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Ball and Chain

No, this isn't a gothic tale of dungeons and torture, or even a treatise on the pitfalls of marriage--at least, not literally. Rather, it's a few reflections on the hindrances of orientation and mobility. Yes, that's right, hindrances.

Before I became blind as a child, I was used to bicycling, skipping, playing hopscotch and walking to school, the mall or the park. Now, without sight, I was suddenly bound to a white cane or a sighted guide, and I resented it. For me, having to wait for and depend on a sighted guide, learn how to use a cane effectively, or wonder where to stash it, say, in the park, were tantamount to torture, lacking in spontaneity, freedom and excitement. Dragging around a mobility aid, I thought, was inconvenient and cramped my style.

Without my knowing it, I was in shackles.

As a pre-teen and adolescent, I wanted to fit in with my friends and classmates, but tapping down the school corridor with my white cane, often hitting and plowing through truant hats, scarves, shoes and boots, was not my idea of fitting in, or of being graceful for that matter. Nor was walking with a female sighted guide, trying to deflect sexual-orientation comments from teenage males. Just at the age when I craved anonymity, it seemed I was sticking out like a sore thumb.

Imperceptibly, my chains were getting tighter and heavier.

Over the years, I vacillated between anger and depression, envy and self-pity, fear and nonchalance, and I found myself increasingly isolated, both physically and emotionally, from others. Inertia was setting in.

But my love of learning and desperate need of mental stimulation propelled me into post-secondary education, where I initially used sighted guides from my residence, classes or the disability office. I always carried my white cane in case I needed it, particularly if my guide was a novice. When I became more familiar with routes through practice and asking pertinent questions, I began walking to class with just my white cane. I still felt conspicuous and received occasional inappropriate comments, but these decreased with time as I "put myself out there" more often, plus I was not as fazed now as I once had been. Soon, I felt naked without my white cane.

Gradually, my bonds were loosening.

I was regaining control slowly, and recognizing I had choices. If the weather was bad or health issues precluded cane travel, for example, I simply asked a classmate or passer-by for assistance. If I didn't want any, or a certain, sighted guide, I used my cane or asked someone else. In addition, I could ask for help if I needed it, or decline offers if I didn't. Knowing I had these choices was empowering. Having the confidence to make them was liberating.

The irons now were noticeably less constricting.

The freeing process accelerated when I got lost, once at home and once on campus, but was able to re-orient myself via traffic volume, the sound of wind chimes and known landmarks. In one instance, I was able to get myself to a location where I could ask for directions. I discovered the same kind of self-reliance when I spent a year at college living off-campus. What might otherwise have been disconcerting experiences were in reality setting me free.

Over the years, I have come to realize that it isn't the white cane or sighted guide themselves that weigh me down, but the marriage between these aids and certain negative and/or erroneous attitudes. Far from being just a victim, I had unwittingly been contributing to my own imprisonment. It took some time for me to understand that I could set myself free with the key I had possessed, or had access to, all along--a "can do" attitude.

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