Sunday, February 8, 2015


     The end was near.  I was happy about that prospect and scared at the same time.  I was going to finish my year of mobility training with Penny Armstrong in Seattle.  She thought it would be a good idea to spend some time in a big city learning how to get around completely blind.  I lived in Seattle for four years so I was familiar with many places but there were also areas I had never been to before.  We devised a plan to start in the University District since I had spent a lot of time in that neighborhood.  Penny suggested we then take a bus down to Pike Place Market.  I had been to Pike Place many times but was much less familiar with that part of Seattle.
     I was pretty jacked up about this trip.  I had done well over my year of training in Olympia but I also had had some rough patches.  I didn't want to fail.  I didn't want to perform poorly.  I had a tendency to be really hard on myself.  How many people put on fully occluded glasses and try and get around?  I needed to give myself more slack at times but it was hard.  I want to be great at everything I do.  Who doesn't?  I'm always telling my daughters to go easier on themselves when learning something new but I had a hard time taking my own advice.  We were headed to the big city for what was to be my final exam.  I was nervous.  I wanted to knock this one out of the park.  Go out on top.
     The day finally arrived and we drove up to Seattle.  We found a spot to be dropped off by Penny's driver and she laid out the game plan.  She wanted me to take her to my 3 favorite restaurants in the U district.  The Cafe Allegro Coffee House, The Big Time Brewery and finally the Little Thai restaurant.  All three places were favorites of mine back in the mid 90's.  I put on the my 'blind' glasses and started out.  With my nerves at full attention and my heart thumping I navigated to our first detour.  Penny needed some cash, so she asked me to take her to her bank across the street.  Wait a minute, that was not on the itinerary.  But I can't say no to Penny, so I guided her over to the front door and into the lobby.  Penny and I chuckled as the Bank Teller gave me the opposite directions to navigate the velvet ropes that formed lines.  He would tell me to go left when he meant my right (his left).  I quickly figured it out and didn't correct him.  I followed his voice until I reached the counter.  I happily told him I was taking my friend to his bank so she could get money.  Not often a 'blind' person gets to say they led people with vision.  We thanked him for the help and he again led me out of the building with his vocal commands.
     We hit the street and I headed south to Cafe Allegro.  I could hear the cars at the street corners.  I could hear when buildings ended and the street opened up at corners.  I could hear when building had an awning above us to keep us dry on rainy days.  I could even hear when buildings had recessed entrances into their individual shops.  My cane guided me over surface changes and my ears helped give me a picture of my surroundings.  Most importantly my ears kept me safe.  I may not walk across a crosswalk straight all the time but I felt confident I would not get hit by a car because of my ears.  It was a fairly easy jaunt to the coffee house until we got close.  Cafe Allegro was actually in an alley and I knew Penny had her doubts I was taking her to the right location but I knew we were close just by the smell of coffee.  I heard some men go into a building but something was wrong.  I thought I was there but something didn't feel quite right.  I hesitated and thought for a second.  Unbeknownst to me the guys who were going in the building were holding the door for me.  A perk of being totally blind is not knowing when people are staring at you.  I moved forward towards the door not knowing they gave up on me.  While entering the doorway I realized it was not the correct entrance because it went one step down instead of up.  Too late!  My cane actually got closed in the door.  Uh oh!  I hoped the door didn't lock like many apartment buildings in cities.  I quickly turned the knob and it opened.  Whew.  Crisis averted.  I gathered myself and made a decision to move up the alley and try again.  This time I nailed it!  I opened the Cafe Allegro door and breathed in the pungent smell of coffee.  Finding a door handle, swing direction of the door or simply the door is hard when you are walking down a unfamiliar street or even somewhat familiar street.  What cues would you use to find the correct shop without vision?
     One down two to go.  We headed to what used to be my favorite brewery in the world, the Big Time Brewery.  Lots of great memories in that establishment and lots of great IPA's ingested too!  Along the way to the Big Time Penny felt the need to give me a heads up.  Penny was great at not giving me advice unless she thought my safety was in jeopardy.  Penny interrupted my gate to tell me people were camping on the sidewalk.   She described family size tents blocking most of the sidewalk ahead of us.  She even saw a sign on one of the tents asking people to keep it down because kids were sleeping.  A situation like this raises lots of questions but today was not the day for those questions to be contemplated.  I was focused on getting around this obstacle.  I had to navigate around the tents, street trees, parked cars and pedestrians.  I could not imagine what I would have done without Penny's heads up.  Trying to put a picture together in your mind with limited clues can be a real challenge.  In cases like this you would most likely have to ask for help.  I successfully made it around the campers even though my cane found its way into what felt like a bucket.  I really didn't want to know what was in the bucket.  I plugged along, crossed a street and followed my nose and ears to the Big Time.  I did pass it by one store but knew I missed it.  I stopped and retraced my steps and stopped us at the entrance.  I remembered the recessed tiled entrance and the unforgettable smell of hops.  Two down one to go!
