Since going blind, one of my predominant goals has been to not act blind. I want to act as much like a sighted person as possible, despite the fact that I am no longer one of the sighted. I’m not sure if this was the best possible way to approach my blindness. On the one hand, it meant that I was ready to come at everything fighting, from dealing with the people who wanted to discourage me to the fact that most parts of my new life were harder than they used to be. On the other hand, it meant that I focused on behaving in a way that didn’t take reality into account. Sometimes I was so focused on acting like I wasn’t blind, that I missed some of what I could have gained from acknowledging that I was blind.
As a sighted person, I approached the world at a fast speed, assessed the big picture from a distance, and made quick judgments. I’ve done my best to do that as a blind person as well, but I’m not sure how well it is working. Vision gives you the ability to look at a scene, learn a bunch of facts and draw conclusions about those facts, all without having to interact with or consciously name any of it. I wish I had that ability back, and I wanted at least a portion of that from the Brainport. But I think disability with blindness comes from trying to behave in a way that I don’t really have the capacity to do well, while ignoring what I can do well. A blind person can build a picture, an understanding of a location and everything in that location, but it’s different from how a sighted person would do it.
In a previous post, I mentioned curiosity about the elementary school right behind where I live. I’ve cut straight through there, walking with a dog, many times, but there was a lot about it that I couldn’t tell you. I want to move quickly through the world, but I also want to know what’s there. I can’t do both. So, I ventured forth, overly equipped with Albert on my left side, my new cane in my right hand, and the Brainport on my head to explore Bear Creek Elementary School.
My first stop was the swings. Because of all the times I’ve walked through the grounds, I had a general idea of where the gravel and playground equipment was. When I got to the spot where I thought I’d start looking, I stopped, glanced around… and there they were. I’m not sure how to convey my surprise at how easy it was. I looked up, not sure I’d be able to ever detect anything, and I saw this long, horizontal line slanting down and to the right. At first I thought it might be the top of a chain-link fence, so I kept looking for more. I saw a vertical line, so still could be either fence or swing set, but as I angled my head this way and that, there was no way for me to get the vertical line to go straight up and down, so it made me think it might be more likely one of the angled posts at the end of a swing set than the single post in a fence. After standing there for about 4 minutes, I told myself to move it and figure it out. I got the vertical post centered in my tongue, started walking towards it, and within just a few steps, I was touching a support post on a swing set. I laughed, shrugged, and turned to my right to see if there were any chance that I could find a swing. There were some disruptions in the texture that the gravel created and as I followed them up and down and across, I became pretty certain it was a swing. I took a couple steps, and I was there. It was ridiculously easy, not at all what I expected. I sat on the swing for a while, trying to observe what I could with the Brainport, but also paying attention to what other people who were out there were doing, to give me ideas about where else to explore in the future. When something is that easy, I sort of want to kick myself for not trying it sooner.
The next time I went out there, I checked out the jungle gym equipment. Once again, I was surprised with what I could feel traced out on my tongue. There was the horizontal slide, the twisting slide, and this climbing apparatus that makes me think of a caterpillar. When I “see” these pieces, it is not immediately clear what lines actually are something or what they are. More than once, I ran into something I was staring directly at and could feel on my tongue, and with other things, I had to move the stimulation up and down my tongue until I understood what it was. I’ve often wondered what it’s like to be a blind child at recess. Kids move in so many directions, like a school of fish in one direction together at one moment and then like the balls in a pinball machine, bouncing off one another and the rest of the world, the next. They quickly communicate through words and visual cues what is expected, or they fail to communicate, and they crash and get hurt. I worry about everything a blind kid would struggle with in that sort of environment. I know people often want me to stay safe, out of the fray, even though I’m theoretically more able to make that sort of decision for myself as an adult, and I often comply because I don’t want to fight it and then look stupid when I do crash. But I don’t want those blind kids to sit on the sidelines during recess, I want them to be out there, figuring out how to bounce around with the other kids. After my exploration of the jungle gym, I have no doubts about their ability to do that.
One other thing I’d say the Brainport has done to help me explore the playground is that it gives me clues about significant changes that I otherwise might have walked past without noticing. On my first day, as I continued across the grounds, I noticed how the line between the asphalt and the plants on the left opened up. I thought I’d poke around, because I knew the school building was right there and the parking lot was ahead. I found the stairs into the main doors. On the third day, this time starting out my focus on the left side of the sidewalk, I saw a spot where there seemed to be a change in the texture that I knew otherwise was plants and bushes. I actually thought I must be imagining something or not seeing it right, but I found a staircase that led up to a whole different level of the playground. I had no idea this existed, even though I knew there were basketball hoops over that direction somewhere. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to find the steps without the Brainport, because there were some weeds in front of them, and I think with my cane, I would have just assumed that was part of the same scenery as before. I went up the stairs, and started exploring this whole new area, somewhat at random to start. I found a pole for a basketball hoop, although I didn’t really find the lines on the courts. I found where it backs up to the school building and I found the bike racks.
I then found a different way out of that section, and this is where I’m back to a place where the Brainport can’t really help me. You know those pictures that are an extreme close-up of a common object and you are supposed to figure out what it is? I was suddenly walking along a sidewalk beside a street, and I was in that sort of situation, but this time trying to figure out where I was. Normally, a person would look up, glance around, and find some clue to tell them exactly where they are. I can’t do that with the Brainport. If you were dropped down into a location you are familiar with, but you could only see the sidewalk directly beneath your feet, think of the clues that would tell you where you are, the traffic patterns you can hear, moving water, places where people hang out, smells from stores, cracks in the sidewalk. I walked around, searching for one of these, trying on different potential locations and rejecting them when they didn’t match what was around me.
I wound up walking around for 20 or 30 minutes until I found a landmark, around which everything else fell into place and I knew exactly where I was. In this case, it was the smell of a trash can used mostly for dog poop. Once I smelled that, everything else made sense. And now we are back to the start. I wish I could quickly glance around and know what is going on, but I can’t, not even with the Brainport. Instead, I’m bouncing and scratching around slowly, learning that way. I feel like the PC message would be that there are new and different values to how I do it, it’s just as good, just in its own way. I’m not sure if that’s true; I’m not saying it’s not, just that I don’t know. However, if you consider that it’s the only option I have, it makes the question of which is better a moot point; then maybe it’s a more relevant conversation.