Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with a condition that has lead to a visual impairment called Iow vision. I’s been quite a journey of learning, coping and adapting. I’s not the end of the world, and there are many tips and tricks to help. You just got to know about them! Hopefully my story will help someone out there! If this is your first visit, you may want to start with the first 5 or 6 posts. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Busted! Unmasked! Out of the Closet!

I’ve kept my eye problems pretty much away from work, and the cane away from people I know. It’s just really hard to use the cane in  front of them.  I do use it in the subway or in an airport (it makes people nicer to me!).  But up to now, it’s been strictly for use with strangers.

The cane on the left is a mobility cane and the smaller,
thinner one is on the right. These are my co-workers
Patrick and Kathleen rescuing the flyaway balloon.
So the company where I work had its annual meeting last week. Several of us were sitting in the staff lounge talking and watching two people standing on chairs trying to capture an escaped helium balloon. They were using an umbrella and not having a lot of success. I looked over and said “I have just the thing you need,” and pulled my “identity cane” out of my pocketbook. I opened it up and gave it them, and it helped to isolate the balloon in a corner, but wasn’t quite enough to pull it down from the ceiling. I said, “wait a minute” and then went to my luggage and pulled out the “mobility cane.” With the two canes, they were able to grab the balloon and bring it down to earth.

The top folded cane is an “Identity” or “Symbol” Cane
and fits easily in my pocketbook. It’s about 7 inched
when it’s all folded up. The bottom cane is the mobility
cane used to tap, wave or sweep to look for obstacles.
Both canes are great for capturing balloons!
No more hiding the cane from my colleagues! Some folks looked at me in disbelief.   What? Why? Whose is it? It’s mine. I have some visual issues, I said, suddenly realizing what I had done.  I explained the difference between the identity and mobility canes. The identity cane is thinner and lighter than the other. It means “I have a visual impairment. Please get out of my way.” It’s good for finding my way on steps or an escalator and for checking depth of curves and divets in sidewalks. The mobility cane is much sturdier (for sweeping or tapping) and means “I have a visual impairment. Get out of my way or I’ll hit you.” It’s the one that you usually see people tapping the ground with.  Anyway, caught off guard, I showed people how to use the canes and there was real interest…  and so, I’m busted… out of the closet…

As for the meeting, it was a gathering of 10,000 people who came together to learn and share new ideas for the elderly. There was a blind architect who gave a talk about design considerations for people with visual impairments.  The number of people who have eye problems increases daily as more and more of us get older.

The American Disabilities Act requires
curb cuts to have a colored tactile surface
to prevent people with visual impairments
from walking in to the street.
He had some great suggestions. Make sure that the grab bars in the shower are a contrasting color to the  color of the wall, to make it easier to see – showers are not usually well lit. Change the texture of a stair rail at each end (that way it lets the walker know that he or she is at the end). I was fascinated to learn that when the government required cities to make curbs accessible for wheelchairs, it inadvertently made it likely for people with visual impairments to walk into the streets because they didn’t realize the sidewalk ended. So it then required textured concrete, sometimes painted yellow, on the edge so that a foot or cane could detect it. Why yellow? It’s the last color to go.  I spent some time talking with this guy, and we both agreed that there needed to be more education available about vision and visual impairments. It was good that he was there at the meeting and talking about this incredible need and making people in the aging field aware.

And without even planning it, I sort of opened the door about my own issues as well. I guess it was inevitable, and when it finally did happen, it wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as I had worried it would be. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Support Group for the Blind and Visually Impaired…

With all of the rehab appointments I’ve had, I somehow got on a list that got me invited to attend a support group for people with low or no vision. I decided to try it out.

The group meets at a nonprofit organization that provides services for the blind and visually impaired. I pulled into the parking lot at the same time as two MTA Mobility buses.  I realized that all the people on the two buses were going to the same meeting that I was, and thankfully there were a lot of people. Lots of people! All different colors, sizes, shapes. Nearly everyone had a cane, and it was amazing for me to see this. I ran to the door to hold it so that these folks could pass through. I followed them into the lobby, where after a few minutes a man with dark glasses driving a scooter and holding a white cane came to greet us. “Follow me,” he said.

What a parade we were! I quickly learned that if you can't see, you make noise, and these people made quite a bit. “Go Left.” “Now Right.”  “Straight ahead.” “Did I hit someone?” “Who's behind me?”  “Keep going.”  Many of the folks had talking wristwatches: “11:00 o’clock,” they all announced at more or less the same time. (I had seen these in the catalogues, but had never actually heard/seen one.)

I sort of followed the pack and not quite knowing what to do, I helped guide people as we walked along. Along the way, we stopped so someone could "show" us where the bathrooms were – all by verbal direction and description.

