general public to hide behind.
I would like to see rigid Political Correctness replaced by tact and sensitivity.  Basic awareness of other people and their feelings would go a long way towards improving social attitudes.  But even more importantly, open discussion and debate about controversial topics would break down many unnecessary barriers.  In my view, assumptions cause far more offense and problems than simple questions.   If someone asks me, “Do you need a hand?” or “How much can you see?” I am more than happy to answer, and I think I speak for many visually impaired people.   The problem occurs if that same person assumes that I don’t need any assistance because I’m with a Guide dog.  Then I can be stranded at the side of a busy road for minutes on end.  Yet I have lost count of the number of times people have told me they walked past because they did not want to cause offense by asking if I needed help.

Political Correctness has led to laws which uphold the rights of those with diverse needs.  But the down side of this is that many people from minority groups are more alienated because people are afraid to ask questions or make conversation.   Now that there are anti-discrimination laws in place, is it time to challenge the rigidity of Political Correctness and put it back into context?  Political Correctness is no justification for the human race morphing into ostriches with our heads permanently buried in sand.

The Social Hazards of Visual Impairment

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.

HELP! I’M GOING BLIND!

Wondering if you might be going blind is not a pleasant thought.  Knowing that you’re going blind can feel like you’re heading for eternal doom.  In this post I hope to paint an alternative picture of blindness for those readers who know that this is an inevitability.  I will  also offer some practical advice, and hopefully by the time you’ve finished reading this article the word “blind” will  not conjure up such fearful images.

