I was preparing the forms for our new passports and I printed off Sue’s copy. I placed it on the table and placed my finger on the line saying “Sign Here.” She placed her finger where mine was and slid the paper toward herself. She then scribbled something on the paper. She then looked up at me and said “I messed it up. I forgot how to write my name.”
I looked at her disbelievingly. She said “When was the last time I wrote? I do everything in braille now. I think it’s been a couple years since I last signed anything. It just feels weird.” I slid her a blank piece of paper and said “practice” while I went and printed off another copy of the application.
Living with a blind person, you notice things very differently. I sometimes go first, leading Sue to a place or through the crowds. Other times I trail behind, knowing she is safer if people can see her white cane without my presence blocking it. From my vantage point I can see people and how they respond. First there are the children, who knowing no better, are curious and just plainly stare at Sue. But what really gets me are the adults, who do know better. Some just stare hard at her, sometimes making faces. I’ve also never seen so many do a double-take as when Sue has a camera around her neck! Then there are the nice people. The people who actually inconvenience themselves to help out. Sometimes in noticeable ways, like when Sue falls, they rush to her side; or when at a busy intersection and they offer assistance in helping her cross the street. There are also those who help and Sue doesn’t even know. They are going through a door, and the polite Canadians we are, we look to see if there is someone there we should hold the door for. If you are within two steps we pause, but if you are three steps, it’s not impolite to let the door close. I see people all the time, interrupt their flow and rhythm to wait a few extra seconds to hold the door for Sue until she gets there. This is at an inconvenience for them. I see the people who seeing her with the blind cane approaching, move over, out of her way and gather any loose children from in front of her path. Sue doesn’t realize it, but I see them and witness their acts of kindness.
I often will see in their eyes what I’ve felt in my heart. We pity and admire the blind person, all at once. I don’t think there is any other affliction that I can think of that immediately draws a reaction from almost everyone who witnesses it. We are almost unified in our reaction. When we see the blind person, we are so thankful it is not us in that situation, the idea of loosing such a critical sense and ability, can be a somewhat terrifying concept and so we pity the person, struggling through life with only a white cane for navigation. And as they approach that intersection, the one with four or six lanes to cross with traffic speeds posted at 60km/hr but most travelling at 80 km/hr, people look, terrified for the blind person because we can see the danger, and in some way, admire their courage. I know I have asked myself could I do that if I went blind. I don’t think so. It takes a lot of courage to navigate the city and hence, I think that is why we see so few blind people out in society travelling around. As they cross that busy road, they become heroes to those watching and witnessing their crossing.
I have learned that in different countries, not everyone reacts the same. For instance, we have spent time in the Mayan Riviera in Mexico over the last two winters. Sue and I spend our days in an eco-park there, where there are some tourists, but a large majority of patrons are the natives from around Cancun. They do not respect the white cane there. They do not demonstrate any empathy or sympathy for the blind person there. They are not dismissive of Sue, ignoring her status, but rather quite the opposite. I see them recognize her stance and purposely walk in front of her, put obstacles in her way and even at times slightly push her. There I walk directly in front of or beside her, to protect her in the crowds. We were taken aback by this treatment so I inquired at the hotel about if it is known in Mexico that blind people use white canes. I was told they do. In the end, Sue and I concluded, rightly or wrongly, that many of Mexico’s population are very poor. A blind person in a family, would be a burden on the family, rather then someone who could contribute. We sometimes forget our privilege in this rich country and the social service safety net which this country has been built upon. In Canada, we believe everyone has the right to equal participation and basic life necessities, to the point were we support our government to supply these things to persons in need. In many countries there are no government assistance programs, no food stamps and no subsidy. A person with any kind of disability would be a burden on the family and on society. We have learned to accept this when in Mexico and adjust ourselves accordingly.
I have become adjusted to living with a blind person. Sue is very independent still and tries to do things and to help out, even when she is unsure or a little scared. She really is brave. It is only through her involvement at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) that we were to find out that she is different, I mean really different. Many of the patrons there, all adults, do not travel around by themselves. They do not use TTC and they do not cross the street. They are very reliant on other people to shop with and for them. When we are out together, I often will say “stairs” as we approach and will tell Sue where to find the railing. Sue uses noises around herself a lot to figure out where she is, like a bat does, and when she’s outside, it’s sometimes much more difficult in open spaces then when inside buildings and stores. And even while she’ll tell me I don’t need to tell her where the obstacles are, that she has a cane for that, I still do. And there are times, she still falls, like the other day when even while I was saying “stair” I was one pace off and down she went. And there are other times when in a parking lot when I drop her off, letting her go off to find a store, forgetting she needs sidewalks or curbs to naviagate to the entrance as she can’t see it otherwise and is lost in the middle of a parking lot. It’s sometimes easy to forget these limitations because Sue functions so well. And truthfully, I think she does so well because she is always trying to prove she can do anything and go beyond any limitations. So when I asked her to sign her name and she couldn’t saying she had forgotten how to do it, it was a reminder to both her and I that she is limited. And so when I pass blind persons in the street, at the mall or on the subway platform, I see them and feel both pity and admiration. Yes, they are all truly brave.