It was, pardon the bad pun, a real eye-opener. It was the first time I had seen a group of blind, near-blind, or going-blind people. I looked at people’s faces, and at their eyes. Their canes were all different sizes compared to their height. My cane comes up almost to my neck. I saw that some canes reached all the way to people’s ears, and some were shorter. I also noticed how people were using their canes. My WC Lady is pretty strict about technique. When the cane is to the left, the right foot is out. These folks were waving their canes any which way, and it didn’t seem to matter.

We made our way to what is normally a dining room room and the 50 of us sat around a large table. I was probably one of the youngest and most sighted. Within minutes, a man across from me leaned over and stared into my face. He squinted his eyes and scrunched his face. I wasn’t quite sure what the protocol was, so I just responded by letting him look. Finally he said, “You have glasses on. That means you have vision. How much do you have?” Well. It was quite the icebreaker. He had lost most of his vision about five years ago. He said that some days are better than others. Mostly he sees objects and movement. Sometimes he can see more, and sometimes less.

I talked with him and with others who were sitting around us. There were about four or five people who had organized this meeting. All of them had visual impairments, and all had canes. Up until now, I always felt conspicuous with a cane; now I was feeling conspicuous without one. I had my smaller cane, an identity cane, in my purse. I pulled it out and opened it. I wanted my big cane - I wanted to look like every one else! I wanted to be a part of the group.

Refreshments were at the front of the room and one of the organizers explained where everything was - from right to left - the coffee, the hot water and tea bags, sweeteners, fruit, cookies, muffins and brownies. A married couple was sitting close to me and they were discussing what they wanted. Again, I wasn’t sure what the protocol was – was it ok to ask if I could get them something, or would that be considered a breach of etiquette? I could see and much more easily navigate the sweeping canes! Finally I did ask, and they gratefully accepted. While waiting for the meeting to start we had a good conversation. Both had been blind since they were young, went to school together, married and adopted four children. Now they are grandparents. The gentleman said that he could see until he was about four, but he doesn’t remember what it was like.

The meeting started and we all went around the room and introduced ourselves. This was overwhelming for me. So many of these people had lost their vision only recently or within the last five years. And they talked about going through a grieving process and a loss of independence. Their words touched me in a very raw place. When it came to me, I said I was new to all of this. I had felt alone, and in just the last half hour, I was feeling so much better.

When the meeting proper started, we talked about what kind of a group it would be. Would it be sharing challenges and how to overcome them, or would it more of a social group and participate in bowling (yes, bowling), dancing and other activities?  At one point, one of the organizers called for a vote and asked for people to raise their hands. Not quite a hand raising group! Everyone laughed!

At 1:00 pm, all the talking watches went off and the meeting was over. I bid farewells to my new friends. It was an amazing experience. I was comfortable with these folks – they had traveled or were traveling the same journey that I was on, and I can learn from them.  Unfortunately, I’ll be on vacation and won’t be able to go to the next meeting. But I’ll be back.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Those Pesky Escalators…

This is the escalator at Woodley
Park in the DC Metro. Steep, but
flat too me and dark!

Lots of people with low vision suffer a lack of depth perception, especially in dimly lit places or at night.  This makes escalators particularly difficult for us. Just looking at them can be a problem. Lots and lots of parallel lines and all those comb-like protrusions on the treads.  When I look up or down, the steps look flat and they run together. And, just like I see squiggles on the Amsler grid, I see squiggles on the steps of escalators.  On a very, very long escalator, this can make you dizzy. And a good many of the escalators in the Washington Metro are very long. In fact, my metro stop in DC, Woodley Park Station, boasts 342 stairs and is the third longest escalator in the DC system (Wheaton is the longest in Metro and is the second longest escalator in the world).

Pretty scary! Notice the
distortion from the camera.
This is similar to what I see
as a result of the blind spots
or scotomas.
It seems like someone along the way had an idea to make escalators safer. You’ll notice that many escalators have painted yellow stripes on the steps.  When I’m on an escalator and there is a yellow stripe on the edge of the step, I know right where to put my foot.  However, it’s not all so simple. Hard to believe, but the yellow stripes are not consistently placed on the front of the steps. Sometimes they’re on the back of the step, sometimes on the edge, and sometimes not at all! It’s insanity and confusing! Take a look!

Here are two escalators, side-by-side. One has stripes on the edge
of the step and the back; the other has stripes only on the back.

My workaround, of course, is to use the elevator, if I can find one.  If I do use the escalator, I use the cane, partly to help me find the steps, but mostly to say to others “Hey, be aware. I have a visual impairment.  I may need help and I’m counting on you!“

These three escalators are side-by-side at the Seattle, WA airport. The first one has stripes consistently
in all the right places. The second one has no stripes on the edge of the step
and the third one has stripes on some steps and no stripes on others.