Walking With Sophie

I no longer take this for granted…the ability to walk out my door, unafraid and confident, into the bright and blinding sun to go for a walk in my neighborhood. It is still summer and temperatures will be in the 90’s today, so I try to go early. I don my sunglasses and hat and call to Sophie.

“Let’s go for our walk girl,” I coo. She stretches and eagerly comes forward.

“Get dressed,” I say with the harness out and she slips her head in gracefully.

With one fluid motion, clipping the leash and harness, we are off. We have been a bit off schedule with a recent vacation and extra hot days of late. We both need this walk today to maintain our girlish figures. We have several routes to choose from and will walk two-three miles in all. As we leave the driveway, Sophie demonstrates a strong preference for the route that will take us directly to the ball field where she likes to romp. Not today girl, we need to get in a couple of miles. I coax her in the opposite direction and she obediently but ploddingly complies. I think she is feeling a bit lazy today and I can certainly relate.

“Hup up girl!” I sing to her.

And then I feel it…the spring in her step. Her head is up and she is moving jauntily now. That’s my girl! I have pocketed a couple of treats in case she needs additional motivation today. Sophie knows our routes and she anticipates my commands. We are doing country travel at first. She takes me around several parked cars and trash cans, gliding along. The sun is so painful that I close my eyes as she expertly guides me. She slows when our first turn comes up and angles her body slightly toward the turn.

“Good girl, Sophie! Right!” I praise her as I sweep my arm sideways.

We cross the road and enter the wooded path. Immediately, we both appreciate the shade of the leafy trees and take note of the bird sounds. Sophie’s ears and nose twitch and she is alert. We are walking at a good exercise pace now, stretching out our stride. Suddenly, she stops abruptly and I wonder why. There is debris on the path; fallen tree branches after a storm which I discover with my feet. Ahhh, that’s my girl.

“Good girl, Sophie-that’s it! Good job!” I exclaim and rub her ears.

She saved me from tripping and kissing the asphalt, which I have done many times in the past before I had Sophie. And she earns herself a piece of kibble just because I appreciate her skills. Off we go again. Along the way, we encounter the neighbor’s squawking tropical bird, a barking dog or two, and people on bicycles who whiz past me before I even realize they are there. Sophie takes it all in but remains focused, only needing an occasional reminder to “leave it.” We move as one.

The walking path leaves the woods and we are at a crosswalk, in full sun again. It feels good but the day is definitely heating up. Sophie stands at the crossing, waiting my command. I survey the street; look, listen, and look again.

“Sophie, forward,” I say and we step out into the road and then “find the curb” when we are midway.

There is no fear and no hesitation any more on my part…I am enjoying our morning walk, able to attend to my surroundings and walk with my head up. Because I am not anxious and I can depend on Sophie to do her job, it is a pleasant daily excursion. We cross another road expertly and pick up the path again. Sophie picks up her pace as she knows we are nearing the ball field at the end of our route. A golf cart appears out of nowhere and Sophie angles me to the side of the path, just out of the way of this passing vehicle. She always sees them and hears them coming before I do and is ready to make way. We top the hill and the recreation complex appears. Sophie is excited. Yes girl, we will go play for a while.

“Sophie, right,” I motion and say. She quickly turns on a dime.

We enter the ball field, close all the gates and I release Sophie from her harness. It is like a giant playpen for her and her favorite place. She takes off in a fit of zig-zags, circles and figure eights which I call her “zoomies.” When she tuckers out, she leisurely wanders the field, taking in its intoxicating scents. She could sniff all day-one of her greatest pleasures as a golden retriever. I walk the fence line, listen for the jingle of her collar and keep in touch with her.

“Sophie, touch!” I call to her.

She runs to me and puts her wet nose in the palm of my hand, never very far away. Sometimes, we lie in the sun on the grass together, enjoying the freedom, the exercise, the ease of our relationship and the beauty of the day. It is no small thing to be able to enjoy a walk by yourself with your guide dog. I am blessed and I am grateful for Sophie.

