Monday, 30 June 2014

Blindfolded walk - Stephen

Stephen with his guide
Stephen is not visually impaired, but we thought that this story was appropriate to share on the Blindlife Blog because he discusses in a very articulate way the challenges that he experienced whilst taking part in a blindfolded walk.

I spent six weeks as part of my medical course at an eye hospital, the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology (TIO) in Kathmandu, Nepal. After having an unforgettable experience, I was inspired to raise money for one of TIO's partner organisations, The Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP), to give something back.

So I did an eight hour blindfolded walk for over 10km in May 2014 through the Peak District (walking from Totley to Grindleford and taking the train back to Sheffield).

It went extremely well - better than I could have hoped.

We had a stream of challenges which had me doing things like taking a selfie, salsa dancing, walking with my shoelaces tied together, giving someone a piggy-back, climbing stairs without guides, buying a water bottle etc.

I was personally just imagining a simple trek up Fulwood and then back, but the person who planned the trek route, Sultana, brought me through various types of terrain. It kept things interesting and made it a real challenge as we traversed muddy parts, steep slopes, rocky roads etc.

Although this was definitely challenging and I had to be constantly focused on my every step, the most unsettling part of the walks were always when I was told I was in an enclosed social setting (i.e. cafe and train back to Sheffield). The reason for this was that visual input determined a huge proportion of my communication/social skills, from eye contact to body language. So, it was odd not knowing if I was facing someone when talking to them or not being able to pick up social cues.

Being blindfolded also heightened all my other senses. When you don’t have any concrete visual input, a lot of your interpretation of reality is up to your imagination. I exaggerated the sound of a small waterfall into the massive ones I encountered during my time in Nepal. I was able to identify my guides by the shape of their shoulders/arms and I became hyper-aware of the nuances of touch, like when someone was showing worry, care, humour and etc.

When we stopped to eat, I wasn't sure what I was eating beforehand and I distinctly remember being incredibly satisfied by a croissant filled with egg salad, as the texture/tastes were a wonderful surprise.

From the guide's point of view, it was clear that leading someone who is blind/visually impaired is difficult. I needed them to speak to me constantly about my surroundings and the instructions had to be clear and concise. I can imagine that guiding can be exhausting, especially in the uneven terrain we walked through when every little change in the ground is of concern.

All in all though, it was a fun day and a great learning experience for everyone. The weather co-operated, my friends/guides were extremely supportive/trustworthy and we all had a good laugh.

I'd like to thank my donors, blindfolded talent video submitters, challenge proposers, the Sheffield Royal Society for the Blind for their handcrafted blindfold, the Himalayan Cataract Project for their support/encouragement and my supportive friends/guides (Sultana, Mohammed, Pei Jean and Karen).

Friday, 16 May 2014

My first six months using a guide cane - Graham

Graham
Having nearly done myself a mischief a few times stepping off buses and trains in the last year or two, it became apparent to me that the time had come. I realised that I might be ready and possibly overdue applying for a guide cane from the Sensory Impairment Team at Howden House.

I had already tried using a symbol cane, a flimsy white wand, the purpose of which is just to let others know you have a sight issue, but it never really cut the mustard and I felt a bit self-conscious just carrying it limply in front of me.

A guide cane however, is a different kettle of fish. bigger and more solid. It's not quite as business like as a long cane with a ball on the end, but I didn't need this level of help. I still have some sight and don't really need to sweep as I walk about, but for steps, kerbs and difficult lighting conditions, the guide cane seemed to be the right 'weapon of choice' for me.

Following a short bit of training, I was away.

Using the cane seemed very natural and easy for me to use and I don't go anywhere without it now. As well as solving my 'getting off trains and buses' problems, because of the size, it is a much more effective symbol cane and for the first time I am aware that people are giving me space on pavements and I get served in pubs much more quickly. I was surprised however, to find that I still get 'chugged' outside the bus station and on Fargate, just as often as before and beggars also seem to find the cane invisible. I don't get asked to do market research any more though. It seems that blind/sight impaired people's opinions are not relevant to big companies? I think it is more likely that the researchers just don't know what to do when confronted with someone who seems sight impaired?