Deteriorating vision is easier to deny than to accept.  For one thing, the human brain often compensates for sight loss by replacing indistinct shapes with recognisable ones.  So if your eyes register a blur in front of you your brain will try to make sense of it by replacing the blur with familiar objects.    The dancing cat or waving monkey may in fact be a crooked fence post or a canvas sign flapping in the wind.  At this point your friends or family will probably be nagging you to “get your eyes checked”.    Your vision defect could turn out to be something  that’s curable or helped by prescription glasses.  But occasionally the situation may be more serious.  You might suspect this and be afraid to have it verified, or perhaps you’re already under an opthalmologist and you know that sight loss is fast approaching.
This is often where fear of the unknown – i.e. being blind, takes over your rational head.  Sometimes the easiest thing to do is simply to ignore the reality and get on with your everyday life.  But the trouble with this approach is that one day, if sight loss is inevitable, there will come a point when you can no longer run away from it.
Most sight loss is in fact gradual.  It’s extremely rare to wake up one morning and find that you’re totally blind. You’re more likely to realise you cannot see when you’re trying to read something or spot someone in a crowd.  This realisation that you’re practically blind will probably hit you with a bang, and your world will go topsy-turvy for a while.  Therefore if you know that one day you’ll be blind, it makes sense to slowly introduce yourself to this concept.  A good way to do this is to familiarise yourself  with some of the gadgets and gizmos that are out there to assist visually impaired people with everyday tasks.  You could start with something basic such as a liquid level indicator.  This useful inexpensive little gadget has plastic prongs which hook over a cup or mug, and vibrate or beep when the hot water makes contact.  You may well encounter resistance from people around you who don’t wish to think of you as being blind.  This can make arming yourself with gadgets and paraphernalia tricky, but don’t be deterred.   Talking alarm clocks and audiobooks do have some general appeal nowadays, so if you share your living space with others there’s no reason to be isolated.  However, other people’s reactions are not always helpful – it might be worth bearing in mind that they will be having to readjust too as your vision deteriorates.
 This preparation period could be viewed as a blindfold test drive.  It doesn’t mean you have to become preoccupied with blindness, but becoming more self-aware will help you later on   Familiarise yourself with  what’s available before you absolutely need it.  Browsing through the RNIB catalogue or on an Assistive technology website  might even be inspiring!  You’ll probably be amazed by the variety of aids and gadgets on offer,and most of them don’t require great technical know-how to operate.  The whole point of these things is to help not hinder!
If you’re at the stage where you know your sight is failing this is a great time to build up your list of contacts.    Your local association for the blind, or charities such as RNIB or Action for Blind People are great resources.  The RNIB has a helpline: 0303 123 9999.  Knowing that you’re going blind is actually a great opportunity to consider what you want to do with your life, and to ascertain what assistance (if any) you might need to achieve your goals.  It doesn’t have to be a headlong dive into despair.
Coming to terms with  blindness is often harder than the blindness itself.  Facing it head on might seem like the last thing you want to do.  But from my own experience the more you stick your head in the sand the longer it will take to readjust.  As I mentioned before, blindness is more often than not a gradual process.  Imagining being blind can be frightening, so it’s a good idea to find someone who will listen to your fears and anxieties.  An objective person such as your GP or RNIB staff might be able to offer more practical advice than someone close to you.
What is being blind like?  Blindness does not necessarily mean total darkness.  Most registered blind people in the UK retain some light perception or are able to make out hand movements.  Being registered blind essentially means that the vision you have is no longer reliable or useful.  This does not mean your life has to stop or tone down, but you will need to find other ways of continuing your hobbies.  For instance I’ve always been a bookworm, and when I lost my sight I missed reading more than anything else.  But once I’d accepted that I could no longer read print I began listening to audiobooks and Radio Drama.  Although it doesn’t quite equal reading, I can still get my fill of literature  from Audio libraries such as Calibre and RNIB.
Whether you lose your vision suddenly or gradually you’ll find that you learn to manage indoors far more quickly than outdoors.   The big wide world outside your front door might become a source of terror.  This probably accounts for why around 180,000 visually impaired people never leave home alone.   I can’t pretend that the outdoors isn’t scary at first.  But  I know for sure that it gets more and more scary if you start hibernating.  For this reason I would make it a priority to step outside your front door at least once a day.  You don’t have to go anywhere – but just listen to the birds, inhale some fresh air, stand still and absorb your surroundings.  Slowly a whole new world will start to emerge.  Sounds will seem sharper, the rain will make your nose tingle with a medley of smells,  and if you’re lucky someone might even call a greeting to you.  Even if you meet no one, you’ve shown yourself to the world and you’ll go back inside a more refreshed person.  In time, you’ll find that you still have a place in the world.
It’s common for newly blind people to become very depressed.  Losing your sight is a huge loss, and you will grieve.  If your sight loss is sudden and you’ve had to change your whole lifestyle your emotions will be totally out of sync.  My advice would be to go with your instincts and not to expect too much from yourself.  Accepting that your feelings are natural will help you move forward.  There’s no time limit to adjusting – some people may take 20 years to feel comfortable with their blindness, and others just a few months.  It’s your journey, and you’re the one deciding how fast to travel.  Perhaps it’s worth saying here that a lot of people who find themselves suddenly disabled in any way struggle with asking for or accepting help from others.  You’ll learn how to balance keeping your pride and independence with getting to where you want to go.  This comes with experience.
But blindness or near-blindness does not mean the end of the road.  In fact it’s often a new beginning, despite the fact that you’d rather not have had a new beginning.  When I was at the ‘Guide dog of the Year Awards this year I met Scott and his dog Travis.  Scott lost his sight in 1993 and has just received an MBE.  He’s trekked hundreds of miles, climbed Ben Nevis with his Guide dog and raised £!25, 000 for Guide dogs.  Blindness does not stop you having a life.  Not every one will have the inclination to climb Ben Nevis, but whatever your goals are you can still achieve them.  Being blind may mean that it takes you twice as long, but perseverance pays off.   In my own life it took 18 years to be matched successfully with a Guide dog, but the great benefit of achieving something after a real effort is that the victory tastes super-sweet.
There will undoubtedly be days when you wish you were dead.  But if you forge on you will emerge stronger and more determined than ever.  Your life will not be the same as it was before your sight loss, but that does not necessarily mean it is worse.  Whether you end up training with a Guide dog, competing in the Paralympics, wading through the CDs of the RNIB library or learning to touch type – you will find your own way of learning to live with blindness.  If you keep hold of your dreams and don’t give up,  the darkness will  eventually lose its gloom and you’ll feel the radiance of a rainbow light up your life.

Underground, overground…..

