Culture

‘That boy can see!’ How I found my way after losing my sight.

Then a neighbor told me that a public library in Washington, D.C., was offering a tuition-free course on how to use a computer with screen-reading software designed for blind and visually impaired people. This was an important opportunity for me, as I was not eligible for any government assistance with my rehabilitation. Here was my chance to kill two birds with one stone: I needed the training badly, and it would require me to commute to and from the library on my own. I could practice my getting-about skills on my way to learning critical adaptive technology. My aunt and uncle reluctantly consented.

But how would I chart my course? I knew that the American singer Ray Charles, who was also blind, got around on his own without a cane. If he could do it without a cane, I reasoned, surely I could do it with one. Ray’s secret was to count steps. But I couldn’t seem to do that the way he had. Instead I developed the power of my imagination, capturing the layout of places I visited and taking note of landmarks in my mind. 

At first, I would consciously pause to impress the layout of a new space on my mind. The next time I visited that place, I’d conjure the mental map I’d drawn and use that in order to navigate. Today, I do this automatically, creating and memorizing my mental map as I encounter a new landscape. I do it without thinking. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t lose my way many times in the process of acquiring this skill. I’d have to ask a kind stranger to help me reorient myself. I’d have to swallow my pride to ask for help, and reaffirm that it does not matter what others think or say about me.

Still, whenever I lost my way and had to ask for help, it would wear on my pride, my self-esteem. I’d be tempted to entertain doubts. Could I truly succeed in getting around on my own? 

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Sometimes I’d be so discouraged that I’d contemplate giving up. Perhaps my uncle was right, I’d think. Maybe I should stay home and wait until someone could help me. On those days when I lost my way, I’d go to bed feeling down. And because I didn’t want my uncle to worry about me, I kept that to myself – including the time I had to walk home on my own late at night because the buses had stopped running. But my disdain for staying put and spinning my wheels, and even more so my desire to beat blindness and bounce back, were overriding motivations. That determination was usually enough to get me out of bed the next day and try again. Along the way I learned to be patient with myself and to recognize that asking for help does not diminish me in any way.

Since that time, I’ve pursued my education. I’ve earned three academic degrees, including a master’s, in face-to-face classrooms. That meant catching buses and trains to and from my home or dormitory. I defied all the dire prognostications about my safety and well-being. Today, I’m a published journalist and audio producer.

Yes, I’ve lost my way at times – and found it again. Yes, I have come close to being hit by a car more times than I’m eager to say – and never been hit by one. And when people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid to be out on your own?” the answer to me is clear: I’d rather flirt with danger and find happiness than cling to safety and be miserable. 

Now, marveling at my progress, my uncle exclaims to my aunt, “That boy can see!”

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Mark Sappenfield Editor

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