On the downside, using a guide cane does mess about with your self-image and self-confidence. I am naturally a very confident person, but whilst using a cane, I feel more disabled in a strange kind of way and don't feel as confident as I used to. I feel more disabled than I did before and my partner seems to relate to me whilst using my cane in a different way, as if I am more in need of basic help. I think she is more self-conscious about it than me. I have noticed that she never asks me to put the bins out. She just does it, in spite of me offering and I haven't been asked to wash the car since getting the cane, in spite of still being fit.

I was talking to a fellow sight impaired person a week ago or so and they said they wouldn't use a cane as it is a negative badge that makes others have pre-conceptions about you before they meet you. I can see their point, but the safety benefits and the fact that that I don't have to wash the car any more make it, as badges go, one of the best I have had to wear!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A bit of fun - Betsy

BetsyWhen you are aging and have lost your partner, and you are losing your sight, you have to fight against depression. Bits of fun are like jewels that buck you up and such was the following experience.

I knew what I was doing as I swaggered along the pavement swinging my long white stick from left to right and back again. I knew that ahead of me men were working down holes in preparation for the Supertram although why they needed to dig up both the road and the pavement seemed odd.

However I knew what would happen as I headed straight towards the red and white barrier. Banging my stick loudly soon a head appeared above the rim of the hole and a voice bellowed, "Stop, Miss. We will help you..."  "Well," I thought, "it has been a long time since I have been addressed as Miss. Perhaps he doesn't have his glasses on."

A large figure dressed in yellow climbed out of the far end of the hole and came around the obstruction to me. "Come this way" he said and after extracting my elbow from his grip, I tucked my hand around his arm.

He was deliciously young and strong, towering well over six feet. I asked him where he came from, as I enjoyed the great muscles in his arm. He said he came from Middlesborough while guiding me gingerly around their barriers. I thanked him profusely when I was safely about to proceed on my own and he climbed back into the hole.

In a short time when I figured they were all busily digging again, I whipped up my speed. Get going, old girl, there is at least one more hole along this road!

I checked in my pocket and yes, the clipping was still there. The local newspaper gave a good description of just where Supertram crews would be working this week, meant, no doubt to warn traffic of the congestion, but opening a world of jewels to me.

It is amazing how little experiences can mean so much.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Trauma in the dark - Betsy

BetsyMy normal programme when going to bed is to set myself up with my talking book machine, a glass of brandy, a jar of water and my telephone handset standing in a round wooden container safe from spilled brandy or water.

After cleaning my teeth and washing my face I then do some stretching exercises before climbing into bed, sitting up against a pile of pillows. I am now ready to listen to my talking book and sip my brandy from a juice glass which has a thick bottom and straight sides.

On this evening I got into bed only to realise that I had forgotten the phone, so I clambered out of bed in the dark, groped my way to the hall where I turned the light on and then carefully crossed the living room to pick up the phone from where it rested on my answering machine.

Retreating with great care, I turned off the hall light and confidently made my way in the dark to my bed, placing the phone in its usual container. When I heard the slop of liquid I knew something was wrong and, you guessed it, I had placed the phone in my brandy glass where it fitted perfectly.

The liquid was spilled on the bedside table and on my bed. Quickly picking the phone up I cursed as I estimated how much brandy had been lost, and gathered some tissues to wipe off the liberally dripping phone.

At this point my phone bells began to ring urgently and in panic I started pushing buttons on the phone which did not respond, of course.

Still swearing I took the phone to the kitchen to continue dripping on the sink and started searching for my cheap backup phone in a living room cupboard, now having turned all the lights on. Such a backup instrument had done service before when I had dripped water into my handset when answering the phone while I was in the bath. Sometimes it shut down in protest for a couple of hours.