Not many people agree with me when I wax lyrical about the smell of the London Underground.  For me the combination of hot rubber, industrial detergent and all manner of human odours is strangely comforting.  Yes, I do like it.  What I struggle with is the fat slug of passengers clogging up every inch of space from the ticket barriers to the platforms.  Somehow you’re supposed to find a hole in the slug’s body and dive through it to the other side, as if your life depends on it.  If you happen to misjudge this move there’s a risk that you’ll get swallowed up into the slug’s huge digestive system and end up being spewed onto the wrong platform somewhere far away.  Timing is crucial when you’re negotiating the London Underground.  One false move and you find yourself being swept along in the wrong direction, feet flailing, arms flapping, heart sinking.
As a visually impaired person, dodging the giant human slug in the Underground is a heart attack in the making.  Last week when I attended the Guide dog of the Year Awards I had to face the beast head on.  Luckily I was accompanied by a travel-wise mate.  Having a savvy mate by your side is a fantastic help, but if you add a hoovering Guide dog and an overloaded rucksack with wheels that don’t wheel – the best made plans crumble into chaos.  My rucksack with the dodgy wheels was kindly adopted by my companion for the duration of our London trek.  All I had to do therefore, was to steer The Hoover.
We would have been fine had it not been for the aforementioned slug of tourists and commuters.  This giant beast wedged its great body between us numerous times, which left us frequently calling to each other desperate not to get separated forever.  Trying to listen for directions with a hoover-in-harness eyeballing every grain on the ground was no mean feat.  Our stress levels quickly peaked.  The effort of remaining calm whilst being swept away by a perpetually moving monster would test the nerves of the most accomplished traveller.  “Where are you?”  I’d call.  “Over here – in front of you!” was the disappearing answer, and we’d be lucky to reunite within the next five minutes.  We lost count of the number of times we had to hunt down an unoccupied space and simply “take stock”.
Another major bane was escalators.  Those massive metal mountains which move up and up and up…!  Guide dogs cannot travel on escalators because of the risk of their paws getting trapped, so every time we encountered an escalator we had to hunt for a London Transport staff member.  This was not straightforward.  When I lived in London in the early 1990’s there was no such thing as Help Points, so it was mere chance that my mate came across a circular white disc at Euston fitted with Help and Emergency buttons.
We didn’t expect any joy when she pressed the Help button, so when a disembodied voice answered our SOS call it was extremely heartening.  London Transport staff were mostly very helpful once we’d located the Help Points.  But there appeared to be no logical system as to their whereabouts, so searching for Help Points became a quest in itself every time we chanced upon a dreaded escalator.  And once the offending escalators were halted hundreds of steps needed climbing.  There was a moment at Oxford Circus when my companion sailed by on a parallel escalator (there has to be some perk for being the luggage carrier!), and I was seriously beginning to wane.  The steps seemed to be endless, and my legs were growing heavier by the second.  As she passed by she called out to me “Come on Claire!” and somehow I found a spurt of energy that I didn’t know I had.  I’m not sure if Trudy felt more tired than I did, but her front paws were definitely sagging by the time we made it to the top.  It might not have been so bad had we not had to repeat this exercise at least ten times!
On our second day we decided to be tourists and visit Buckingham Palace.  Green Park was possibly our trickiest tube station, but we did not know this when we hatched our plans over breakfast.  Puffing our guts out ascending Green Park’s stationary escalator might have seemed worthwhile had the sky not decided to empty its latrine bucket over our heads just as we exited the station.  Playing the tourist in London invariably gets you soaking wet – as we discovered the hard way.  London rain is hard, relentless, back-stabbing, rib-jabbing pain.  It  literally penetrated our bones as we traipsed through Green Park,  vaguely taking in the scene of mounted Police and majestic trees.  I decided to give Trudy the chance to have a free run despite the fact that we were almost drowning.  A group of excited Japanese tourists pelted past laughing at the force of the downpour.  We were unable to share their merriment.
Trudy was dashing about with the bells on her collar jingling in time to the rain.  She seemed oblivious to the cold shards of silver being hurled from the sky.  Herein lies the sorriest part of my tale.   Trudy used her freedom wisely and performed a “busy” on the grass as we neared Buckingham Palace.   I dutifully pulled a bag from my pocket in order to deposit her offering  in the nearest bin.  All the while the rain was continuing to assault our bodies and we were hunched over double.  I turned towards my rucksack with the dodgy wheels and expressed concern that it might look “unattended” while we were retrieving Trudy’s “busy”.  At this point I  wondered where the “busy” actually was, for it had seemingly disappeared.  In fact it had not disappeared at all – it was under my shoe.  This was quite possibly the lowest point of our London experience.  There was a poignant moment of despair and self-loathing,  but once my shoe had been washed in a series of puddles the hilarity of the situation took over.  Laughter is truly a great medicine.  Hence we were able to reach our destination, Buckingham Palace, where we lingered for about thirty seconds.  The rain was still venomous, so we decided to head back towards the shelter of Green Park station.
As we neared the station we came across a Marks and Spencer, and the prospect of a sandwich tempted us in.  Dripping pools of water onto the floor we took refuge behind a huge pillar in order to try to organise our sodden belongings.  Trudy, who was hoovering up crumbs,  shook her waterlogged fur all over a smartly dressed lady .  If that smartly dressed lady happens to be reading this, I apologise on behalf of my soggy hound.  Throughout the watery chaos we were  being watched by a store detective who must have labelled us  “suspicious persons” right from the moment we entered.  Against the odds, we did manage to buy a sandwich and that kept our spirits afloat as we headed back towards the mayhem of Green Park station.  Many escalators, steps, platforms, crowds and near-heart attacks later, we were sitting on the train at Paddington about to start our homeward journey.
Hereford and London are two vastly contrasting places.  When you’re in Hereford, London seems magical, exciting, buzzing, and alluring.  But once you actually hit that heaving hub of humans, the magic fades into unease, and slowly that unease changes to all-out panic.  After just 24 hours of city strife I was longing for the pure oxygen and grassy hills of Herefordshire.  Now as I sit at my desk I smile as I remember pouring over Tubeplanner early last week.  It is a great online resource for would-be Tube travellers, but memorising the stops on the Bakerloo line whilst sitting in your living room does NOT prepare you at all for the brutal reality of the London Underground.  Having said that, I have not ruled out another trip at some point in the future!

