The Touch of Reality

Once again, my mother, father, and I waited in the living room for another stranger to ring the bell.

“Hello, I’m Jeff Elliott”

“Nice to meet you Jeff,” said my father. “We really appreciate you coming to meet with us. Here, Sue and Frances are in the living room. Come on in.”

“Thank you for coming,” began my mother. “I understand that you’ve just started a new job. Please, sit down and relax. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Yes, that would be great,” Jeff replied. With coke in hand Jeff began to describe what he could teach me.

“Stated simply, orientation and mobility is a discipline which will allow you, as a blind person, to use cues from your environment to know where you are and how to get to where you want to be.”

I felt that Jeff was not simply looking at me but looking into me somehow. His earnestness and belief in what he said was quite powerful.

Continuing, he said, “Then I can teach you a set of skills with a long cane which will enable you to move safely and independently through the world. You will learn to think very systematically. You’ll find that this systematic way of thinking will serve you well in more areas than just traveling with your cane. In truth, you don’t have the luxury of being anything other than systematic now that you are blind.”

“What do you mean,” I asked. Then, thinking I might have sounded rude, I added, “I mean, can you explain that a little more?”

“Of course.” I heard a smile in Jeff’s voice when he said this. “You’ve probably already discovered that you can’t just leave things lying around like you used to.”

“That’s the truth,” I almost groaned.

“You’re probably finding that you need to have a place for everything and be very systematic about putting things in their place rather than just putting them down wherever. The same habits will serve you well when you travel with a cane. For example, when you come to an intersection you need to run through a kind of checklist. Is your alignment correct? What is the traffic pattern? At which moment is it ideal to begin your street crossing?”

I suppose Jeff saw my “deer in the headlights” look because he continued quickly, “All of that will become second nature to you after a while. What’s more, those skills are down the road a piece. There are many skills you’ll need to learn before we start crossing streets.”

“Could you explain that a little further,” said my father.

“Sure,” said Jeff. “The first set of skills, and probably the most immediately practical, are those involved in walking with a sighted guide.”

“Yes,” my father agreed, “We’ve kind of been making it up as we go. Sue has had a number of medical appointments and, while we always manage to get there I’d be quite interested in discovering a way to do it more effectively and gracefully.”

“We can do a little bit right now if you like,” replied Jeff. In the silence that followed I felt quite sure that all eyes were upon me.

“Okay,” I said a bit hesitantly, “Let’s give it a try.”

Jeff stood and moved into the center of the living room. “Okay, Sue, stand up.” I stood and took a step towards Jeff.

“The first thing you need to learn is how to make contact,” he said. “As your sighted guide it is my responsibility to make contact with you. This prevents you from groping around in space trying to locate me.”

He stepped toward me and turned so that we were facing in the same direction.

“Now, I’ll touch the back of your hand with the back of my hand,” he continued. “I’m not going to grab your hand or anything, just make a light contact. That’s your clue to knowing where I am and knowing that I’m offering to let you take my arm. When I touch your hand you run your hand up my arm and then grip just above the elbow. Let’s try it.” I felt Jeff brush the back of my hand with his and I ran my hand up to just above his elbow. I gripped the inside of his arm.

“That’s it,” said Jeff. “Just one little correction. Hold my arm as though you are gripping a glass of water. Your thumb should be on the outside and your fingers on the inside.

Adjusting my grip I said, “Like this.”

“Exactly. Now when I move forward let me get about a half step in front of you before you begin to move.” He stepped forward and, after a second, I moved along with him.

“That’s it,” he said. “Now let’s do a little walking together.” We moved across the living room, into the dining room, out onto the porch, and then back into the living room.

“Okay, that’s great,” said Jeff. “How did that feel to you?”

“It feels fine,” I said.

Addressing my mother and father he said, “This way you are just a little ahead of Sue and she knows that her path is clear as long as you are moving steadily forward. Want to give it a try?”

“Sure,” said my father. He rose and we went through the same procedure. Then my mother gave it a whirl. When she made contact with the back of my hand she turned hers so that she kind of grabbed my hand.

“Hang on,” said Jeff. “That’s the most common mistake I see. Just touch the back of Sue’s hand with yours. Think of it as a kind of request. You’re letting Sue know that you’re there and offering to let her take your arm.”

“Oh, sorry about that.” I heard the smile in my mother’s voice. Then she tried again.

“That’s it,” said Jeff. After we had all retraced the route that Jeff had taken with me earlier Jeff said, “Okay, that was great. Now we’ll address passing through narrow places.”

Jeff and I went through the routine of making contact again and then he led me out of the living room in the opposite direction to that we had taken earlier. “Now we’re approaching this narrower passage in the entrance hall,” he said. “I’m going to tuck my arm behind my back. That’s your clue that we’re entering a narrow passage. When you feel that you should straighten your arm and step directly behind me. Straightening your arm should place you far enough behind me so that you don’t step on my heels.”

We tried it. Then I tried it with both of my parents.

“Okay, that’s great,” said Jeff. “Now we’ll take a look at passing through doorways together. Sue, when you pass through a doorway there are two things you need to know. First, is the door opening towards you or away from you. Then you need to know which side it’s on.”

With me holding Jeff’s arm again, we approached the door into the kitchen. “This door opens away from you on the right,” said Jeff. Your sighted guide should give you this information as you approach each doorway. What I want you to do as we walk through the door is take a little bit of control yourself. You’re holding my right arm with your left. That leaves your right hand free to take control of the door as you approach it.” We moved forward and, reaching out with my right hand I found the door and held it as we passed through.

“In a situation like this it’s not that big of a deal, but you’ll find this really helps a lot with doors that close automatically behind you.”

Remembering more than one door that had hit my heels as I walked through it I said, “Oh, I get it. This will be much better.”

After Jeff showed us how to handle doorways, we all put on sweaters and went outside where he demonstrated negotiating stairs.

Addressing my parents Jeff said, “A slight pause will allow Sue to know that you’re at the top or bottom of a flight of stairs. You might want to let her know whether the stairs are going up or down. Another slight pause when you’ve reached the end of the flight of stairs might be good at first but, Sue, eventually you’ll be able to tell that you’ve reached the level ground again by the angle of your guide’s elbow.

“Well, I think that’s a good place to stop,” said Jeff. I’ve already been here for two hours and it’s getting late.”

Two hours? I couldn’t believe it.

Over a light dinner we discussed the evening activities.

“He seems very knowledgeable,” began my father.

“Yeah,” I replied. “And I can’t believe how much easier it is to walk with you using the things he showed us.”

Later, alone with my thoughts, I looked forward. I looked forward to trying out the new sighted guide techniques. I looked forward to having a cane in my hand. The ability to simply look forward, let alone the act itself, had been a pretty scarce commodity recently. It felt good.