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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Such Small Changes

People who are sighted go about each day, never noticing the
little things around them. The crack in a sidewalk.. the dirt
patch by the corner... the bulletin board on the wall... or the
location of the heater in a building. They don't notice these
things because they don't need to.

For people who are blind, however, such small things are vital
for independent travel. They serve as landmarks that tell us
where we are. They give us important feedback about our
location within a building or outside.

Many people who are blind have excellent mobility skills. You
only know they are blind because they use a white cane or a
guide dog. They zoom around as if they own the world. It's

I wish I could be like that. I'm not just blind. I'm deaf-blind
and physically impaired. I have some pretty serious balance and
motor problems. That makes mobility even harder.

I can't walk in open space. I am what they call a "wall hugger."
I need to follow some kind of spatial line that I can feel with
either my hands or my cane. A wall, furniture, the edge of a
sidewalk or the line of a rug... it doesn't matter what it is. I
just need something to follow.

I can't walk in a straight line to save my life. I always drift
when I hit open space. Then I lose track of my location. That
can be dangerous.

This is my third semester traveling to the Languages building on
my own for class. I always enter and leave through the same
doorway. I imagine I've been through that entrance 100 times.
It's an area I know as well as my own home... until now.

At first, I was absolutely baffled by my sudden trouble. The
bus driver would escort me to the door as usual. But I would be
unable to find my way to the wall that leads down the hallway.
Usually I'd end up on the left side somehow. Yesterday I got so
mixed up that the driver had to come into the building and help
me again.

Leaving after class has also been rough. I usually walk down
the hall until I hit the rubber mat. Then I follow the mat
across the hall until I find the other wall. Reversing
direction away from the door, I'll take a few steps until I find
the bench, where I sit and wait for the bus.
Lately, though, I hit the mat and then lose sense of my
location. I wander around until I find the door or one of the
walls. Last night I got stuck in a corner near a heater. I
didn't even know there was a heater in that area. What is going
on here?

I was back on campus today to work with an ASL tutor. I knew
something had changed. There's no other explanation for the
trouble I've been having. I was ready this time and did some
exploration. Presto! With only a little fuss and fumbling, I
discovered the source of the problem.

They changed the mat! I don't know if it's a new mat or if they
just turned it so it's wider instead of long. But they
definitely did something to change the area.

That mat created a line from the wall to the door. I could feel
the edge of the mat with my cane. It was a perfect landmark.

Now the mat fills the entire entrance way from wall to wall. The
line is gone. I am hitting empty space and floating away like a
float petal on the wind.

I need to work on a new plan. I made it in today by moving
from the door to the left wall. After walking down the hall just
a little, I crossed over to the right side before continuing on
my journey. It's not perfect but it should work.

Coming back was harder. My plan was to walk until I reached the
mat, then turn around and go back to the bench on that side of
the hall. Just switching the side where I sit to wait for my
bus. I found the mat but when I stopped to turn around, someone
barreled right into me. Then I moved down the hall only to
discover there is no bench on that side. Oh well.

I started to walk across the hall to where I usually wait.
Before I could take more than one step, someone stopped me. It
was my ASL teacher. We leaned against the wall to talk for a
few minutes.

Then I made my way across the hall and found myself in the middle
of a mob. There were students everywhere. They sat on the
bench and leaned against the wall. I stumbled and tripped around
them, trying to find a clear spot. I ended up standing near the
heater in the entrance way that I was trying to get away from.

After waiting a short while, I noticed that it was quiet. I
slowly inched my way back down the hall until I reached the
bench. There I sat, trying to catch my breath while waiting for
the bus to come.

It's just a mat... a very simple, little thing. Most students
probably haven't even noticed the change. It's not something a
person pays any attention to.

But when you are deaf-blind, the slightest change can have
major impact. It's the difference between success and
failure... of being lost and finding your way. Such small
changes... they really do matter.

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