I thought I’d reached the end of the street, but had inadvertently walked directly in the middle of the traffic. It was one of the scariest moments since I started my training with the white cane.
Be brave, I told myself. I concentrated hard on the sounds of the cars passing in both directions, adjusted my course, gathered my courage, and made it safely to the slope of the sidewalk.
It was many years back that I first developed serious vision problems. I was 12 years old and play-fighting with my younger brother when I accidentally got kneed in the forehead. I started to have some trouble seeing but thought nothing of it – that it would pass.
Then, a few days later, I woke up blind in the right eye.
You can imagine the feelings of shock and fear I struggled with. The doctors said it was a detached retina, and I went through two operations to fix it, which worked only temporarily. I remember it was on Halloween just a few months later that I lost sight in my other eye too.
After numerous unsuccessful surgeries, it was discovered that I had a rare genetic disorder affecting my eyes. As a result, today I have no vision in my left eye and only about 2% in the right.
It hasn’t been easy, but I was determined to continue to live my life as normally as possible. I’ve been very lucky to have support and assistance from my family and friends. This has helped me through high school and university.
The MAB-Mackay also played an important part in my life. They provided me with many different devices to enlarge text so I could read while I still had remaining vision, and taught me to use special computer software with voice output, which I use to do my homework and write this letter.
Certainly, relying on others to come and go has worked well for me, and I’m very grateful. Now that I’m 30 years old and will be moving out of town for graduate studies, it’s important to me to be fully independent.
Up until recently, unless my parents or brother were leaving home, I just couldn’t go out. Friends had to meet me at my home, pick me up in their car, or I had to wait for adapted transport (which is slow and very limiting). I felt like a bird in a cage, and no longer wanted to always feel like I was burdening others.
Once again, the MAB-Mackay stepped in. They assigned me an instructor in Orientation and Mobility, who helped open up the world to me.
We started my training last winter. Before even introducing the white cane, my instructor Garry taught me how to understand my environment by listening and feeling changes in the air and irregularities in the ground. It was the first time I was really walking on my own, not holding on to someone’s arm for guidance or security. I felt totally vulnerable.
There were many times that I thought to myself, this is hopelessly impossible. I put my “blind trust” in Garry, and one small step at a time, built my confidence. As I developed my “echo-location” skills, I learned to stop before bumping into walls, to walk straight down a hallway, and to recognize when a door is open. It’s fascinating how much spatial awareness comes from senses other than sight.
After weeks of work inside, it was time to apply these concepts in outdoor situations. We practiced in all weather conditions. For example, sound travels differently in the rain or snow, so I have to really focus my attention.
I remember crossing the street alone for the first time. I was so nervous, putting my life at risk and stepping out into the traffic. Garry had faith in me and what I’d learned, and I trusted in him. What a feeling of accomplishment (and relief) when I arrived at sidewalk in one piece!
It took a lot of time and concentration, but I’m now able to orient myself on street corners and sidewalks by listening to the sounds of cars, feeling the different surfaces on the ground with my feet, detecting obstacles with my white cane, and sensing the rush of the air.
Montreal is a particularly challenging city, due to all the construction. Loud noises like jackhammers and other equipment disrupt my focus and ability to properly hear my surroundings. It makes it more mentally exhausting, but if I take it slow and safe, I’m able to get where I want to go.
I’m particularly proud that I’ve learned to take the metro. Those long stairways are very daunting, as is moving through the rushing crowds. You may think it’s incredibly dangerous for a blind person down there, but Garry has helped me to break down the steps. Sure, it often takes me longer to get to my destination, and strangers are always kind and obliging to help when I’m in a bind. But it’s a great feeling to be able to do things on my own.
Thanks to your support, I can now live my life on my own terms. I no longer need someone to accompany me about my university campus, or to wait for people to give me rides when I go out. It’s very liberating to be responsible for myself, to know that I can come and go at my own rhythm. These skills have given me the confidence to move to Ottawa to pursue studies towards a career in public policy this fall.
You never know when you or someone you love may be faced with vision loss. Who would have thought I would be affected at such a young age? Your kind support has ensured that people like me are able to overcome the devastation of vision loss and continue to live life to the fullest. Thank you!