I had a short conversation with a lady on the way to work that has left me thinking today. I had just approached a road and she asked me if I’d like help to cross. I thanked her and said I would. At that point she said to me, “You look so much better when you smile”. Well that’s a given of course, most of us do. She then went on to say “You should smile when you’re walking along, you might get more offers of help if you did. I nearly left you alone because you looked so fierce”. I tried to explain that I was having to use every ounce of concentration I have but she had her own opinion and it wasn’t worth challenging it as I had to get to work and no doubt she was needing to be somewhere too.
I’ve touched on this before, but the transition from dog to cane isn’t just a case of swapping harness handle for cane handle and off you go. Anyone who has worked with a guide dog then gone back to the cane will know that you are taken completely out of your comfort zone.
A journey which takes me 10 to 15 minutes with a dog is now taking me 20 to 25 minutes with a cane. No big deal, I just have to leave a few minutes extra time. However, in that time, I find that I am so tense. Every time my cane hits something I can feel myself flinching. When you walk with a dog you very rarely make contact with obstacles if the dog is working correctly. Suddenly you are using a method which necessitates that you make contact with them to know where they are and negotiate them. I often find that my free arm, far from swinging by my side as it would be when walking with a dog, is slightly bent, fingers clenched. It probably looks a bit odd and I try to make a point of letting it hang by my side, but more often than not I don’t even realise I’m doing it.
I can’t walk along thinking about what I’m going to cook for tea or what I’ve got to do when I get to work, or anything like that. Every ounce of thought is taken up with where I’m going and how I’m getting there. My eyes are fixed on the tiny bit of pavement I can see in front of me, even though I know that this really isn’t helping as my sight is so bad at the moment. But it’s almost a reflex, a basic survival instinct. I can’t switch off from what my eyes are telling me and am getting tremendous eye strain and sometimes violent headaches because of it.
So, if I, or someone with a visual impairment, looks fierce or tense in the street, we’re not deliberately looking unapproachable. We’re concentrating like hell and it can be a real struggle. I’d love to be able to turn on the charm and smile my way everywhere, but it’s really not possible. I’m way out of my comfort zone and getting from A to B with a cane when you’re used to having a dog takes everything out of you.