Are you blind, people? You’re caning me!
Andrew Devenish-Meares, who has written this week’s Angry Cripple guest column, has been slowly losing his sight for the past 14 years, and has been described as “pretty bloody blind”. He works as IT Coordinator for a peak not-for-profit body.
Last week my morning train pulled into Redfern station as normal. There was the usual struggle to get off the train, dodging and weaving around the people who just stand there and won’t move. I got out and followed the noise to somewhere near the bottom of the stairs, which I managed to miss. When my cane hit the side of the lower stairs, I realised my mistake and doubled back.
I trudge up the stairs with the throngs and enter the concourse. I reach the stairs to platforms four and five, which are set back. While listening for people coming up the stairs, the background noise makes it impossible to work out if the path is clear, if people are standing in the way, or if there’s actually traffic there. Slowing down, I pass the entrance to the platform as the cane finds only empty space. I take two steps forward before I’m hit first on my left side and, as I bounce off him, spin slightly and try to move forward, I’m hit from the right. Double whammy.
People just keep walking, and I try to get out of the way. I’ve lost contact with the side of the concourse. Someone kicks the tip of the cane, making it bounce off the ground. I can’t see anything beyond a lot of movement in the dark. I swerve right and the cane touches the ground and the barrier as I crash into yet another body.
At this point, it’s become one of those “get the $%^& out of there” moments, so I push forward, and follow the turn in the concourse.
I’ve only taken three full steps across the next landing entrance before not one, not two, but a bunch of people hit me from the right (how many people is that now?). Stumbling and half tripping while the people move around and keep going, I take another step and something feels wrong.
The cane isn’t running over the ground properly. The now useless thing is in two pieces held together by the elastic inside. I throw the rubbish on the ground and shout. I don’t remember exactly what I shouted. At this point I’m totally stuck, I can’t see anything meaningful, I have nothing to track the ground with. I am close to tears and in shock. I’ve lost my independence and my mobility. Completely.
I’m one of 300,000 people in Australia who are blind or have low vision. I can see something, but I’m blind. This causes some people confusion, thinking that blind refers only to people who can’t see anything. The World Health Organisation defines low vision as corrected visual acuity less than 6/18 (some people like to say less than 30 per cent) and greater than 6/60, and blind as visual acuity less than 6/60 (or less than 10 per cent).
Of all the people who are blind, only about 10 per cent have no light perception at all.
Vision is the shortcut around almost every single thing we do, and sighted people, of course, take it for granted. Say you’ve misplaced your keys, you look up, turn your head around and spot them on the table on the opposite side of the room. If you can’t see, you need to get up, walk across the room, run your hand over the table and locate your keys, hoping the kids haven’t moved them.
Blindness doesn’t stop you from finding your keys, but it makes it a more complicated exercise.
Personally, I’m a dedicated white cane user. I’ve never had a guide dog, and I’m not planning on getting one in the future. Contrary to the ideas of some, this is not a disadvantage for me.
A guide dog, like a cane, is a tool for orientation and mobility, while they’re trained to do some fairly special things, they are just dogs and they certainly can’t press lift buttons.
Standing at a traffic light one day, a child asked “How does that stick make you see?”. I replied “It doesn’t. It just means I can feel the ground without needing to crawl”. Which is true; the cane lets me use my sense of touch to find obstacles and move around them, totally magic free.
Equally it lets me walk in a straight line, which no one can do without sight , by ‘shorelining’. Shorelining is using the cane to tap along a wall, or the edge of a footpath and know I’m not wandering all over the place.
This is one of the reasons many councils require the two metres adjacent to buildings to be kept clear, though often this isn’t well enforced. Overhanging branches can also be a big problem too .
Redfern station is part of my daily commute. The 100m of that station that I walk through everyday is a minefield of humanity (a term I use loosely) with careless people destroying many white canes. In this one location I’ve had more canes broken than any other.
In fact every cane bar one in the past 18 months has been broken here. Why? Because people don’t pay attention. You walk around with earphones blaring, or Facebooking on your mobile, or talking on the phone or just off in your own lala world.
If you’re in a crowded space, can you please just pay some attention? Take the earphones out, the text can wait or step out of the way if you’re on the phone. And to those who wander in dreamland: wake up! You might just avoid stranding me.
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