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Friday, June 17, 2005

A Tale of Perception: Mobility and the Milwalkee Mugger

Mobility and the Milwalkee Mugger

Fall of 1995, I was just coming down off of the high doses of prednisone prescribed to try to halt the growth of a “retinal anomally.” Now for those of you who’ve never had high doses of prednisone (80 mg a day) it sometimes comes with side-effects like extreme paranoia, impulse control problems, insulin / blood sugar spikes and plunges, etc. I happen to be one of those that go temporarily bonkers on the stuff. But since it is the first line of defense for addressing a reactivation of the histoplasmosis which gnaws at my vision, I take the stuff and go nuts for two weeks when mandatory.

In the rest of life, I was in the second year of my Master’s program in English Literature and had had my first paper accepted to a professional conference – not only that, but it was an international conference, not a graduate student conference or a local or regional conference. This was a huge honor, and I desperately wanted to read my paper myself. So I had it ready, printed out in a 36 point bolded font and hoped to be able to control the paranoia long enough to take part in the conference. Just in case I couldn’t handle the stress or if my eyes suddenly got worse during this unstable period, I had a friend along to help me negotiate the conference and to read the paper in my stead if necessary.

Jenn was a great woman. She was the first person to recognize the simplicity and necessity of just asking me what I could and couldn’t do or did or didn’t want to try when it came to taking part in activities like the grad student three-on-three basketball games each week. In the middle of a crowded department event, she’d been trying to get my attention for several minutes through the babble, and final said, “hey, blind girl! I’m trying to get your attention!” which had me cracking up laughing and had her catching hell from the more sensitive types in the department until they realized that between the two of us, it was a sign of comfort and acceptance. I’m short and red-headed, and had been known as “Red” or “the short redhead” throughout my time in community theater while in high school. So for me, the nick-name was a great way to defuse tension. We explained our meeting to someone once. Jenn said “I’ve never met a blind person before, is it okay if I just ask what you need or you are interested in joining us in doing something like basket ball or playing pool?” My response was: “I’ve never been blind before, so asking me is the best shot you have, and I may not know until I try. As long as that’s okay with you, we’ve got a plan.” We kept it that simple. She never assumed, and I never hesitated to let her know if I needed something. I haven’t been that comfortable with new friends since then.

Anyway. The day before I was to give my paper, we were walking back to the hotel in downtown Milwalkee Wisconsin. The conference was held at the Marquette University there, not the one in Michigan. I was walking with my big noir filter glasses – the darkest grey ones that block 98% of the spectrum – and with my handy red-and-white cane. I was carrying a satchel with my Braille ‘N Speak, my magnifiers, my wallet, and other essentials in my left hand.

Now keep in mind, I walk very briskly with the cane – in about half or two-four time for those of you who are into music. I started mobility training within three months of losing my vision, and had used my old Austrailian shepherd to go to the post office in our town of 257 people every other day during those three months. I didn’t learn the caution most people pick up, and my mobility specialist encouraged me to most briskly, with purpose, and to maintain a steady pace at all times. He said not to hesitate, but to keep moving if addressed by strangers or confronted by someone I didn’t feel comfortable with. He bade me remember that I DID have a four and half foot piece of stout, flexible aluminium in hands that could be used at need. He also pointed out that moving in at a steady pace made it much easier for others to determine how to interact with me at intersections or at narrowings in the path. The only time I’ve ever had more trouble than occasionally tripping on cracks or stuttering over uneven shadows was when hiking once. I moved to climb out of a creek-bed up onto the bank, and a tree-branch I hadn’t seen or been aware of poked me dead-center of my left glasses lense. Scared the living hell out of me . I had to sit down on a rock for fully ten minutes to recover my composure. Now when hiking, I walk with a stout staff that is taller than my head so I can sweep it back and forth at face level when necessary and poke it back and forth at my feet to locate the ground and stabilize me as I’m walking from rock to rock in a stream (although I usually just walk in the bed of the stream as it’s more stable and getting my feet wet is part of the fun!).

Back to Milwalkee. I’m moving at my usual pace, and unbeknownst to me, my friends fall behind as they pause to look in a shop window. Part way down the block, an unkempt man in dirty Carhart overalls starts walking backwards in front of me, crouching down and peering into my face as he does so. He starts making odd grimaces and faces. He doesn’t say anything. And for a few moments, neither do I. People can be idiots, and if they make fools of themselves gawking briefly, I don’t consider it worth my while to take notice of them. But this guy persisted for more than half a block. I kept moving at the same pace and swinging my cane, tap-tap-tapping, rap-rap-rapping it on the sidewalk and he had to hustle occasionally to keep from getting hit by it.

Finally my irritation peaked as I realized that this uncivilized baboon was going to walk backwards into the intersection if he didn’t stop annoying me. The prednisone and the aggression that it fosters in response to the paranoia undoubtedly inflenced the way I addressed him. I did not pause. I did not hesitate. If he’d stopped moving at all, he’d have gotten wacked with the cane. I just kept heading straight for him an asked in the most demanding tone I possessed “DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM?” tap tap tap. He gaped. He gasped. He almost fell on his ass in shock. Tap tap tap. Louder and more aggressive: “DO! Rap. YOU! Tap. Have! Rap. A! PROB! LEM!?” Tap. Tap Tap.

He ran like hell.

My friends scurried up just then, asking why I was talking to that strange man. “Did you know he was eying your bag? He might have done something to you!” “It’s okay. I think he’ll pause before jumping out in front of anyone using a blind cane from now on!”

On a less dramatic note, I was able to deliver the paper myself, and it was a hit!

The only thing better than four and half feet of flexible metal would be a dog with good senses and big teeth. But have you ever seen a dog-jam in a hotel lobby? Ah well, that’s another story.

I must admit though, I was surprised when my mobility teacher in Indiana told me that a large percentage of people who loose vision as adults become homebound, at least until the vision loss progresses until they qualify for a dog. I even met a woman who said she refused to use a cane because she didn’t like people staring at her. I can understand that part, but they’re going to stare when you use a dog too.

I think many people without vision problems find the cane an ominous object, something they don’t know how to negotiate socially. They seem more comfortable with dogs since dogs are an icebreaker. I wonder if I put I.D. tags on the cane? maybe a hair bow? if people will feel better walking up and striking up a conversation with me: “oh, how cute. What’s your cane’s name? How old is he? Oh how cute! Can I pet your cane? What lovely markings! Oh your such a smart cane aren’t you? How long have you had him?”

Honestly, I would love the companionship of having a dog as a mobility partner. The isolation gets to me, and I like the idea of having a smart, savvy creature keeping an eye on me. I do remember the first time I spent much time in the company of someone using a dog. Shiela (the black lab) would eye my cane when I popped it out, and then keep an eye on me as well as on my student when we walked around campus, particularly when going up or down stairs. Josh couldn’t figure out why she kept stopping at the bottom of the stairs until I let him know she was keeping an eye on me too when I was with them and waiting for me to catch up!
Well. Gotta get back to work on some research. I’ve got some great news to share about my appointment with my new Rehab Services counselor / regional director I met for the first time yesterday. I’m still caught somewhere between sobs and giggles of relief after this meeting. Life’s going to get much better for me soon. Yipee!

1 comment:

KnitNana said...

Wonderful story, strong lady you are, you are! Can't wait to hear your wonderful news, and so glad things are looking up for you!