Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Street Smarts

This entry is about one of my most challenging cane training sessions in downtown Erie last July. My objective was to get around town and eat out in a restaurant, blindfolded (wearing 'sleep shades'), to simulate the conditions I find myself in at night when I can't see very well. Note: my mobility instructor is completely blind.
I'll post this story in TWO PARTS.


"Ready for the challenge? You are going to wear your sleep shades from start to finish.”

I tried to ignore the excitement in my trainer’s voice. What had I gotten myself into? I was already disoriented and we hadn’t even arrived at our drop-off point yet.

In ‘Adjustment to Blindness Training,’ obviously the onus falls on the student to meet the challenges of navigating to pre-designated locations in order to become independent and develop the necessary self-confidence to achieve goals in ways others never have to think about. The more ownership a student takes in his or her own progress, the faster these goals are met. Chet, my trainer, is superb. He steps back to allow me to initiate and follow through with my own decisions, yet stays close enough to ensure that I do not put myself in danger. But let me be clear: he does not mollycoddle me. I am forced to meet the challenges of the tasks before me. In addition, I must take on any unexpected developments that may crop up.

At no time was this clearer to me than during my last training session in the heart of downtown Erie. My target objective was to find a specific restaurant.

Before we left my house, Chet had me put on my sleep shades, circle his driver’s vehicle twice with my cane as was his custom at the start of every lesson.

"Okay, you can get in."

I listened, then saluted in the direction of his voice, felt for the door handle and eased myself in.

“I’m gonna give you some time to warm up. I won’t just throw you in the situation,” he explained.

“Huh! Warming up would be letting me see more bef--"

His voice hardened into a no-nonsense tough guy tone he rarely took with me as he interrupted,
"You already know how to see. You’ve been doing that all your life. You are learning how to get around by not seeing. I will not be happy if you lose your vision before you are sufficiently prepared.”

“I know. I know.”
I’m not going blind tomorrow! Well, that’s lucky because when I handed over my Braille for him to check on the ride in to Erie, that was a disaster.

see what you did. You wrote it all backwards.” Chet felt my sheet carefully. He made a valiant effort to decipher it, and then gave up. “Try again next time. Your first attempt was much better.”

“Uh-oh! I hope today’s training goes better than my Braille.”

“Don’t think like that; you’re gonna do great!”

The van came to a halt. I squared my shoulders, “Let’s do it.”

“We are now facing Thirteenth Street. The parallel street is State. We want to go to the Credit Union on the northeast corner of 12th and State. Its address is 1129 State.
What direction do we need to go?”

“North ... uh, toward the lake I guess...” I started out confident but faltered. These directions downtown always confused me.

"Yes, that's correct."

When we got to the Credit Union, my easiest course of action was to stand and wait, but he insisted I find a bench to sit down.

“Errrr,” I growled but found my way to one, after having squeezed through what seemed to be a very narrow opening but was actually a regular-sized doorway. “Bravo! You did great!” came the voice of a young woman seated near me. “Oh!” I moved my foot and explored the area. It hit upon the steel framework of a baby stroller. Well, the stroller must come with a baby and its mama.
Was she a 'plant'? How did she know if I was doing well? Soon I could hear her on what I guessed to be a cell phone. I gave up on my crazy theory that she'd somehow been 'planted' to cheer me on.

Chet found me and we headed out. I made it out of the bank straightaway (Good job, Amy! I congratulated myself). We then headed downtown. At some point, and I don’t remember which order, I crossed both State Street and Twelfth Street.

“You did that well! Just like a pro.”

Yippee! I crossed these major downtown streets on my own! My face turned into one huge grin. I felt like a jack-o-lantern with my heart a bright candle. If only everyone could see what I had accomplished! The adrenalin kept pumping in.

“Okay, now you wanted to try eating in a restaurant. So I am going to tell you the address and you are going to have to locate it. I’m not sure where it’s at myself so this will be a test for both of us.”

You’re gonna make me do the work here, right?

As I made my way on the sidewalk, the space I had to walk seemed to shrink. What were these odd-shaped steel objects I kept hitting? I took Chet's advice and explored them with my cane.

"Chet, they all seem to be different shapes. I can't really identify them."

“Oh, Amy. Erie is having a block party this weekend,” Chet recalled. “There are tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk and lots more people than usual. That's what we're coming across."

“Oh? Oh! A
block party!” I could feel the panic set in. How would I ever make my way down this crowded sidewalk?

“You’re okay. People will move when they see you. If not, you’ll find them with your cane. Just challenge yourself. Keep going.”

“Ohhh!” I boxed myself into a corner and got tangled up in the legs of some chairs.
Where is the way through?! A-my! Focus! People must be staring at you! “Uh..uh..Chet!”

“I’m here. You’re doin’ great.”

We continued on in this way. I gingerly tapped my way through the tables, chairs, electrical cords, frequently stopping to untangle my way amid the strollers, ad-hoc outdoor grills, cafes and chairs. I could smell smoke, some pungent spicy aromas, grilling meat, beer, and strong coffee all around me. "Mmmm," I took it in. It got really congested around Perry Square. Clomp! Ooops! Oh no! "Excuse me. Sorry." Were we actually making any progress? How much further?

The meat sizzled. I heard voices--some who seemed to man the food, others who sounded relaxed and I guess, ate the food. Children squabbled and laughed. I felt a sudden burst of air and a sweaty body bump my arm as wheels whizzed by. What was that? Skateboard?

Of particular interest to me was a female voice,"Stop staring at them. That isn't nice," Someone laughed. Someone else mumbled. Children? Teenagers? I strained to hear better. Did she mean Chet and me? Of course, everyone can see us. Just because we can't see them doesn't mean they can't see us. How quickly I forget that!

Suddenly I passed through an area of African American music. Rap. I could feel the beat pulsating. I imagined teenagers seated on the ground fiddling with the volume of their boom boxes. It distracted me as I continued along the sidewalk.

"We have to cross one more street,” Chet explained.

“Hey, watch it! That’s a six thousand dollar paint job on my motorcycle!” the tough voice of a woman called out very near me. I turned toward the voice . "Yeah, that's right, chick-o, YOU!"

I recoiled immediately. “Oh sorry,” I held my cane still for a moment, terrified to take another step.

“Did I tell you that this is also the weekend for “Roar to the Shore?” Chet asked me dryly. “8,000 motorcyclists are gathered right here in the heart of downtown for the event.”

I felt faint. “Well, I don’t think I befriended
that one.”

“Come on, keep goin’ The restaurant can’t be far.” Chet's jovial voice spurred me on.


Life is full of Motorcycle Mamas along our pathway, isn't it? Guaranteed, we're gonna smash into 'em when we least expect to. I think Chet has learned to sweep away negative criticism as easily as he takes the next sweep of his cane to move forward. I kinda like that approach to life. I'd like to take it up. I wonder how long it takes to learn that technique?!

Tune in tomorrow for the restaurant experience.

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