My Bridget Jones Day

Yes, another Monday has almost ventured into the night .  The mop bucket stands askew in Clairetrude’s Corner, brimming with soapy water.

While the mop itself is being searched for, I shall tell my tale.  After a weekend divided between clutching my stomach and lying on the sofa (UTI strikes again!) I woke up this morning and realised that I was not actually going to die.  So I put away my “IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH” box, and took down all the arrows I’d stuck on the wall pointing to Trudy’s food supply.  Being embarrassed is not a good start to the week, so I busily spruced up the lounge to get rid of any lingering “sick room” atmosphere.  Lemongrass oil with a dash of peppermint quickly freshened it up.

The date in my diary did not bode well.  An afternoon appointment with the physiotherapist at my GP Surgery.  It did not help that I could not quite remember why this appointment had been booked.  It was made months ago, when I was experiencing general post-cancer malaise and struggling with my aching body.  I suppose I still ache, but who in the other-side-of-40 group doesn’t?

Fearing the scary receptionist who guards the Surgery, I did not dare to cancel this sought-after appointment.  That’s why just after 1.30pm I was sitting in the waiting room stroking Trudy.  I have an unfortunate habit of stroking Trudy’s head repeatedly when I’m nervous – it’s almost like someone tapping a table with the tip of a biro.  Trudy takes it like a stoical Labrador.  But at the point where I hear the tune of “The Antiques Roadshow” drumming out of my fingers, then I know I have to leave poor Trudy alone and clasp my hands together like a Victorian governess.

Here begins my Bridget Jones experience.  I was expecting the usual – being told to lie on a bed or couch while the physiotherapist prodded my back etc.  Oh if it were that simple!    I had to stand there – upright – dressed only in my vest and knickers.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  There I was, with no blanket or curtain to give me a sense of modesty, just rooted to the spot wondering “Why?”  Even the unsmiling Metal Mama who has featured previously in my Blog, had the sensitivity to screen me from the vastness of the examination room.  I cursed the cheese and onion pastie I’d eaten last Wednesday, and I cursed my brain for being conscious as I wondered which knickers I was actually wearing.  I just stood there and prayed they weren’t the green ones which I’d found in Trudy’s bed last week.   

Even imagining I was a Bridget Jones or Miranda Hart did not help.  I was me, alone with my intense cringing thoughts.  Aware of my bodily imperfections, mindful of my potholes and dimples and just wishing to God that I could get the hell out of that room!  There was no audience to laugh with me or at me, just me and a slightly bemused Trudy standing before a physiotherapist.  I could not see a funny side.  Trudy could, for she was wagging her tail delightedly, dancing round me like a little elf.  No sense of occasion that one.

It did cross my mind to assume a Bridget Jones stance or try Miranda’s ungainly mannerisms.  But I realised how unaccomplished I was.  I could not utilise my asymmetrical, unsightly self  for comedy – not while I was standing there in my vest and knickers.  I could not even muster the right sounds to speak, let alone laugh.  If I was confident I would have refused to obey the orders of the physiotherapist.  Somehow it made it worse that she too was a woman, for she ought to have managed a glimmer of sensitivity.

But here I am sitting cradling my laptop.  The ordeal is over – until my next appointment (if I decide to attend).  Despite the raw embarrassment which makes me groan as I write, I am almost able to  laugh at the  experience (through somewhat gritted teeth).  I never expected to reinvent the baneful PE lessons of my youth (remember the navy blue knickers and gym shirts?) in a physiotherapist’s room in 2012!

Once again I find myself marvelling at Trudy and her total lack of inhibitions.  That really is true freedom, having no sense of bodily shame or embarrassment.  (Just to reassure those who know Trudy’s habits, I’m not about to lie sprawled out on the floor with my legs akimbo – that’s a Labrador’s prerogative!).

The mop has now been located, the bucket has been fetched, and Clairetrude’s Corner is closed for the night while cleaning is in progress.

 

Metal Mama and Me

Metal Mama is the affectionate name I have given to the mammogram machine in Hereford County Hospital.  Mysterious and rather noble, she maintains the throne in the X-ray room and no one has yet challenged her supremacy.   She is unyielding, dispassionate and cold to the touch. She stares in stoney silence as you stand before her, watching your every move with an air of feigned patience. Then  she takes your breasts in her metal hands and squashes them each in turn.  Occasionally, she’ll whisper to the radiologist that you have cancer.    So would you be surprised if I tell you that Metal Mama and I are as good as mates? 

When I first met up with her a year ago I did not know what to expect.  I did not know I had cancer, I did not know that despite Metal Mama attempting to crush my breasts I would not actually feel pain.  I went in to the palatial chamber fearful and naive.  Metal Mama did nothing to allay my anxieties, and in fact she may have made them more acute.  She was too shiny, too perfect, too supercilious by far.  And that metal gleam of hers highlighted my own mortality.  The fact that I had to remove my bra and T-shirt was a huge ordeal back then.  It did not occur to me that Metal Mama and her radiographer side-kicks have seen hundreds of shapes and sizes passing as women.  But there was so much I didn’t know then.  Almost exactly a year ago.