 

The Summer Camp Experience for the Blind and Visually Impaired

When I was ten years old, I went to summer camp with my best friend. To this day, that week is memorialized as one of the best weeks of my life. The camp offered a variety of sports, games, talent shows, arts and crafts, swimming lessons and wilderness experiences. There was so much to try for the first time. I was beyond myself with excitement and enthusiasm. Besides the fun activities, every meal in the mess hall and bedtime in the bunks was a time of laughter, songs, pranks and socializing with new friends. Oh and let’s not forget the “cool” counselors who shepherded us through the week’s program; we watched them and wanted to be like them! The summer camp experience can be life-changing.

Some years ago, I was the camp nurse for Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind. I was struggling with my own vision loss at the time, but still working as a school nurse. I spent 7 weeks caring for campers of all ages from preschoolers to seniors. It was an inspiring and empowering experience not only for the campers, but for me. I learned so much from observing the campers and playing alongside of them. They had such exuberance and eagerness to try new things like climbing the rock wall and horseback riding. One six year old boy who was totally blind since birth conquered the climbing wall while his mother and camp staff looked on through misty eyes. When he reached the top and rang the bell, he was giddy with accomplishment and exclaimed “Look at me! I’m so high up!” For many campers, it is their first time to be away from home and the watchful eyes of parents. It is the first exposure to many new experiences like canoeing, camp-outs, adapted sports like beep ball and goalball, and tactile arts and crafts. They quickly become a part of “the group” and feel included and accepted, while learning from each other. It is a place where their disability does not make them different. The growth and learning that takes place in a camp setting is invaluable and cannot be replicated. There is often a sort of magical transformation that takes place in a camper. And they leave with powerful memories of being included, succeeding at new activities, tasting independence, and making new friends which can change them forever.

Camps that are designed for special needs can accommodate campers in unique ways. The Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind is a visually impaired friendly environment. They use rope lines to help guide the campers to different areas. In the buildings, the wood work is painted in high contrast for better visibility. The pathways are straight, flat and uncluttered. The staff receives training in vision rehabilitation techniques and many are interns or professionals in the field of vision rehabilitation therapy. The program integrates recreation, education, rehabilitation and social development, with a hefty component of play therapy. Have you ever played in a huge mountain of bubbles spewed from a bubble making machine? It was a highlight at camp. In other words, the environment is safe and the staff is trained and knowledgeable. It is an ideal opportunity and atmosphere for campers to explore interests, discover special talents, and stretch personal limits in a physically and emotionally safe environment.

So, what did I learn from my experience at the Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind? Well, I came away with a new “can do” attitude after watching campers conquer new tasks. I learned to try to do things in a new way. I enjoyed being part of the community of visually impaired, realizing I was one of them for the first time which helped me accept my disability. I came away empowered to learn new skills to live with my blindness. Somehow, the kids instilled in me a new-found courage to move forward by watching their fearless approach to activities. I learned to play again and have fun in bubbles, water and mud. I played beep ball (adapted baseball for the blind) and loved it. I learned at the talent show that we ALL have talents. We celebrated and shared our unique talents and “abilities,” while our disability faded into the background. I was truly inspired by campers’ attitudes and accomplishments as well as the staff’s dedication to serve this population. My time at the Lions camp rivals my summer camp experience as a child. It was most memorable and life-changing.

There are summer camp programs for the blind and visually impaired of all ages. Many schools of the blind have summer camps such as Perkins and Colorado School for the Blind. Leader Dogs for the Blind offers a summer camp program for teens which is free, including airfare. Lions Clubs International has special needs camps throughout the world. Everyone should experience summer camp at least once in their life. And you are never too old to go to camp. Who knows, you may come away with new confidence, courage, independence, playfulness, friendships and a spirit of adventure.