     Final stop, Little Thai.  This place was close, just up the block and around the corner.  It would be easy to find the building but the restaurant was in the basement of a multi-story building.  We strolled up to the building and upon arrival I stopped to figure out where the stairs were located.  While contemplating my next move a man asked if he could help me.  "Sure", I responded and told him I was looking for the Little Thai.  He exclaimed happily that he knew right where it was and started to lead me there.  I had never been led by a stranger before and we were off to a bad start.  He was pushing me with his hand on my back.  I ask the man to stop and ask him if I can hold on to him instead.  He didn't resist my request and we are off to find the Little Thai.  He took me down the stairs and told me we were there.  I thanked him and he is gone.
     There is a science to being a Human Guide and it is simple.  The person being guided grabs the guide just above the elbow and walks a step behind the guide.  You also want your shoulders to matched up.  Probably the trickiest part of this endeavor is for the guide to remember he/she is twice as wide as normal.  Its not fun having a human guide walk you into a tree branch, a corner of a building or another person.  If those 3 elements are done correctly it works really well.  While being guided I can easily tell when the person changes direction or stops and I can also notice subtle changes in elevation because the guide's elbow will noticeably be higher or lower than me.
     Now I am standing near some doorways but something doesn't feel right.  I know the Little Thai entrance is inside a building and right now I'm standing outside the building even though I went down some stairs.  Penny can't help me here either because she is as confused as I am.  I go back up the stairs and try again.  While standing at the top of the stairs I hear a woman who was sweeping the sidewalk near us ask me if I needed help.  I tell her I'm looking for the Little Thai and she breaks the bad news to us the Little Thai is closed today.  "No problem", I warmly respond and go on to explain that we are training and just wanted to find the entrance.  Understanding the situation the woman offers to unlock the door that leads down to the restaurant.  I thank her and head down the stairs to entrance.  As we walk down the stairs, Penny notices the awesome salt water fish tank in the Little Thai.  Not only does that give me confirmation we are going the right way but it also gives me a full blown picture of the inside of the restaurant.  My 'blind' glasses may take away my vision but they cannot take away my memories.  I am a very visual person and I have a great memory.  If I never had vision my experience would be different.  Not worse, just different.  While walking around 'blind' in familiar places I get information from my surrounding through my cane, my ears, and my nose that help create a picture in my brain.  Even in unfamiliar areas I still get a picture in my head of what I am sensing.  The picture may not be accurate to what people with vision see but it is still a picture.  MRI images show activity in the Occipital Lobe of the brain in people who have been blind since birth.  With knowledge like that it makes me question what is really 'seeing'.
    First Phase of my final exam was in the books.  A couple of hiccups along the way but I felt good about what I accomplished in the big city.  I wouldn't say I was relaxed.  While navigating around 'blind' it feels like you are going for a hike on a trail that is 2 feet wide and has a 1000 foot cliff on one side.  You know as long as you stay on the trail you will be fine but your brain and body stay on high alert for the entire hike.  I've tried to relax during my training but was rarely successful.  Now we were ready to jump on a bus to Pike Place Market, but first I needed to eliminate some liquid.
      I knew there were public restrooms nearby at the University Bookstore so we headed that way.  I didn't know where the bathrooms were located in the building but found the entrance.  Entering the building a man asked me if he could help me.  I again accepted a strangers help.  My second of the day and my second ever.  He did a great job leading me upstairs through what felt like a labyrinth of turns and hallways to the public restrooms.  Once I got to the men's room door he said his goodbyes and I thanked him.  This was all new territory.  I had never used a public restroom with my 'blind' glasses on and today was not going to be the first.  I slid my glasses up on my head and took care of business.  Washed my hands and lowered the glasses back over my eyes.  A public bathroom sure seems like a tough spot to navigate blind.  Think about it.  Every bathroom is different in shape and size.  And I don't like germs.  Making wrong decisions in a public bathroom sure would seem to increase the exposure to lots and lots of nasty germs.  I pictured myself wiping my whole body and cane down in hand sanitizer if I ever had to navigate a public bathroom blind.
