Tag: white cane

A Winter Walk to the Y

Living where such things happen, yesterday, we received 10 inches of snow.  Now today, it is sunny with a clear blue sky. 

If you live with low vision as I do, you have a love/hate relationship with bright sunny days.  Maybe you are even more ambivalent if you have to deal with what we up here in Minnesota call, “shovelable” levels of snow.  But that is a rant for another day. 

Anyway, my typical routine is to visit my local YMCA for a Sunday workout.  Usually I travel the approximately 1 mile, winding bike path through the park on the 3-wheeled bike I got several years ago.  While the city does a good job clearing these paths, so soon after the snow stopped falling, I chose to walk this time. 

One reason to walk and not ride is because the wide 3-wheeler would take up much of the cleared path.  If I were to confront a walker, in order for us to pass each other, they would have to step off the path and into deep snow.  Not a Minnesota Nice thing to make someone do.

The city’s cute little snow plow left the trail slightly snow covered but pushed up almost knee-high walls of snow on both sides of the trail.  It was like walking in a shallow ditch. The shadow cast by the snow wall would clearly reveal one side or the other as the trail curved along its route.  In this instance, the sunshine was helpful.

Yet for us with low vision, sunny days and the resulting shadows have a dark side.  Sorry, no pun intended; well maybe just a little intended.  Sunny days, especially when snow abounds, require sun glasses.  The normally sighted just pop them on and think nothing of it.  But those with low vision need sun glasses as well.  For some, a bright sunny day causes eye pain. 

While we should protect our retinas from bright sun, wearing them comes at a price.  We see little to nothing when something is in a shadow.  Adding sun glasses guarantees we won’t see what is in that shadow.  It doesn’t matter what creates that shadow.  Even if it is just a large tree, we still might wonder, is that merely a shadow or a physical obstacle in our path?  That is why using a white cane is so important.

On this walk while my white cane kept track of the “snow bumpers” and by seeing their cast shadow, the walk went fine.  Fine, as long as you ignore that in the open parkland the windblown, sub-freezing air kept me from stopping to admire the scene.  

Arriving at the Y by foot rather than by bike presented the first real challenge.  Normally arriving by bike, I’d curve up the sidewalk ramp at the far end of the building and loop back to lock up close to the entrance.  From there, I knew the short distance to the front doors.  While there are two separate sets of stairs leading up to the front of the building, neither of them leads directly to the front doors.  For some reason, the black door mat wasn’t there.  Oh, did I mention, the sun was on the other side of the building putting the door side in full shade?  

Once I mounted the first set of 13 steps, I was not sure exactly where the door was other than between where I stood and the other set of stairs.  In such situations I have a work around.  I pause while I fuss with something.  In this case, it was to slowly pull off sunglasses and start to loosen my coat.  While doing this, I watch closely for someone to enter or leave.  The family that conveniently exited right on cue, got me smoothly to and past the outer doors.  Darn those metal-finish doors with metal-finished door handles with their lack of contrast. 

The next step was navigating through the inner set of doors.  Again, there is little contrast, often various signs and now, snow shovels and sand buckets sitting in the space.  Again, just as I stood finishing stashing mittens and hat, two laughing guys pushed open the inner doors and I slid on in.

Mark and I exchanged greetings as he logged me in.  From there, I stayed on the black mat, through another door and turned to mount the stairs to the upper floor.  That floor is my next, but less challenging task.  Having traveled this floor for some years, I still pay attention to make the correct set of hall turns at the correct spot to get to the men’s locker room.  And no, I have never messed up and accidently gone into the women’s locker room.  Thank you very much! 

While I am a trusting person, I do put a lock on the locker I use.  I used to use one of those push-button combination locks.  No key and nothing to carry around.  Somehow it disappeared and I now use a lock with a key that I clip to the inside loop of my gym shorts.  Since I wear that shirt and shorts under my outer clothes, they were nice and warm. 

Changing foot gear is a different story.  It involved pulling cold cotton socks and gym shoes from my icy gym bag.  I sit on those socks as I get ready to warm them up before swapping them for my nice warm wool socks.

Once all that is done, I made my way to the rear stairs and down to the floor with the work-out room.  That large space is filled with quite an array of equipment.  At this hour on Sunday, there might be six or fewer present, which I like.  The space is roughly divided into thirds with aerobic machines, Cybex weight machines and a free weight area or what some call as barbells.  I’m a Cybex guy, so that’s where I head.

While I have a good mental map of the machines I use, I make use of another trick to get from the room’s low-contrast entrance to my area.  Over the years, I’ve learned to notice the position of ceiling lights.  Noticing them when entering a room can be useful as a guide.  Fluorescent ceiling fixtures are usually in parallel rows.  By using them and my long white cane, I can move directly to my first machine without incident.  