Removing my spare phone from its box it seemed that all the wires had tied themselves in knots and it took some time to get it connected. My caller had long since given up. Dialling 1471 I recognised the number of my friend in Chesterfield. However I had to re-listen to her number several times to remember it as I was used to merely pushing two buttons on my phone and the number was rung automatically. Finally I could laugh at my mishap with my friend.

But I was not laughing the following day when I discovered that my regular phone had two numbers, 0 and 1, that would not work. Probably my frantic pushing of buttons when the phone began to ring caused it to fail. Have you ever noticed how many phone numbers have a 0 and/or a 1 in them? I now had to consider at each call I made whether I could do it from my original phone or if it was necessary to use the standby phone which kept falling on the floor.

After much consternation I finally opted to buy a new phone and got a sighted person to set it up for me. There are many ultra modern speaking mobile phones for blind people but it is impossible to get an ordinary home phone with an answering machine that will speak the menu so I could set it up myself.

The moral of this story is be careful where you place items in the dark or you too might have a drunken telephone! Safeguarding my brandy is of prime importance to me so I shall be most careful in the future.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Coast to Coast challenge by tandem with a blind 76 year old man! - Eric

The Coast to Coast team
24-27 May 2013

Last year I recruited my son Fraser as a temporary member of the Sheffield Visually Impaired Walking Group (SVIWG), mainly because he owned a people carrier which we needed to ferry part of our team to Ben Nevis for our 2012 Challenge, raising funds for SRSB and SVIWG.

This year Fraser proposed that he and I, plus his pal Steve, do another challenge - Coast to Coast - once again raising funds for SRSB/SVIWG. I immediately agreed! All expenses were to be met by Fraser and myself and SRSB’s fundraising team were to organise a competition to guess the time it would take us.

Friday 24 May

After school Fraser picked up his daughter, Steve and me.

His people carrier had by now been converted into a camper van and would provide our support vehicle and the method for transporting Steve's mountain bike and our tandem.

Fraser's wife Lucy had booked us bed and breakfast at The Old Ginn House Inn at Workington which is only a few miles from Whitehaven, the start of the challenge.

Saturday 25 May

Whitehaven

We were interviewed by BBC Radio Sheffield’s Georgey Spanswick via telephone on the harbour wall. Then a photo session at official starting point, the bottom of the slipway, and the start time was recorded.

About a mile out I noticed that I had forgotten my rucksack so Steve returned to the slipway and retrieved it. He had fallen into the trap - for rest of trip he had the rucksack!

This first day section was delightful, mostly good tracks along disused railway routes, and beautiful scenery described to me.

The weather was perfect - sunny but not too hot and very little wind.

Some later miles of this section became a little hairy i.e. steep hills with tracks constructed of poorly compacted crushed stone. Skidding was experienced which caused me concern and there were steep falls at the edge of this track when emergency braking was required.

When we arrived in Keswick a pint of shandy was appreciated for its calming effect. And while sat outside the pub, a kind Scot holidaymaker gave me a Scottish fiver donation.

Eventually we arrived at our first night camp between Keswick and Penrith - The Mill Inn, situated 10 miles from Keswick, in the foot of Souther Fell, in the Blencathra range in the Mungrisdale Valley. Here we enjoyed a good meal and fine ales.

The 17th century room Steve and I shared was tight to say the least, but had more headroom than some rooms downstairs which had only about 5ft 6 doorways and low beams. Not good for our 6ft and 6ft 2 frames!

Sunday 26 May

With a good hearty breakfast inside us, off we go again.

Easy going through Penrith, then we encountered our first steep road ascent. Fraser, who was taking antibiotics for bronchitis, decided we should dismount from our tandem and push it to the brow, which seemed to get further away every time he declared it was only about 50 metres away. Steve managed to ride all the way but we beat him to the top.

Now we started to make up time with the downhill speeds, the tandem was KING OF DOWNHILL FREE WHEELING, faster than any of the others, reaching unbelievable speeds. Both of us bent over for best streamlining: Fraser showing his racing pedigree; me not too happy.