For more information go to:

http://www.blindcamp.com/   National Camps for the Blind

http://www.lionsclubs.org/EN/our-work/sight-programs/sight-services/camps-for-the-blind-and-visually-impaired.php    Lions Camps for the Blind/Visually Impaired

http://www.perkins.org/resources/scout/recreation/summer-camps.html  Perkins School Summer Camps

http://www.leaderdog.org/clients/programs/summer-experience-camp   Summer Experience Camp

 

smiling camp staff

Nurse Audrey with girls’ counselors

group of people dancing in a mountain of bubbles

Bubble Fun at Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind

The White Cane: A Useful Tool

There comes a time when it just makes sense to use a white cane when you are losing your vision. Most of us resist this rite of passage, fearing the stigmas, myths, and images associated with the “dreaded white cane.” In my case, something awful had to happen to wake me up to the reality that I was no longer a safe traveler. I had many falls and sprained ankles which I attributed to clumsiness. As my vision worsened, the falls became more frequent and I was forced to admit it was not just clumsiness. While at work, I took a series of falls which raised concerns with my employer. Then I fell at home and ended up having ankle reconstruction surgery. I knew it was time to consider using a cane.

I called various vision rehabilitation services to inquire how to get training. They pointed me to the state vocational rehabilitation agency where I applied for services, to include what is called Orientation and Mobility (O+M) training. Unfortunately, in my state there is a long waiting list and a shortage of funds to serve the disabled. After waiting a year with no word from the state agency, I tried to find private instructors to teach me O+M and was told there were none available and it would be cost prohibitive. So, I turned to the internet and found the Accelerated Orientation and Mobility (AOM) program offered by Leader Dogs for the Blind (LDB). This is a seven day, one-on-one, intensive course taught by certified O+M specialists at the training center in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The cost to the client: FREE.

I always thought I would eventually get a guide dog and when I researched this option I learned good O+M skills were a prerequisite to using a dog for mobility. However, the AOM program is for anyone who wants to learn to use a white cane, whether or not there is interest in using a guide dog in the future. With great anticipation and a bit of trepidation, I applied for the AOM program. LDB walked me through the process, made all the travel arrangements, and paid all the expenses. All I had to do was show up at the airport and be ready to learn. The flight to Michigan was easy with assistance from the airline escort service. When I arrived in Michigan, LDB staff was there to greet me.

My week at LDB was an incredible experience. The accommodations were very comfortable and visually impaired friendly. The staff was welcoming and professional. On the first morning, I was fitted with my new cane and the teaching began. It felt awkward in my hands, but I was eager to learn. The days’ lessons built on each other as my skills developed. There is so much more to Orientation and Mobility than I ever imagined. It is not just about thwacking a cane around. It involves cane techniques such as the grip, the swing, and two-point touch. There is shore-lining, stairs, and street crossings to master. I was struck with the difference the cane made immediately. I was able to walk with my head up and with a normal gait as I learned to use the information my cane gave me. No more staring at the ground and shuffling like a grandma! It felt wonderful to stand tall and take in the surrounding environment. I learned to plan a route, use environmental cues to orient myself, and get from point A to point B safely. It was so exhilarating to realize I could once again get myself to where I wanted to go. I will be forever grateful for the gift of this training from Leader Dogs for the Blind as it was the beginning of regaining my independence.

I like how the cane identifies me as visually impaired so I do not have to explain this. At first, I thought it would make me appear “disabled”, but on the contrary, I think I appear more “able”, traveling on my own with confidence. And so, I embraced my cane. Before long, instead of feeling awkward with it, I felt awkward without it. If your cane is stashed away in a closet, aging like fine wine, I encourage you to get it out and use it. If you have been putting off learning to use a white cane, consider the AOM program at LDB as a great place to start. Don’t wait until a serious injury happens. In the end, I learned the white cane is simply a useful mobility tool that helps keep me safe and independent.

Traveling Blind: A Sensory Experience

 

Yosemite National Park-El Capitan

Yosemite National Park-El Capitan

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

Saint Augustine

My husband and I just returned from a trip to California. We visited Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Muir Woods, Carmel, and Sonoma Valley. He is an excellent vacation planner and travel companion! This was one of my favorite trips with such a variety of experiences and adventures: hiking among the giant Sequoia, picnicking and wine-tasting in lush wine country, riding the rickety trolley car, shopping in the “hippie” district in the city, lunching on dim sum in colorful China Town, sipping tea in the peaceful Japanese gardens, meandering in the serenity of Cathedral Grove among the regal Redwoods, walking the dog-friendly beaches with my guide dog Sophie, breathing in the fresh, crisp air on the Coastal Trail, feasting on local seafood and wines…ahhh…I am still basking in the glow of the sweet sensory memories of it all!                                                                                                                        

Matanzas Creek Winery-Sonoma Valley

Matanzas Creek Winery-Sonoma Valley

                                                         

A couple and guide dog at the base of a giant Sequoia tree

The Mighty Sequoia Tree

 

Where ever you go, go with all your heart.

