In the book Emma and I by Sheila Hocken, there’s a chapter in which Sheila gives talks about her guide dog. She goes to a school for the handicapped and is nervous cause she thinks that the wheelchair-using children are so much more crippled than she is, but it turns out that the handicapped children think she is poor for not being able to see. This makes me feel sort of weird, cause I see many blind people not considering blindness quite a disability, while other disabilities are considered very crippling. I have always felt that each disability has its drawbacks and its relatively positive sides. Physically impaired people have more “direct” implications of their disability. If you can’t make the movements necessary to dress, you simply can’t dress yourself, for example. Blindness has more secondary implications. I once speculated that if blindness truly just meant that one doesn’t have sight, I would be able to drive, cause I’m perfectly capable of turning the wheel and pushing the gas pedal. But of course I can’t drive, since I can’t see road signs and other cars, etc.
Mobility is a thing in itself, and it is about what this book is about: how Sheila regained her mobility when she got a guide dog. Physically disabled people are called “mobility impaired”, cause mobility means the ability to move. It is the capacity to go about in one’s environment, either using one’s legs or a wheelchair. In a broader sense, as it’s meant in such fields as geography, it means a person’s travelling from one place to another, including driving cars or using public transportation. Are the blind impaired in their mobility? Not literally – they have the same freedom to move as the sighted -, but if you see mobility in its broader sense, as in going about in one’s environment or travelling from place to place, I’ve often felt blindness to cause limitations in one’s mobility. Then, I could refer to the incapability of blind people to drive cars, but that’s not something that’s touched me much so far. I often hear blind people my age are being affected by grief for their inability to drive, but I assume that in the U.S. driving is more necessary than it’s here. Dad says that a car in America is considered a necessity. Here, few people my age drive, even if they have their driver’s licenses. College students can use public transportation for free, and our transit network is quite good. I think that when I’m older, I may feel limited because of my inability to drive, since I see what my Dad is capable of with his car, for instance. On the other hand, my mother doesn’t have a license either, so maybe I won’t miss it that much.
Mobility, for me, is limited at a far more basic level, and that’s making me feel very restricted. I know that blind people with good travel skills can go wherever they want, at least, that’s what they say, but my travel skills are not all that good. I also think it’s not entirely a travel skills issue – a trip to the supermarket takes me much shorter if I just ask a shopping assistant for help, even though it’ll still take me hours -, but again, that’s where my uncertainties about dependence come in.
This feeling of being limited has been very troubling for me over the last couple of years. As a teenager, I want to go places and always needing people to take me – like my parents driving me places cause I can’t get there by bicycle -, is not the nicest situation. Neither is having to ask my sister to go with me when I want to go to the supermarket, cause my travel skills are not quite optimal. I know this is not really blindness being the problem, but rather my poor travel skills, but it still feels that way.
Elsewhere in the chapter, Hocken describes giving a talk at a rehab centre for the blind. She writes:
Because of the gradual way I had lost what little sight I ever had, I always considered myself fortunate compared with people who had enjoyed perfect vision and then lost it. Naturally I had the frustrations of being blind, but I had never at any point sat down and thought: “Last year I could see and now I can’t; I shall never get used to this. What am I going to do?” I always found it difficult if I met someone who had newly lost his or her sight. It is the worst way to go blind. People are such visual animals that sight overrides every other sense. To have that sense suddenly taken away is a terrible blow. It brings with it not only physical blindness, but a kind of equivalent mental blindness as well. Sea-anemones immediately close up when anything touches them. People who go blind seem to close up mentally in the same way. But they often remain cut off from the world. So, if I had been dubious to begin with about going to talk to handicapped children, I was doubly worried about the idea of talking to the blind at Clifton Spinney. The point was that one of the main aspects of the talks I gave was to prove to sighted people how normal blind people were, how they were able to cope and get on with their daily lives, and to put over how I had done it, and how Emma helped me. HOw could I say this to those people?
As a person who is in a similar situation to Sheila’s with respect to the course of our blindness, I have at times had the same feelings. When this woman called us last month about the former student at our high school who’d suddenly gone blind, I had no idea of the right attitude about this situation. This was, however, for two reasons: the first being what Sheila describes – the fact that people who go blind suddenly lose so much at once it’s hard to imagine for those of us who’ve always been severely visually impaired, and hence the inadequacy in how to help them. The second, however, was my own trouble, and the feeling that people were expecting me to be a perfect role model for this guy ans his family, to show them what all was possible, while I was feeling terribly restricted by my lack of skills, which are an indirect consequence of my blindness, and was feeling totally incapable of giving a “the blind are just normal people” outlook, cause I only believe this cause I’ve been told so many times, but am still utterly surprised when I see in fact blind folks who *are* just normal people. It still hurts me that Mum, in the midst of her long litanny about all this guy would have to learn and if only he could this and if only he could that, said: “Didn’t you want to do such a course as well?” referring to the rehab programme. I know that it’s much worse to lose your sight at once than to experience gradual vision loss, especially if you’ve always been visually impaired – so that braille, for instance, doesn’t have to be learnt -, but I don’t want to use that fact as a badge of superiority, and just because you don’t start at square one with everything, as the newly blinded do, doesn’t mean you’re totally fine and know all the skills you’ll need to.
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