Then back on tracks we suffered a setback. Our track passed under some overhead National Grid electricity cables and the route was blocked to allow cable replacement to take place. As they hadn't started this work, we argued that we could be through in only 5 minutes and would replace the barriers, but we were not allowed.

This diversion was not clearly signed and took us a long way out of our route. Furthermore this was to be our longest stage with the highest hills to date, a cafe at 1,900ft. Pilot Fraser kept calling "DIG DEEP Pops!"

I kept thinking that it was a good thing that I had done some extensive gym training, building up my stamina and breathing, and must thank all my trainers at Hillsborough.

After this summit it was another scary downhill, breaking through the sound barrier!

Unfortunately no mobile phone signals were available and we lost contact with Lucy, who was now at our next camp - Barrington Bunkhouse at Rookhope - and worried.

Eventually we turned up and by good fortune called into the only pub in this hamlet to enquire where the Bunkhouse was… Everyone knew about us, the bunkhouse was almost next door and Lucy had been showing her alarm.

Fraser went to find his van which was alongside the bunkhouse. Steve and I didn't waste a moment and were pleased with fine ale!

Fraser and his family joined us and explained that our sleeping quarters was a small caravan which had been taken over by chickens. The good news was they had chased the chickens away and found a couple of fresh eggs for our breakfast!
 
We decided to have another couple of drinks.

Whilst we slept reasonably well until about 3am, we were then awakened by the cockerel which started his loud cock-a-doodling almost non-stop forcing us up earlier than intended feeling murderous about cockerels.

Monday 27 May

We breakfasted with Fraser and Lucy at the Camper, then it was wagons roll on our final leg; probably our easiest day.

Interesting off road sections and after reaching the highest road climb in Northern Pennines we descended gradually down a good track across moorland, making good progress towards Newcastle.

We unfortunately became victims of sabotage i.e. someone had tampered with the route signs and we were sent on a wild goose chase. Eventually we rectified this, found Lucy and her camper, and enjoyed the lunch she had prepared.

We made arrangements to meet again at finish of Coast to Coast.

Tynemouth

Our route now took us along the River Derwent, which eventually merges with the Tyne.

Riding alongside the rivers and then crossing over a bridge to North Bank, we also had to cross over a very busy road via a pedestrian ramp with 180 degree turns which Fraser skilfully rode our tandem over.

Then alongside the Tyne into the centre of Newcastle where we became entangled with crowds of young people going to a musical concert called Evolution.

We were advised to take a detour.

Eventually following the coast road we finished up in Tynemouth. Just before reaching the end we were greeted by a group from Norfolk we had met the previous evening who had generously donated £15.

We rode down onto the beach to dip our tyres into the east coast sea.

What a great team - thanks Fraser and Steve!

We joined up with Lucy and girls and after a celebration meal headed south through the Tyne Tunnel. The journey being all motorways was quickly completed but made me think again about the wonderful Northumberland coast for walking!

Total mileage from Whitehaven to Tynemouth - 155 miles (mostly painful)

Total time taken over the three days from starting each day to arriving each night - 21hrs, 1mins 36 seconds 

Any more donations will be gratefully received at SRSB, 5 Mappin St. Sheffield S1 4DT marked Coast to Coast.

To all who supported us, thanks a million, it's for a very worthwhile cause.

Eric Andrews (the blind one)
28 May 2013

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The trouble with comics - James

James
I've got a headache. I feel like I've spent the night in the pub but without having had the luxury of actually going out and having a drink. I feel dizzy. I feel nauseous. Most of all, though, I feel frustrated.

Why? Because I can't read my comic books, that's why. Well, at least not for more than half an hour without getting eye strain and symptoms of travel sickness. It's become harder and harder to read comics over the years as my Retinitis Pigmentosa has slowly deteriorated my eyesight, but that doesn't seem to stop me trying.