Going blind – what then?

Many people have asked me whether I’d rather be blind than deaf, or if I wish I’d been born blind rather than lose my vision at 18.  I never have much of an answer to these questions, as I can only deal with what I know.  For a lot of people, going blind is their “worst nightmare”.  I met this nightmare head on when I became a paid up member of the “blind community” in 1989.

Although I was born blind in one eye due to a condition known as coloboma/microphthalmia, this did not prevent me from attending a mainstream school.  I  considered myself to be more or less the same as my siblings and other children my age.  When I gained a place at St. John’s College, Oxford, to read Classics – I thought I was entering paradise.  I loved Classics, and still do in my heart.  But this is where my life took an unexpected turn.  During my first year I experienced a sudden onset of glaucoma and within weeks my useful vision had more-or-less disappeared.

I felt utterly helpless and at the mercy of other people.  For a short while I  tried to carry on as if nothing had happened, though reality came down on me pretty fast.  It was obvious that I could not continue at Oxford, so plans were made for me to attend the Royal National College for the Blind.  But I had no intention of readjusting or rehabilitating.  All I wanted was to see again.  That was my one and only mission.  Therefore I resisted all help and refused to consider using technology.  In those days assistive technology was fairly basic.  The BBC computers with early versions of JAWS had absolutely no appeal for me.   If anything, technology scared me –  I couldn’t even type my name.  Everything was beeps or bumps.  I wanted to obliterate beeping clocks and tactile mats.  They were reminders of my blindness and I pushed them away.

So my first days at the Royal National College for the Blind were pretty hellish.  There were some people who, like me, had recently lost their vision.  Others had never been able to see, and others could still see but not particularly well.  The thing I found most difficult was being surrounded by blindness.  It wasn’t a world I accepted.  I don’t even think I considered myself to be blind, I was just me.

Looking back it was the psychological impact of blindness that affected me most.   Accepting my situation was far harder than not being able to see the colours of my clothes.  As I’d never learned braille before, I did not take to braille easily.  I just about learned to read braille but I quickly decided that it was not going to be my main medium for communication. Expert braillists can read two lines at once with both hands, but they’re usually people who’ve started at an early age or really want to persevere.  I turned to audio technology but my brain resisted.  I’ve got a photographic memory, so I think visually.  I found that my good memory invariably began failing me, and this increased my frustration.  Even now I have to translate audio messages into a visual pattern in my head.  For this reason I left it about 5 years before attempting to listen to an audiobook.  The feat was laborious, and I found it hard to concentrate.  If this was how I was meant to “read”, I hated it.  But with no computer and no other means of reading I didn’t have an alternative.   Once I’d accepted this, I reluctantly started to borrow recordings from the RNIB library.  Now I can’t get enough.  With MP3 downloads and iPads, the audiobook scene is improving.