The machines are painted white and the floor is dark, so that helps.  Being familiar with how to use each of them took several visits, but by now I actually look like I know what I’m doing.  There have even been times when I encountered a less-experienced Cybex user having difficulty with an adjustment whom I was able to help. I’ll bet they will have a story to tell about how this blind guy helped them.

After an hour or so, I’m ready to give the 15 machines I just used a well-earned rest.  Using the ceiling light guides, I head straight to and through the room entrance.  From there it is back up the stairs, down the hall and into the locker room.

Back before the Great Disruption as I now call it, I would shower there.  Now I don’t.  I toss my workout duds into my gym bag, pull on a different t-shirt and all my winter gear.  Then I head out and back home.  By now, random glimpses of the dark pavement below begin peaking out.  They provide additional helpful color contrast for my walk back home.

I know that this is not a particularly exciting story, but during the walk home I thought some might like to hear some of the tips and tricks I use in various situations. Maybe I could have left out the part about warming my socks.

Why I Finally Started Using a Long White Cane

Long before I decided to begin using a long white cane, I recognized that my eyesight was declining and impacting many aspects of my life.

Among other things, my condition, RP, steals the light-gathering cells in your retina.  Meaning, where others could easily see to navigate, either inside or out, I struggled.   As it worsened, I hesitated going out alone at night.  I hesitated going out with people who didn’t know my sight challenges.  Even on a sunny day, if a shadow wasn’t being cast by steps, I could go flying down them.  I really needed to start using a white cane.  But, like so many in that situation, I held off.

The big wake-up call happened at age 45 when I failed the vision test for my driver’s license.  A follow-up visit to my eye doctor sealed the news.  He pronounced that I now met the terms for being legally blind.   As I sat dejected in the exam chair, he recommended I contact service providers who, among other things, could get me the white cane training I’d need.

For months, I vacillated between thinking of following the doctor’s advice and holding off.  I couldn’t verbalize what kept me from taking his sensible advice.  I knew no blind person to whom I could talk about this.

In my case and maybe for others, my reluctance was really based on fear.  No, I wasn’t afraid of the cane itself, it was fear of what people I knew would now think about me when I appeared with a white cane.  Fear that I’d no longer be seen as the competent guy that I knew I was.  Fear that coworkers or supervisors might start treating me differently and maybe start questioning my work.  Fear that friends would feel sorry for me and want to be overly helpful.  Maybe I was just uncomfortable at the thought of beginning to present as a blind person.

Then there is the thing that guys might not talk about.  If you’re at the age when you’re hoping to go out on dates or find a partner for life, a guy is likely to think his chances are slim if he advertises his disability.

On that point, significant vision-loss wasn’t a factor until after I married.  But before we were engaged, I told her of my retina condition.  I explained that already, I was uncomfortable with night-driving and it would probably get worse.  Her response was simply, “Well okay, then let me start doing all the night driving”.  And that was all there was to it.  I’m a lucky guy.

During a period when I was open to the idea of using a cane, I learned there was a local chapter of a national blind organization in my city and they had an upcoming meeting.  Meeting and talking to both vision-impaired and totally blind members over a period of months, gradually got me over the hump.  I obtained my first folding cane and started learning proper travel techniques.

As I practiced with the cane on walking trails, it was obvious how helpful the cane was.  No more tripping on uneven pavement or stepping into water-filled holes.  Those coming towards me assumed I didn’t see them and gave me wide berth.  Past concerns I’d bump into people, happily vanished.

I worked in a large government complex downtown and had a responsible job.  Even as my vision declined, I was able to successfully travel inside and around the buildings.  I never ended up pulling my folding cane out of my shoulder bag at work.  I did use that cane to get to the bus from home, from the bus to the building and then reverse it all at the end of the day.

I did use a cane when I became involved with new volunteer organizations.  I did use it whenever we traveled by plane or train.  Beside the benefits I’ve already mentioned, a bonus was if I stepped into a confusingly designed or poorly lit public restroom, some helpful guy might be in there and offer some useful directions.  If I accidently bumped into someone, my apology and the sight of my cane always prevented any misunderstanding.

This isn’t a blog on where to go to get assistance.  Dear reader, you could be living anywhere.  But, you might reach out to those in your community who work with seniors or contact your local or state library.  If you have access to the internet, search for the word “blind organization” and the name of your state.  If you have such a thing, consult your phone book.

My relationship with my white caned totally changed when we moved to a new city.  I decided I’d use my cane from then on.  Now everyone who knows me here, knows me as a cane user.  Perhaps it is being older, but I now am proud to walk throughout my community showing that blind people can safely travel independently and are otherwise, no different than anyone else.

I admit that I am not the person who can preach to anyone about boldly stepping forward to start being a cane user as soon as it would help.  I can only say that once I got and learned how to use my white cane, many things I feared did not happen.  And at the same time, challenges I previously faced greatly diminished or ended.

If low vision is making you uncomfortable going around independently, I’d urge you to reach out to any of the many organizations that exist and are anxious to help you.

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