One of the things I often get asked is how I navigate my world, not being able to see. How do I stay safe with traffic whizzing down the street, avoid trees in the middle of the sidewalk, or just know where I am and where I need to go? Whether with cane or dog, my answers generally remain the same: walk confidently and, if all else fails, fake it!
Most blind or visually impaired people receive some type of Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training; orientation is knowing where you are, mobility is knowing how to move around. A cane will hit obstacles in the path or indicate changes in elevation (such as curbs), and a dog will guide around them. As for traffic, one needs to listen for cars, the direction they are going, as well as other clues such as pedestrians or audible signals if available. Personally, I have always had decent O&M skills, and really think that more people should make use of O&M training, or at the very least ask questions of others in unfamiliar areas to enable more fluid travel. Perhaps I have nerves of steel, but I find that the more confidently I walk, the more choices I have in who I can ask for assistance should a situation arise in which I WILL need directions or further information, and it does happen.
As a cane user, I found that people seemed to be very quick to come to my rescue, even if it wasn’t required. If I needed assistance, I had a small posse behind me, wanting to be ever so helpful as I would walk down the street or through the mall. But I did run into situations (particularly in winter) in my neighborhood – a veritable labyrinth of intersecting streets, angled roads, and avenues with the same name – where I needed to ask for directions or call my husband to bail me out. I hated it so much, because I felt that meant there was something wrong with me.
Having a guide dog has made getting lost much more of an adventure and much less of a scary process, because I feel like there are two heads to figure out what got us into this mess and how to get us out. There have been times I have let Jenny take some control and she has gotten us super lost, but I gave further directions and we got unlost almost immediately. Other times, Jenny has located places we needed to go on a route we had never traveled previously, or gotten us back to a familiar place after wandering around aimlessly in open spaces for half an hour.
Whether a blind person uses a cane or a dog, we DO get lost, make mistakes, or have to ask directions. There are times that no amount of preparation will prevent this, and other times, as my friend Meagan discovered recently, where a bit more preparation is in order. Either way, getting lost does happen, and we simply need to have the confidence to pick ourselves up and keep on going.
My friend Holly recently wrote a brilliant blog post about getting lost and asking for directions. She has not always been the confident traveler she is today, but simply says that there is nothing wrong with asking for help in a pinch. She also qualifies this by stating that it is essential to maintain the skills of observation and navigation necessary to be independent, and I could not agree more.
Many of my readers are blind or visually impaired, and I am probably preaching to the choir; those who can see, may I offer these words of wisdom? If we do require assistance, it is not a shame; if we don’t, please take our word for it.