Slowly I became better disposed towards gadgets and technology, and now I’m gadget-mad.  The beeps that used to plague me 20 years ago are now my mates.  With increasingly advanced technology the practical problems of being visually impaired are less of an issue.   There are gadgets which enable you to safely make a cup of tea, label tins or files, measure quantities etc.  My talking microwave is the star of my kitchen, and my mobile phone with TALKS is my right hand man.  There are gadgets and aids for just about any indoor task.  Computer screen-readers such as JAWS and Guide have certainly transformed my quality of life.  My three year-old laptop is my launch pad.  The only barrier to the world is the growing number of websites with poor accessibility, but that’s  another story.. The down side of specialist technology/gadgets of course is the cost.  Being visually impaired is not cheap, and this is accentuated by the fact that in the UK the vast majority of blind people are without work.

So much for gadgets and audio technology.  What about the social side of life?  Before I qualified with my guide dog Trudy I struggled daily with the general public.  Unfortunately, most people steer away from  someone tapping a long cane on the pavement.  I am not that good at asking for help, so more often than not I encountered difficulties when I was out.  I used to bump into lamp  posts and apologise to them or ask if they’d please let me by.  When you’re blind and stressed lamp posts and humans are not distinguishable.  Making a fool of yourself in public is one reason why most visually impaired people refrain from going out.  I can laugh at myself now, but it took time.

I found that there were people who avoided me through fear, and others who raised their voices when they spoke to me. Sometimes people would think they were helping by grabbing my long cane and pulling it across the road with me trotting behind in alarm.  It seems funny now.  I’ve had so many disasters with public transport that it’s amazing I’m still in the UK.  I ended up at Heathrow Airport once instead of Victoria station.  These crises often bring out the kind and helpful side of people.  Nevertheless I began to see my long cane as a huge barrier when it came to socialising and being accepted by people.  Isolation is a common side effect of blindness.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’m still talking to someone after they’ve left the room or wandered away.  Another favourite is to answer people when they’re not addressing you.  Not being able to read body language puts visually impaired people at a serious disadvantage in social situations.

I became quite reluctant to go out on my own, and often left my long cane at home.  This meant that people invariably thought I was drunk because I was stumbling along bumping into things.  There were times when I’d  get a taxi home after being out for just ten minutes.  I quickly became lonely and found myself retreating into a very dismal space.  Often I would lament the loss of my books and my academic career, and wonder why something which I loved so much had been snatched away from me.  These were the bleakest moments.

Training with a guide dog was something I had considered within months of losing my sight.  However, I needed to regain my confidence before I could manage a dog.  I knew that a guide dog was right for me, and GDBA have been a tremendous support ever since I first contacted them in 1993.  This support included hours and hours of mobility training and traffic skills training over a long period.

15 years later, in 2008, I experienced the happiest day of my life when I was matched with Trudy.  Trudy was worth waiting for.   At the time I was living  in residential care, and the outside world was a terrifying tangle of sounds and unfriendly people, and obstacles which rammed into your face and sent you sprawling on the ground.  But Trudy has shown me another side to the world.  Guide dogs attract people, so I suddenly found myself surrounded by well-wishers and dog-lovers.   The obstacles melted away into the background as Trudy’s job is to steer me round them.  I became eager to explore what I’d been missing for so long.  My blindness became an acquaintance rather than an enemy.

Three years later I am living in my own flat and giving talks to schoolchildren and adult groups.  I am about to begin lecturing at a local University.  Sometimes I look back over the rocky road and wonder how I got here.  It’s been worth the blood and tears just to feel this freedom.  But a guide dog isn’t the answer for everyone.  There are 4,500 guide dog owners in the UK.  But 180,000 blind and partially sighted people never leave home alone.  Not long ago, I was one of them.  .