I can just about manage with a normal book that has plain text from left to right and top to bottom using my analogue magnifier (on the very rare occasions in which my Kindle isn't to hand and so long as I have the correct lighting and something to prop the book up on) so I've been trying to figure out why comic books have come to elude me over the years… and the answer is right there on the page.

Comic books present the events of a story in a narratively uniform but not always visually uniform way. The panes that the stories are drawn into can be squares, rectangles (both horizontal and vertical) or even take up an entire page just to show one significant moment. It would be nice if this was consistent from comic to comic but often each page is an explosion of fluctuating visual perspectives and colours. They can feature close-ups on characters' faces or pull back to a wide shot of an entire city buzzing with activity that requires patient scrutiny. One thing remains the same though: the writing. And the writing is very small and not always in a straight-laced font. So not only do I have to contend with the shifting shapes and sizes of the action but I also have to zoom in even more on the speech bubbles when it's reading time.

And that's when the headaches start.

I've been experimenting with a range of devices to see what works the best in an attempt to solve the problem. I've tried my analogue magnifier, my electronic handheld magnifier, my CCTV, my mono-mouse and even, out of desperation, my monocular (leaning the comic book up against the back of my sofa and viewing it from the floor). What works the best so far is the simplest: the analogue magnifier; but the constant need to shift focus and proximity to the page still creates eye strain, nausea and sometimes back pain. The CCTV would probably be my next choice as I can move in and out without having to worry about lighting or my seating position – it all happens up there on screen at the touch of a button. The image on the electronic magnifier is a bit too jumpy (a combination of 'natural' digital flickering and the motion of my hand) and too bright and can make me feel travel sick very quickly. The mono-mouse, which has no zoom in/out function, is good for when the panes are small but for the larger images I find I have to use something else.

And the monocular? Well, the less said about that surreal little moment the better.

I'd like to say that I've solved the problem and can confidently announce what the solution is but I can't. I can only assume that in order to get through a whole book I'll have to sit there with my entire arsenal of magnification hardware and a box of anti-nausea tablets. So if a smarter visually impaired comic book geek than me out there has figured out what the solution is then I'd love to hear from them! Until then I'll have to keep on with my tests and get through about one comic book page a day.

Wish me luck!

Friday, 8 February 2013

Blind Sailing Week - Graham

Hi folks
Graham sailing

I have just been asked if I want to go sailing off the south coast again with 'Blind Sailing Week', an annual event which gives sight impaired adults the chance to experience sailing on a large yacht for a full week at the beginning of July each year.

Grant, the organiser will be assuming that I already have it in my diary and the £200 cheque written out and signed in readiness, but this year, I am not going.

I have sailed with them for the last seven years and it has been an experience I would not have missed for the world, but for me, it is time for a change this year. I guess it's like anything nice or enjoyable, "you can have too much of a good thing". 

That said, I cannot do anything but encourage other sight impaired people up for an adventure to have a go. It doesn't matter if you have never sailed before. There is no upper age limit and you do or learn as much or as little as you want.

About 40 sight impaired people and 60 or so able-bodied crew/boat owners take part using about 20 sleek ocean-going boats so it is a big event and is a great way to make new friends, as well as bringing a bit of excitement into your life.

My only reservation is that if you find close proximity to others awkward it may not be for you as you share a boat for a week with four other people. If you get on OK with most folk and have ever shared a caravan, you should be fine.

Crew are trained to help even fully blind people to participate fully in the sailing process so you won't ever feel unsafe or a spare part.

My four key sailing tips (learned from experience) are:
  • Take a wide-rimmed hat that ties under the chin
  • ALWAYS use sunscreen, particularly on the face and lips.
  • Sea sickness tablets are a good idea.
  • Wet wipes are FANTASTIC.
Blind Sailing Week 2013 is hosted by the Royal Southampton Yacht Club and organised through Sporting Activities for the Disabled Charitable Trust. Contact Grant on 01225 336205.