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Walking Into Walls

A Personal Perspective: The challenges of navigating while blind.

Key points

  • Becoming blind raises inner as well as outer challenges.
  • Loss of sight can prompt a new appreciation of self and world.

For some time now, I have been walking into walls. When it first started, I was shocked and upset. I bumped my forehead against door frames. I tripped over thresholds as I suddenly entered a room without knowing it. I hit my head against the edges of halfway-open doors.

I cursed my fate, my ability to navigate, and my blindness. I felt like I was falling apart, failing to function, becoming lost, unable to move safely even in my own home.

Gradually over these past few months, I have been teaching myself how to navigate so that I no longer bump my head, or smash my nose into cat posts when I reach down to pet a cat. I have been teaching myself how to move when more fully blind than I have ever been before. I have been learning how not to panic when I feel disoriented and stupid for being lost in my own study, bedroom, or kitchen.

I previously panicked in a similar way when I found myself lost out in front of my house—when I could not tell where the curb was or what direction I was facing—especially when it was somewhat dark, but even in the brightness of day. For what felt like a very long moment, I could not discern near or far, or where the house was, or the street, and I feared stepping into the path of an oncoming car that would see me but not realize that I did not see it.

I have panicked acutely at being lost, at losing my ability to navigate and feel safe. I was used to experiencing such disorientation when I was outside, but when it occurred indoors, it felt far more unsettling. What did it say about me? What did it say about who I was? Who was I now with this lack of sight, this loss of my ability to know how I would get along? Who is this helpless woman who bumps into her own walls, who panics, cries, and hurts her head, who seems to have broken her nose on one of those days, whose forehead is a series of bumps, or one bump atop another? For several months, as soon as one round of swelling on my forehead began to heal, it was replaced by another.

“It’s turning purple,” my partner Hannah would say to me. “Now it’s yellowish. It doesn’t look great.”

“I can’t see it,” I say to her, putting my finger to my forehead. “But I can feel the bump. it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. I hate it when this happens.”

“I know,” she says, concerned with my appearance, while I was concerned with my inner tumult, the fear, the prospect that this would happen again if I didn’t do something about it—figure out how not to walk into walls, how to make my way better.

For over twenty years now, I have been figuring out how to adapt to my blindness—learning new computer skills, how to walk with a cane and then a guide dog, how to move carefully, regarding each curb, each staircase, each change in elevation, each crack in a sidewalk as a danger, a threat to my well-being. I have triumphed, I think, slowly, and repeatedly, over the loss of sight that constantly confounds me, challenges me, entices me, lures me to appreciate it at the same time as it complicates the entire landscape around me, as it causes me to question my inner sense of self even more than my outer skills.

But this was a new challenge. What would it take to defeat it? As I walked down my hallway, I began talking to myself.

“Slow down,“ I said. “Walk slowly, no matter how disabled and eccentric that might make you feel. It’s better than crashing into the walls."

I slowed, and I extended my hand. I remembered observing a classmate of mine back when I was in training at guide dog school. She was a woman more blind than I, and when she walked out of my dorm room after visiting with me, she put her hand gently to the wall, to feel its surface, to feel that it was there, to locate it and thus find her way to the door. She moved her hand with such grace and skill—feeling, subtly touching, finding her way but with no embarrassment, no fanfare, no dramatic movements, simply discreetly touching. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to feel discreet.

When I next stepped into my hall, I outstretched my hand, touching the wall to my side before my body did—so I would know it was there, rather than bumping into it. I used the back of my right hand, the back of my fingers, as I remembered she had—a gentle brushing.

I felt the rough surface of flat wall paint on plaster as I grazed the wall with my fingers from my knuckles down. It was a pleasurable sensation, a sense of knowing where I was. My fingers hit a doorframe. The surface felt smooth, almost shiny. I was about to pass the bathroom, where there was an open door. I felt the empty space, the air, as my hand and I moved past the opening. Then I felt the door frame on the other side, I was moving slowly, wanting not to knock my hand against it by surprise, wanting to remember that it was coming.

Then came the wall again—that plaster that feels a bit too rough. I much preferred the smoothly painted molding, the way my hand slid over it.

I remembered how, when we were kids, my mother used to tell us that we shouldn’t put our hands all over the woodwork in the house. It would get it dirty. I have, as an adult, often tended to put my hands on woodwork, always hearing her words in my mind, hoping my hands are clean enough.

Now as I blindly felt my hallway walls, seemingly of necessity, I hoped my hands were not dirty, that the walls would not be sullied by my passing, that I would not leave marks, though perhaps I would. It was a different way of moving, I thought, not leaving footprints on the ground, but faint traces of fingers and hands on walls.

I was coming to appreciate a new aesthetic, a new way of experiencing myself and the world. Would I ever get used to it? What would come next?

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