Part 5 - The art of being blind
“Kindness is a language which the blind can see and the deaf can hear.”
In this series so far, I have written about the need for order and organisation, perceiving colour, hearing people’s voice signatures and touching everything in order to feel the world around me. I have shared the way my physical senses work overtime allowing me to fit into sighted circles, revealing the little tricks I have crafted along the journey towards blindness.
Among my collection of tools are four qualities that I recommend to any person embarking on the profession of blind artisan. No matter what the obstacle ahead, I can guarantee from personal experience four attributes that will help you meet any challenge – and come out smiling! The next four posts will explore each of these qualities in detail (I am not giving away all my secrets at once).
“I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust.”
TRUST – whenever I have trusted in the kindness of others, even total strangers I meet on the street, something amazing happens. Seeing my white cane (or guide dog), people become extremely helpful. Suddenly, I am not a stranger in the street, a possible threat to their safety, but, rather, a person they feel they can trust. So they reach out with compassion to inquire if they can assist me.
Trust is letting go of control. Young children do this very well – they trust every need will be taken care of, they trust when they launch into thin air that their parents will catch them, or that the sand beneath their feet is soft enough to take their fall.
But letting go is one of the hardest things for sighted adults to do. I have observed this defiant reluctance when presenting talks and getting my students to walk around in pairs with a blindfold. Panic strikes in dubious minds, limbs freeze in fear. The concept of allowing another person to control their mobility, even if for only five minutes, has my entire class walking like zombies.
Being a typical Taurean by nature, my family will tell you how infuriating I can be when my stubbornness to do something for myself makes them feel powerless to help. But there are times when I trust myself to do a task even if it is slower or seems ridiculous, and then there are times when I have to accept my visual limitations and let go of controlling the desired outcome.
Then, the obstacle, whether it be a physical one or a mental one, becomes a challenge we meet together – the letting go enables a sense of achievement for both of us.
So, with the many obstacles I face as a vision-impaired person, to trust another’s judgement on my behalf and trust their capacity to carry out my desire brings a genuine connection to another kind-hearted soul – even if I have never met them before.
I trust I will be handed the correct change when paying for something over the counter. I trust someone will guide me to the front of a queue and hand me a numbered ticket. I trust my young child knows enough about oncoming traffic to tell us when it is safe to cross a road. I trust the taxi driver won’t take me the long way around to my destination in order to boost the fare. I trust the person on the train has told me approaching station's mane correctly: and I trust the kind voice of a stranger offering to guide me to the lift in a dark and secluded building is being true to his word.
When one can’t rely on sight, one learns to rely on trust.
Try Paw-Wheel Driving
If you find trusting another human being for safe mobility difficult, consider the trust required when working with a guide dog. To any onlooker, the interaction of a handler and their well trained dog can appear casual and confident. The reality for me during my first weeks of training with Nev in 2000 was a major lesson in trust and good humour. Praise him and don’t panic was my motto.
So hold on – and come with us as we relive that first public walk: and let Nev take us paw-wheel driving, destination Unknown.
The big day came when we climbed aboard the Guide Dog minibus. Five obedient dogs, five anxious handlers and two confident trainers all set off for a secret destination to carry out our first ‘real’ walk in public. A burst of giggles then silence swept through the bus, our loyal dogs quietly lying by our feet. The engine whirred down a few gears to a complete halt and the trainers briefed us on what was expected next.
I felt like someone waiting in the back of a sky divers’ plane about to jump out into the vast unknown. The sliding door opened and a trainer announced the first ‘victim’.
“Jonathon.” Our trainer spoke confidently. Jonathon would be fine, he was the pro in our group training with his second guide dog.
I sat back into the vinyl seat, my hands straying over Nev’s coat. My canine companion looked up at me as my trembling fingers toyed with his velvety ears like holding onto a comforting teddy bear. A few minutes later, the sliding door opened again.
“Are you ready, Maribel and Nev.”
Nev sprang to his feet, bouncing towards the door as he guided me down the two steps. Once on the footpath, I tried to organise my guide dog to take up position on my left. Nev fidgeted as I untangled the leash from around his front legs, my fingers fumbling with twisted leather, with a hot doggy-tongue licking my flushed ear.
“Ready?” Peter asked. Nev and I continued in a nervous dance on the pavement. “Sometime today would be good,” he added, arms crossed, amused by our comic capers. I took a deep breath and nodded. This was it.
My task was to walk with my guide dog through the local shops of Fairfield to the end of High Street without colliding with any objects along the way. Peter would follow behind at a distance in case we got into any unexpected difficulties.
Moment of truth – trusting my guide dog completely
“Forward, Nev, find the way.”
Nev lunged forward skipping first gear. I felt his body swerve to the left and my feet followed suit. We cruised past curious stares and a hushed silence fell on the street. A rush of heat burned into my palms trying to keep a firm but calm grip on the harness as we stayed in perfect step in the spotlight of our first public performance.
Swerving this way and that, we glided as one past every obstacle on the street.
“Good boy. Find the way.” I encouraged my pilot keeping verbal commands clear. A thin ripple of a smile broke free on my tense face. Everything seemed lighter, easier, as I stayed close on the heels of my guide dog.
An unexpected feeling of playfulness put a lighter spring in my step, Nev and I continued our effortless flight down the street. He really knew what he was doing.
Nev walked a few inches ahead, my shoulders letting go of tension as I adjusted my moves to follow his. He showed such grace and skill! Emotions swelled within me as I could hardly believe we were trotting together in effortless harmony and passing with flying colours!
As Nev pulled up by the end of the kerb, he threw me a glance as if to say, ‘We’re here.’ I bent down on one knee, buried my quivering lips into his soft coat and burst into tears, whispering, “My dear Nev. We did it.”
Peter sprinted to our side. “What happened?”
I stood up slowly, wiping away the moisture from my eyes,
“Why are you crying then?” Peter sounded completely confused.
Overwhelmed, I spluttered, “I can’t believe Nev just did all that for me. I’m so proud of him.”
My trainer’s voice lightened. “Oh, good grief, Maribel, is that all?” He touched my shoulder and laughed, “I told you to trust him. He’s your guide dog, that’s what he’s trained to do.”
“Trust is letting go of needing to know all the details before you open your heart”
Next post: Discover another key and unlock the tool kit of the blind tradie...
© 2013 Maribel Steel