How I see it – Travelling blindfolded is not as easy as it looks

Just before Christmas, I started re-training in orientation and mobility (O&M) to help out a trainee instructor by allowing her to design and teach me a complete program. The programme ensures that my travel skills are up-to-date while helping her become an instructor.

Currently, we are about halfway through our program, with two sessions a week in my work lunch breaks. Before I continue, I would like to shout out to my instructor. She is doing a fantastic job and will be fabulous when she has finished her training. 

This blog post focus on the unexpected things I have learned so far.

When we started, I was doing this to help out my trainee instructor, as I had felt that my skills were good enough for what I needed at the current time. On reflection even though I was confident with these skills I have still learned a great deal and would do this again if offered as I am sure I will continue to learn something new.

This experience has taught me how much I rely on my remaining vision. For example, I usually align with the edge of the footpath using my vision with my cane finding hazards on the opposite side. In other words, I use the best of both worlds, my vision and my cane, to mitigate the missing ±140 degrees of the visual field.

woman blindfolded with the word trust written on the blindfold
Photo by lilartsy on Pexels.com

I opted to do the whole course under blindfold and prepare for the future to challenge myself. My first big lesson was trust, and this was to trust myself, my came, and my instructor.  

At first, walking around an unfamiliar environment blindfolded was slow and quite frightening. It took some time to build trust and confidence in myself and my cane again. Things I take for granted, like walking in a straight line, turning around, opening a door, were surprising complicated.

On reflection, the challenge may be in translation, that is, translating what I feel into what I usually see and then interpreting it. I guess this could be similar to studying in a second language. I initially found that I missed important information or forgot where I was within a space if I got distracted by anything. Chatting with my instructor as I walked would distract me (once to the point where I forgot which direction I needed to step in).

As I only have about 15° of vision in one eye and nothing in the other, I have never really been able to judge distance and I have adapted. With no vision, I was surprised that things seem a lot closer than they are, Which can be pretty disconcerting when trying to position yourself in a space.

I have discovered that I have a habit of opening my eyes when I find something unexpected with my cane, my foot, my head (overhanging trees), and even under blindfold. The interesting part is if I don’t open my eyes, I navigate the hazard better as I am distracted by the fact that my eyes are open. Under blindfold iven if I open my eyes I can not use my vision, so I am working hard to train myself not to open my eyes and rely on other senses as an automatic reaction.

Today’s challenge was to walk around an unfamiliar block using my cane without using the sides of the footpath to stay aligned (more complicated than you would think). Navigate three streets in the block, reverse the course and find the second driveway from where I began with no vision (under blindfold) or help from the instructor.  

Doing this is a little like navigating a maze with a left-hand wall search or right-hand wall search. This technique had served me well for me previously in a quiet and flat environment. However, it wasn’t as easy today, in an unfamiliar environment with distractions like rubbish bins and trucks, soccer fields, tennis courts, lots of children and an uneven footpath with a drop-down to a field on one side.

Achieving this was a great feeling as several weeks ago, I couldn’t even walk in a straight line unassisted under a blindfold.  

The last lesson I want to reflect on this week is how tiring working under a blindfold is. In the past, I have noticed that as my visual field gets smaller, I fatigue more quickly, particularly with detailed tasks like reading, painting and other crafts. This has been a source of frustration as I continually need to ration what I use my vision for, and often this means choosing between using my eyes for my work or hobbies. As a consequence achieving a good work-life balance can be challenging. The reminder I take from this is that I need to pay more attention to fatigue and learn new ways to mitigate this. 

I hope that describing what I have learned offers others some insight into vision loss. Alongside this, it shares ideas and adaptations that may inspire others to live their best lives.

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