To be perfectly honest I was not relishing my reunion with Metal Mama today.  I remembered her hard stare, her cold grasp, her chilling verdict.  She held my fate in her steely hands, and she always will do.  I cannot think of her without some part of me shuddering.  Today I had my trusted  hound Trudy with me and she  accompanied me into Metal Mama’s chamber.  She had a sniff around the regal feet, but decided that the bin in the corner smelt more interesting so pitter-pattered off in that direction.  Thanks Trudy!  I  faced Metal Mama alone whilst The Hoover hoovered quietly nearby.  Unlike me, Metal Mama was no different from last year.  She was still iron-hard and ice-cold, no-nonsense and no-frills.  Yet as she was no longer a complete stranger I felt relatively at ease.  Today Metal Mama and I had an understanding. 

I smiled at the fact that today I was able to stand topless before Metal Mama without blushing scarlet.  When you have breast cancer, one thing you quickly learn is that you have to order your inhibitions to move aside and shut up.  I have learned to forget that it is me with no T-shirt on. Me automatically goes to the back of my head when I’m in a hospital environment.  Metal Mama could have told me that a year ago.

But it does not pay to be cocky.  Last year each X-ray courtesy of Metal Mama was painless (albeit slightly uncomfortable).  Today’s experience therefore came as a shock.  When Metal Mama clamped the breast which has undergone surgery and radiotherapy,  I nearly shot to the ceiling with the pain that sliced through me.  But it was short-lived.  Metal Mama’s hugs are never longer than about 30 seconds, thank God.     Four hugs (two on each breast) and she’s usually done with you.  And here came the second unwanted surprise of the day.  Metal Mama took my offer of friendship literally.  She spat out one of the X-ray images and called me back for one extra hug – the one that hurt most of all. 

Last year I received Metal Mama’s verdict the same day, as I was seeing the Consultant straight afterwards.  This time I have to wait between a week and ten days for the results.  It’s quite weird knowing that Metal Mama knows already if I’m clear of cancer or not.  She has my image imprinted on her mechanical brain.  I’d love to be able to meet her for a drink in Wetherspoon’s and get her to divulge the results after a triple Vodka.  Then Metal Mama might roll along Commercial Road spilling all her secrets throughout High Town.  I have a picture of her crashed out in a metal heap, turning up for work later with a thumping hangover and being fired for breaking the code of conduct.  But she’s far too professional.

Back to reality.  I’m all set for an impatient ten days, wondering what Metal Mama has seen and what she will tell.

Video of a mammogram http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/mammogram/MM00639

Information about mammograms and breast cancer http://cancerhelp.cancerresearchuk.org/type/breast-cancer/about/screening/mammograms-in-breast-screening

Breast Cancer Care Charity http://www.breastcancercare.org.uk/

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.

Relief: a brief update

I’m happy to report that my visit to the hospital on Wednesday did not bring me bad news.  I was told that radiotherapy can continue to affect the treated area for some considerable time.  My reaction is not common, but thankfully it looks as if it’s not cancer-related.  Most of me feels very reassured by this.  I can finally relax knowing I don’t have to undergo any more treatment.  Yet there is still an anxiety inside me which persists.  Somehow I just can’t accept that the cancer has gone, or that it won’t return.  I wonder if there’ll ever be a day when I feel totally free from cancer.

Uncertain Times

Since having cancer my determination to stay alive is something that permeates my consciousness.  I am ever-aware of my fight for survival.  Stronger still is the need to make the most of each day.  At first this was a pressure which had the effect of stifling my creativity.  I was so desperate not to waste time that I cupped it in my hands like a trapped butterfly, afraid to let it go.  Once I became aware of what I was doing I slowly unfurled and now my spirit feels free again.

But once again I am facing uncertainty.  After a visit to my GP I have been referred for more tests, which are scheduled for July 13th.  The familiar feeling of not knowing what’s in store, not really wanting to know yet disliking being in the dark – it all buzzes round my head like a swarm of angry bees.  It’s possible that the changes in my breast are due to lymphoedema, but it’s also possible there may be a more sinister cause.  I’m so scared of the worst scenario becoming a reality.  I feel as I’m in some kind of limbo.   Being suspended from a great height and looking down at my situation has its merits in that it stops the panic taking hold of me.  But then there’s the frustration that I might be wasting precious time. It’s that not knowing – it gnaws away at you like an invisible worm.

I think this is something I may have to expect from cancer.  Overcoming one hurdle and then stumbling upon another when you least expect it.  I wonder if I’ll ever feel  truly free from the shadow of cancer.  If this latest scare turns out to be just that – a scare – I’m almost certain there will be more.

But whatever happens I know that I won’t go down without a fight.  I am very clear about what I value, and I’m not going to relinquish what I value just because the mountain I’m climbing suddenly gets a thousand feet taller.  July 13th will come and go.  Before then I’m going to London as my Guide dog Trudy is a finalist in the Guide dog of the Year Awards.

Trudy’s award is a welcome distraction from my anxieties, and I think if I look hard enough I’ll be able to find a few more.  But although distracting myself is one way of dealing with anxiety, I’m also trying to accept what I think and feel.  Learning to accept that this is what I’m feeling rather than always trying to push it away, might well preserve my energy for when the fight is really on.

I will be so relieved when this particular uncertainty has evaporated – whatever the tests reveal.

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.  .