     I made my way out of the bathroom and out into the open.  I really had no idea where I was in the bookstore.  I really didn't pay attention to where I was going when the guy led me upstairs.  Uh oh, what am I going to do?  Finally a woman asked if she could help me and I told her I was looking for the exit out onto University Ave.  She took a different tack and stayed well in front of me so I decided to spice it up some and follow her voice.  Not really a bad way to go.  My cane would give me plenty of information of the terrain ahead of me and it was easy to follow someone's voice.  She got me close the the exit and I was on my own.  I thanked the woman for the help and suddenly I was back on the street.  Next up, the bus.
     I had to ask someone for help with the bus.  I didn't know what bus would take me down town and I didn't know where the bus stop was located.  A nice man outside the bookstore answered both my questions.  I misunderstood his directions to the bus stop and ended up going a bit too far down the street before crossing to the other side.  I didn't realize I made a mistake so when I approached what I thought was the bus stop I was in the wrong place.  I stopped and gathered myself and decided to head up the street a little more and that's when the yelling began.  "Sir, Sir, Sir please stop you are going to ruin all of my stuff", the woman shouted.   I quickly thought I was getting tangled in a homeless woman's belonging that she had put down on the street.  What else could it be?  She quickly explained that she was selling tiny fragile items and all of those items were laid out on a blanket on the sidewalk.  If she was not paying attention I would have destroyed a lot of her items with my cane and possibly my size 14 feet.  I told her I was trying to catch the bus downtown and she turned me around and walked me back down the street about 50 feet to the bus stop.  I had passed a group of ladies just minutes ago and wondered if they were waiting for the bus but did not ask because I thought I needed to go farther north.  Sometimes it makes sense to ask along the way.  Penny constantly worked with me to decipher all the information I was receiving while navigating blind instead of relying on one piece of information.  Vision is an asset that can quickly take variables out of the equation when problem solving.  If you can see you don't care if they place the cross walk button in a different spot on each street corner.  When you are blind it becomes a constant puzzle solving game.  I had a tendency to only focus on one piece of information in solving a navigating riddle and that would get me into trouble.
    I patiently waited for the bus and it finally arrived.  I waited my turn and asked the bus driver if this bus went to Pike Place Market.  The driver said yes and I asked if there were any open seats near the front.  The driver said a seat was available behind him and I found the vacant spot.  Listening on the bus with no vision is really fun, especially on full buses in a busy city.   So many conversations going on around you.  I have spent a lot of time on buses over the last 10 years and riding buses 'blind' was a highlight for me.  We slowly made our way downtown on the bus and entered the bus tunnel.  The bus tunnel ran under downtown Seattle so the bus stops really weren't streets but more locations.  I was getting nervous on which stop to get off and asked the driver if we were near Pike Place Market.  He said yes so Penny and I jumped off the bus.  Now which way?  I didn't know where we were since we were underground so Penny encouraged me to follow the sounds of people leaving the bus.  I took her advice and I made it to escalators.  There were several escalators to choose from to get me out of the building and I still didn't know which way to go.  I had to ask for help and a woman guided me up to the street.  Now which way?  Are you seeing a pattern here?  If it's a new place I better get used to asking for help.  If I lived in Seattle I would dial in my routes pretty quickly.  I could memorize where to go and listen for recognizable landmarks.  Penny saw me move around downtown Olympia fairly easily because I knew downtown by heart.
     I popped out onto the side walk and choose to walk down the hill because I knew the water was down hill from where we were after leaving the bus terminal.  Penny asked if I was sure after walking a 100 yards because the street numbers were getting bigger when they should have been getting smaller.  Another mistake by me.  Yes the street I was walking on went down hill but it was going to start going up hill after we crossed the street.  It wasn't a life threatening mistake and I would have figured it out when the street started to rise slowly.  We turned around and started heading towards the water.  There were a lot of people on the street and particularly a lot of people milling around just outside the bus station.  I swung my cane from side to side like I meant it and was ready to stop in an instant if need be.  I was walking with confidence and that usually meant people were going to get out of my way.  Look out!  Blind Man coming!  We crossed our first street and I started to freak out.  Not because crossing the street was hard but I heard construction up ahead.  This was not your normal construction work.  I had been involved with construction for over 20 years and I knew this sound.  Pile driving.  Each drive of the steel post cracked like the biggest cannon you could imagine.  I had no idea how I was going to handle this.  I try and take great care of my ears for obvious reasons and the decibel level coming from this pile driver was clearly enough to create instant permanent ear damage.  I was hoping we wouldn't make it close to the sound but that was like hoping it wouldn't ever rain in Seattle again.  It was going to happen.  As we approached the sound barrier breaking pile driver I covered my ears.  A blind person covering their ears is like a pilot covering their eyes.  Not only did I just take away my sense of hearing but I also lost the use of my cane.  Dead Man Walking.  The pile driver was so loud I didn't even want to take my hands off of my ears to raise my glasses.  I did it anyway.  Game Over.  Glasses up.  Even my rod deprived eyes needed a minute to adjust to the bright day light.  As I stood there I witnessed all the construction workers near me wearing ear protection.  I also saw how much of the sidewalk was closed off with caution tape and fencing.   Penny and I made our way past the construction site and several blocks away from the noise so we could chat.  Penny asked me what I would have done if I didn't have the option to raise my glasses and the answer was easy.  I would have turned around before the construction site, walked several blocks away and gone down to Pike Place Market on a parallel street.  That solution reflected much of what a visually impaired person life could be like traveling.  We can do everything a fully sighted person can, it normally just takes us longer.
