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Travelers in the Dark

The following podcast was recorded for use by customers of Minnesota’s State Services for the Blind. You can get more information about State Services for the Blind and the services it offers by going to www (dot) mnssb (dot) org. I’m Stuart Holland.

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Travelers in the Dark This is written by Eleanor Lew and appeared in the New York Times January 25, 2016.

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At 5, whenever my mother turned off the bedside lamp, an inexplicable terror catapulted me out of bed. Crawling on the floor, I checked to see that everything still existed.

Now it is like that again. Walking into a dimly lit restaurant, I panic when daylight switches instantly to pitch black. Descending a staircase, I fall when the handrail stops short of the last two steps. Emerging into bright sunlight, or confronting a computer screen’s glare, causes me to shield my eyes like a vampire.

I was told I had hereditary degenerative myopia at age 8, and now in middle age, I also have macular degeneration in one eye and fast-growing cataracts in both. My ophthalmologist worries about my visual acuity. But because I don’t yet qualify as legally blind, he doesn’t give me a referral for any kind of vision rehabilitation.

“But doctor,” I protest, “I’m blind in the dark and bright light, and have lost depth perception.”

A year ago I heard about a llow-vision program offered by the LightHouse for the Blind. I was reluctant to go at first because, being partially sighted, I could not identify with the word “blind.” A year of tripping and falling has convinced me otherwise.

The training camp sits on 311 acres of rolling hills and steep trails about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Eleven blind and partially sighted “travelers in the dark” range in age from 28 to 80 and come from diverse backgrounds. On the bus ride there I speak with another traveler who lives the way I do — in fear because Damocles’ sword hangs over our heads. Like me, he became partially sighted in one second, and we anticipate that the rest of our sight could vanish the same way. Urgency drives us.

On arrival I notice how broken and reluctant-to-be-there we look. No time for self-pity. Lessons begin an hour after arrival. When I step outside my cabin an instructor greets me and introduces me to my white cane, the dreaded object I fear will make people see only it and not me. But once it’s in my hand and I’m taught how to hold it, I feel steadier and stronger.

We partially sighted folks are forced to face our worst fear right after dinner when we are asked to put on sleeping shades and have our first lesson on coping with daily life in the dark. I’ve often thought about what I would do if I were to drop a sewing needle. The instructor intones the answer in a gentle voice: “Listen for the direction and how far from you it has fallen.” Obvious? Not to me.

In the days that follow we marvel at the unimaginably long list of inexpensive, low-tech gadgets that make doing everyday chores easier, from talking clocks and calculators and dollar bill readers to my favorite, the sock lock that keeps a pair of socks from separating in the wash.

Together we strategize ways to solve problems, like using a rubber band to differentiate a bottle of shampoo from one of hair conditioner. For the fashion-conscious, a fellow student informs us about a color app that “talks,” able to distinguish black from navy or brown.

Sleeping shades on, we clean, cook and shave. I am humbled by my attempt at putting a dab of toothpaste on a toothbrush. I forget to take the cap off. We test an array of brown, red, purple, green, blue goggles — every pair of eyes is different. I find amber ones help me deal best with bright sun, and yellow are ideal for evening, softening the glare of lights and, with the aid of a small flashlight, allowing me to venture out at night.

Our four days are filled with lessons, both group and one-on-one. Some of us want more extensive help with assistive technologies, especially those that magnify or read text out loud on our smartphones and computers, others with white cane training, cooking, lighting or Braille.

My tech instructors, all partly sighted or blind, get a nervous-about-technology me up and running in no time.

Learning how to cross a four-lane street and navigate stairs requires a visit to town. Blindfolded and relying on our ears, we distinguish “parallel traffic” from “perpendicular traffic” to determine when it is safe to cross. I guide myself and two instructors straight into a pile of dog poop.

For me an invaluable part of the curriculum is learning to teach others how to maneuver me safely through narrow passages, dark theaters and boisterous crowds. At last I’ll be able to help my family and friends feel less helpless!

Introducing us to the scope of low-vision rehabilitation services so that we can live independently and maintain quality of life is the purported reason for the camp. But the healing power of connection is what surprises us. We see, hear and understand one another and relax into gentle teasing and laughter while sharing our stories.

In successive days, when any of our blind colleagues master the circuitous trails from their cabins to the dining hall without assistance, we rejoice with them. The big test comes on our moonless last night. We are to make our way through an unexplored wooded part of the camp to a bonfire. The steep path is less than two blocks long, but I imagine straying off it and wandering alone. My blind roommate and I hook arms and help each other find the trail rope that sporadically disappears in places, and we make it there and back, triumphant.

Once home, I ask again: Why don’t more ophthalmologists refer patients to low-vision rehabilitation services? The costs are typically covered by grants or insurance, but most people don’t know such services even exist. With knowledge about these services and the help of one, a sense of peace has replaced my childhood terror.

Should I ever become blind, I know that my world will not vanish into a black void.

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Again, that article was entitled “Travelers in the Dark.”

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