Confucius

As I was packing, I marveled at how little I needed in my suitcase. A mere 46 lbs. of worldly trappings and accoutrements to survive a twelve day trip was all I required. I have learned to keep it simple. That way, there is less to organize, keep track of, and haul around! I love this sense of freedom from material things and it creates room in my soul to take in the new experiences. It is enlightening to consider what we can live without and how freeing it can be to shed extra baggage.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the past when I have traveled as a visually impaired person, I often experienced overwhelming fatigue, anxiety, and even irritability while trying to adjust to new surroundings. This would cause stress  which took away from the ability to enjoy the adventure. This trip was different somehow. I have learned to relax and accept my limitations. I try to pace myself, yet challenge myself at the same time so as not to miss a worthwhile attraction. For instance, we chose to take a two-mile “moderate” hike to Glacier Point in Yosemite. It took us a few hours to painstakingly navigate a rocky course to reach a spectacular summit view. My guide dog was an amazing and attentive partner as she moved me through the obstacles of rocks, logs, and roots. My husband patiently gave me verbal instructions and a steady arm when needed. It took teamwork and concentration as the three of us plugged along the path. The payoff was arriving at the highest point in Yosemite, surrounded by unmatched grandeur; sparkling granite cliffs, terraced waterfalls, and a feeling of infinite openness and space. It was exhilarating and energizing! And the satisfaction of accomplishment spurred me onward. As visually impaired people, we sometimes have to find a different way to do things and take our time-but what joy there is in success and the experience.   

Ft. Funston Beach

Ft. Funston Beach

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Mary Ritter Beard

From the moment we arrived in California, I sensed the differences. The air was cool and crisp with a woodsy herbal scent. The birds sang different songs. Trees have unique silhouettes and shades of color. The sky was bigger and bluer than in Georgia. Flowers seem to be more bold and varied. There are ever-present views and briny smells of the ocean. Foods and people from all parts of the world abound. Travel is about appreciating the differences and variety which the world has to offer. I may not “see” all the sights, but I can employ all of my senses to enrich my experience and celebrate the joys of travel. It is about being there and “being present.”

Pleasure is the flower that passes; remembrance, the lasting perfume.

Jean de Boufflers

A special benefit of this trip was the opportunity to truly enjoy the company of my husband. With the distractions of home, work, and other responsibilities left behind, we were able to tune in to each other fully and refresh ourselves together. Long walks and talks on beautiful beaches can rejuvenate the mind, body and soul. I discovered that each day I could not wait to get up and going, as it meant more time with Kevin. His undivided attention was luxurious and the lazy days together felt extravagant. I wanted to make the most of “him and me” time. So travel is also about the joy of being with your loved ones. All the adventures, sights and experiences are richer when shared and the memories sweeter when made together.

Musings of a Visually Impaired Mother

I come from a long line of mothers. Women have been birthing babies since the beginning of time. You know that excruciating moment during childbirth when you are screaming “I can’t do this!” and then you dig deep and discover you can after all? I told myself in that moment “If my mom could do this seven times (yes, seven!), then I can too!” And then when the nurse placed my squalling, slimy, bundle of joy in my arms for the first time, I suddenly realized the labor was not even the hard part of being a mother.

I learned that I was expecting my first child from a neurologist, who was working me up for some unknown vision problem. The news was dulled by the uncertainty of my diagnosis. But I decided in the end that it was indeed good news and worth celebrating. Like every other expectant mother, I began to plan and dream of the days to come with my first baby. Before I knew it, my husband and I had two more babies, each two years apart; two boys and a girl in between. When I told my mother I was pregnant with my third she asked me “How did that happen?” and I replied “Oh, the usual way, Mom.”

