Blind World Magazine

Losing your sight -- itís disorientating and very frightening.

January 27, 2006. Sutton Borough Guardian - UK.

For the majority of people the loss of their sight would be unthinkable for others it is an everyday reality which has to be dealt with. Richard Lyons discovered for himself a little about the problems which are faced by the blind and partially sighted.

Standing blindfold on the pavement edge, I get a lurch of fear as my hair is lifted by the suck of air generated by the bulk of a speeding lorry.

I can hear the traffic slow for the waiting pedestrians and my senses tune to the sound of idling car engines in the row of stationary vehicles impatient to progress.

The window of time in which I can cross the road has arrived.

Engulfed in blackness, I step tentatively into the street, sweeping my white cane from side to side to feel my way between the traffi Somewhat foolishly it now seems, I have volunteered to surrender my sight in order to experience what it is like to be blind.

With my eyes incapacitated, so the theory goes, I will appreciate first hand what it is like for someone who can not see to perform the everyday tasks sighted people take for granted.

Taking charge of the experiment and my life is housing co-ordinator manager, Steve Jerrom, 50, of the charity Action for Blind People in Epsom.

Although sighted himself, with 12 years experience of working with the visually impaired he is particularly sensitive to the unique environment inhabited by those who can not see.

"If you go blind, that is scary," he says. "That is an important factor people think I'm scared, I'm not going out'.

"Once you have lost your vision, you start to concentrate on other senses, you start to use them a bit better.

"You are disorientated in terms of where other people are and you also feel quite isolated."

I get an inkling of what he is talking about the instant I'm blindfolded outside the charity's office at Swail House in Ashley Road.

The curtain closes on the visual world and, besides sketchy memories of where things are, I am completely unable to orientate myself in my physical environment.

Suddenly, what had seemed like a benign world becomes fraught with literally unseen dangers ready to trip me up or bang into me at every turn. What Steve said is right, going blind is scary.

Clutching his arm for dear life with my left hand, he assumes the role of my eyes and leads me out of the complex of offices and flats and on to a public road.

Adjusting to letting someone else see for you is, I find, a natural process of regression requiring an inevitable sacrificing of independence.

Unable to see, I am also unable to choose my own route, and have no choice but to let myself be cautiously led down the street towards Epsom town centre.

Sooner than expected, the first major challenge is upon me, when Steve instructs me to buy a bar of chocolate in a nearby newsagent.

Inside the shop, what ordinarily should be a simple transaction performed with little or no thought, is now riddled with uncertainties and dilemmas.

How do I know if I am at the front of the queue? How do I select the chocolate bar I want? How do I give the right money? How do I get the change?

The honest answer to these questions is that without the aid of sight I can't do any of these things alone and am forced to rely on the co-operation of others to get the job done.

With this in mind, a babble of strange voices ushers me to the front of the queue before the shopkeeper kindly signals it is my turn by asking me what I want.

I must say the name of the chocolate bar rather than simply handing it to him and have to leave the responsibility of actually picking it up to someone else.

Then, when asked for 45p to pay for a Double Decker, I say a silent thank you to the Royal Mint for making pound coins nice and heavy and recognisable by touch.

Things only start to go wrong when, with premature confidence, I try to exercise some initiative in collecting my change.

Through habit, I thrust my hand forward to meet the shopkeeper's as he tries to hand it to me but being blind I simply knock the money out of his hand and it cascades humiliatingly to the floor.

Lesson learnt, I realise all I can do is hold my hand out still and remain passive as the money is placed into my upturned palm.

Once outside, I have to put my trust in Steve again as he leads me past a whirl of voices coming from the customers and traders manning Epsom market place.

Other senses besides sight become more keen as I try to glean as much useful information as possible from the sounds around me and the changing texture of the surface underfoot.

Stepping inside Ashley Shopping Centre, concrete paving turns to smooth marble before a blast of hot air from a heater above the door signals we have entered a shop.

Steve asks me if I have any idea where we are and inhaling deeply through my nose, I make out a fragrant scent wafting toward me as I am told we are in the perfume department of Dickens and Jones.

Under Steve's guidance we walk back through the shopping centre and I strain to identify other shops through the different smells of flowers, coffee and leather.

Back in the street, it is decided we should head back towards the charity office's as I have been now been blind for long enough.

Before I am liberated, however, I must overcome the ultimate test crossing a road unaided.

In a futile attempt to reassure me, Steve explains that although this maybe an ordeal for me, for someone permanently blind it would just be one part of a completely unaided journey from A to B.

A fully trained rehabilitation officer for the visually impaired, he is eenly aware of the many hurdles faced by the blind and partially sighted.

His role is to meet the housing needs of visually impaired adults including helping with home moves and accessing mainstream property.

Part of his job is also to deal with the darker housing related problems experienced by those with sight loss, such as homelessness and domestic violence.

"It is a about people being included in society," he says.

"It is all about breaking down barriers and recognising that it is society that disables people rather than their disabilities. We would like to change people's attitudes.

"The fact is that as an organisation which delivers a service, we can make a difference to people's lives and have an impact.

"This particular organisation is very, very pro-active in enabling people to have choice."

I personally have no choice, as with both feet now off the pavement and my cane leading the way, I must try and keep a straight line while making a brisk bid for the other side of the street.

Safely reaching the far side, the feeling of relief is temporary as I am made to relive the experience again before the photographer asks me to cross over once more to get some more shots.

Having gambled with my life for the final time, the blindfold is taken off and I get a sense of bright light and euphoria upon re-entering the visual world.

Through this experience, I have learnt that living without sight presents huge obstacles to performing everyday day tasks, but these obstacles are anything but insurmountable.

It is, I understand, important to look past the symbols of disability, such as canes, blind dogs and dark glasses.

Underneath the stigma and lack of education surrounding blindness like other disabilities, there is simply a human being.

l Action for Blind People provides practical support to more than 20,000 visually impaired people across the UK in the areas of housing, employment, leisure and sport.

To contact the charity phone their national helpline on 0800 915 4666.

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