14 Jan 2012

Many Different Hats

In 2008, I entered a short story in the Vision Australia Dickinson’s Literary Awards and won an Honourable Mention in the autobiographical section for the following story. As a result, I was asked to be one of the judges for last year and again this year’s, Dickinson’s awards which I am proud to be a part of. Good luck to all this years entrants - as entries have now closed – let the judging, and great stories, begin…!

While standing on the pedestrian island in the middle of Dandenong Road with peak hour traffic zooming past, I stop to consider just how challenging it is to get from home to my workplace. Firstly, with my mother hat securely in place, I walk my son to school, kiss and hug him goodbye, then negotiate my way to the tram stop.

 The entire time, all of my senses are switched to high alert, manoeuvring around a host of obstacles in this unpredictable environment. My ears prick up for the slightest hint of anything different today: workmen, rubbish bins, old mattresses dumped on the footpath.

My mother hat is swiftly replaced with a survival hat to help me cross the six-lane highway with its heavy traffic using my white cane as my trusted guide. I listen intently with complete focus and concentration – not one other thought crosses my mind except “Stay safe”.  Luckily, the audible beeping lights actually work today – well that helps! Cautiously I cross the tram tracks and appear calm as I wait with the other city-bound travellers.

 With my sensitive hat on, my nose twitches at the noxious fumes of trapped pollution. My eyes are stinging and my ears are bombarded with the unpleasant roar of the traffic. At the tram stop, a friendly old gentleman starts chatting with me, attracted by the white cane.  He helps to identify the right tram, which is a relief. Our chat continues until my stop.  The brief interaction with a kind stranger gives me a sense of connectedness to others.  I step off the tram clinging to two hats, my well worn survival hat plus my “Don’t panic” hat.

I am delicately poised on a metre of uneven ground, between a tram line and a wide highway, ready to lunge forward at the next break in traffic. My body is tense, my hand and feet rigid, my thoughts and hearing focused. It is an unnerving place to be, heavy metal roaring past, with trams thundering by only inches from my heels. The deep vibrations on the metal tracks linger well after the tram has moved on.  I hear people darting across the road and I dare not run this gauntlet as I have no idea if they are jumping the traffic lights since the warning beeps are not working on this crossing. An observant young woman comes to my rescue and gently guides me over to the safety of the pavement. My cane always alerts others to my impairment and often brings much appreciated help which has sometimes lead to lasting friendships.

I count the ten large concrete steps to the front foyer of my work place with a sense of relief and achievement. Not only have I located the right building in these busy city streets, I  have arrived safely and its time to don my work hat, but I am not at my desk yet. There is still the tiny lift to locate. I squeeze into it and listen to the robotic voice announcing the floors.  At the right moment I dash out, careful not to get my cane caught in the uncompromising doors. I confidently make the final short trek to my desk on the ninth floor and slump into my chair. Even though the trip has taken under an hour, so many hats have been necessary: mother hat, survival hat, don’t panic hat, focus hat, stay calm hat, courageous hat, alert hat …

It has taken a lot of mental energy and emotional courage just to get this far but although the journey into the city may have ended, new challenges are about to present themselves. A new unpredictable environment awaits me – they may not be life-threatening but it can bruise my ego if I stumble over unexpected objects amid the clutter of desks, filing cabinets and even loose items on the floor.

My work day passes quickly and before I know it, it is time to set off again for home, in reverse order – the lift, the steps, the roads, the traffic, the tram stop, school, home.  I climb aboard the number 5 tram, relieved to have a few minutes to rest my eyes. Check list: work hat off, multi-tasking mother’s hat on? Yes! I arrive home safely with my son, my brain thumping and eyes stinging. My tense body lets go of rigid muscles in the comfort of our home, where most things are predictable.

Each time I step out of the house, a whole new adventure begins, presenting a new set of unpredictable challenges as well as hazards of all descriptions:  people, poles, rubbish bins, post-boxes, shop signs, outdoor chairs, benches, tables, steps, uneven sections of pavement, parked motorbikes, bicycles, dogs on long leashes, small children on small bikes, waiters dashing out from café entrances – not to mention tram tracks, glass bus stops, overhanging branches (particularly not appreciated in the rain), puddles, unaligned kerbs … The list is endless.

As a vision-impaired person, to cope with my limitations and to successfully function in a sighted world, I have learned to refine certain qualities along the way, like razor-sharp wits, well-honed orientation skills, courage, trust, good humour – and, of course – a fetish for many different hats!

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