     Penny and I agreed I had done a lot over the day and it was time to enjoy Pike Place Market and grab some lunch.  We were in an area that was mostly unfamiliar to me and full of natives and tourists.  She and I both knew I could learn to navigate around downtown Seattle if I had too, but that was a lesson for another time.  I came to Seattle to show off what I learned over the past year and Penny thought I had accomplished that goal.  I respected Penny as a teacher and a human and her approval of my mobility skills meant so much to me.  When she first met me I used an Identification cane to let people know they needed to get out of my way, but my cane provided no information.  One year later I was mostly taking Penny around parts of Seattle with my blind glasses on.  It felt great!
    Penny and I had a great lunch at the Pike Place Brewery and we talked about our last year together and what the future held for both of us.  Penny is a rare breed.  She is competent at her work, she is competent as a friend, she can be tough, she can be compassionate but most of all she cares about people.  She looks for the good in people, brings the good out in people and she conducts herself with class and grace.  Penny is the epitome of solidness.  I not only had a kick ass mobility teacher but I also got a kick ass friend for life out of this training.
        I don't like to say it's darkness when describing getting around at night or if I'm navigating with my fully occluded glasses on.  Darkness seems to have too many negative connotations for me.  Darkness can be seen as scary or evil.  I tend to think of spaces with no light as black.  Pitch Black.  I guess I don't get that saying either since I have about 60 million less Rods than people with fully functioning Retinas.  I don't have all the shades of gray most people see at night. In the absence of street lights or headlamps it is black to me.  No light.  Nada.  So I describe being blind at night or with my blind glasses on as seeing black.  Black is the absence of light.  But here is where it gets tricky.  Through all of my mobility training in the black I never once said my experience was bad.  My experience was different.  It was not less enjoyable.  I have a fond memories of traveling with no vision.  It was rich.  It was full.  It could even be amazing.  Life blind is still full of light for me.  I can be happy.  I can be fulfilled.  I can even have visual memories where all I see is black.  9 years ago my counselor Brian Kennedy pushed me to find out how awful life would be blind.  Brian encouraged me to interview people who went blind to see how their lives were going.  Through those interviews I found out their lives were full of joy.  Brian opened a door for me and I walked through that door and I never looked back.  I have chosen to go to those scary places inside of me that painted a future of doom and gloom.  I challenged those dark parts of me by uncovering what scared me most.  I interviewed blind people to learn about their lives, I learned to use a mobility cane 'blind', I've learned some echolocation and now I'm learning braille.  When I freak out about losing my hearing because I clearly need to have something to worry about and I took being worried about going blind off my list Brian reminds me of why I do that to myself.  I do it because I want a high quality life.  I don't want to be a person who is shackled to his living room couch.  I want to be independent.  I want to ride my bike, I want to travel, I want to play sports, I want to hike, I want to kayak and I want to surf.  I will always have some worry in life and I will do my best to not let the worry hold me hostage from doing what I want to do.  Life can be tough and life can be amazingly wonderful.  All of us have or will encounter major obstacles in our life time and the people who overcome those obstacles are my hero's.  They provide me inspiration on a daily basis.  I seek them out and I make sure to let them know how much they mean to me.  I get scared.  I get angry.  I get tired.  I get depressed and I can get overwhelmed.  I let myself be all of those emotions but I always come back to happy.  At my core or my true self is happy and fun.  I want to enjoy life and to have fun.  There are so many wonderful people in my life that help me get back to being my true self and I will always be grateful to all of you.  You have made my life beautiful and one I would never trade.  Thank you.  I love you all.
My amazing family- Kiirsten, Sierra, Acadia and Ian have brought so my joy, love and support to my life! Thank YOU!