The baby years are largely a blur, especially after the third one. It was a time of sleepless nights and exhausted days; the tired years. Someone always needed something from me. I remember feeling like a 24- hour Dairy Queen. I constantly “wore’ a baby around my neck or on my hip and my clothes were often adorned with baby body fluids. My body was no longer my own. But I remember those years with a special sweetness and wonder at what my husband and I had created together. There was sheer joy in cuddling my precious babies, taking in their milky breath, sleepy grins, and clutching fingers. During that time, I still did not know what was wrong with my vision and I didn’t think about it much.

Life got a bit busier during the toddler years. I call them the “sticky” years; Cheerios stuck to the kitchen table, gooey jelly fingers and tacky walls and windows. I had trouble conjuring up my inner June Cleaver. I was probably somewhere between Carol Brady and Roseanne on the mother spectrum. I much preferred playing with my children to cleaning up after them. I learned that children are incredibly resilient and durable. Eating a little dirt and even an occasional dead fly off the window sill, did not make them sick. In fact, it may have even boosted their immune systems. Most days, my lunch consisted of half-eaten PB and J crusts gleaned from the kids’ plates as they hurried away from the table. At that time, I finally got a diagnosis: Retinitis Pigmentosa. I began to have a few issues like tripping and bumping into things. One day, while running after my youngest son who was headed for the street, I fell into a hole and broke my ankle. It was also during these years that I lost my driver’s license due to vision loss. This put a huge cramp in my style and an extra burden on my husband. Gone were the days when I could just run up to the store for diapers and milk.

Birthday at the beach-happy and tanned!

Celebrating my birthday at the beach-1995

The school-aged years are remembered as “controlled chaos.” We were in the thick of raising our children while balancing our careers. It took team work and creativity to meet the demands of our busy household. The kids needed rides to baseball practice, ballet, and piano lessons. I needed rides everywhere; to the grocery store, haircut and doctor appointments, and to work. Transportation was the biggest challenge for our family. We were fortunate enough to have friends and neighbors who were supportive. I offered services like after-school care or baked muffins in exchange for rides for my family. It required careful orchestration, but we got where we needed to go and survived those busy years. As my vision deteriorated my children learned to pitch in and help. They learned to guide me and give me descriptive narration at ball games and movies.    

During the teenaged years, when aliens take over kids bodies, it’s difficult to have a visually impaired mother. Now adults, my children admit it was sometimes painful and embarrassing for them. One year on Mother’s Day, we went out to dinner at our favorite restaurant. We were escorted to the table and I began to sit down on what I thought was a bench and went crashing to the floor. I looked like a bug on the rug, my dress crumpled to my waist and arms and legs flailing. I began to laugh so hard that I could not get up. My three teenagers were mortified and asked to leave the restaurant. We stayed. For them, my vision loss was an aggravation and an inconvenience. They had to take turns driving me on errands, much to their chagrin. For me, it was becoming an all-consuming struggle to keep up at home and work. By now, reading print and mobility were my biggest issues and I needed to learn new ways of doing things. I needed to embrace technology and my earliest computer lessons came from my kids.

Before long, my sweet little babies were grown and off to college. Our house became empty and quiet. All too soon, the years flew by, leaving me with the echoes and trappings of child rearing. My role as a mother has changed from caregiver to counselor, confidante, cheerleader, and consultant. As I look back, I can honestly say I relished each phase of motherhood. My children and my husband made it easy for me to be a “good mother” and I have often joked that “they were so easy, they practically raised themselves.” Despite my anxieties and limitations as a visually impaired mom, my kids have said they feel they had a very “normal” childhood. And I can see many wonderful qualities in them which resulted from growing up with a visually impaired mother. Compassion, empathy, cooperation, advocacy, problem-solving skills, resourcefulness and patience are among them. My adult children are truly my favorite people in the whole world.

In truth, motherhood is hard work and it requires intentionality, resilience, and patience. Fortunately, we are naturally endowed with a certain measure of courage and grace to be mothers. The other necessary things, we find amidst the love and laughter of our children. Even vision loss cannot suppress the joys or dampen the pride of being a mother. My humble advice to other visually impaired mothers: don’t sweat the small stuff, keep it simple, live in the moment, and don’t aim for perfection because you will miss every time