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Riley reflects on how he uses the tools available to him to navigate the world as a visually impaired person. He explores how aids have improved his life in practical terms but also how they have helped him to develop his confidence in many diverse situations. What he teaches us about common misconceptions about people with visual impairments is invaluable when thinking about the experiences of our participants in usability studies.
Being blind, armed with a white cane and a Guide Dog (not at the same time)
By Riley Yeomans (05/10/2022)
I was born with several visual impairments: Rod-Cone Dystrophy, Nystagmus, and severe myopia. All of which means I’m incredibly short-sighted, I have no depth perception, I have night blindness, I’m very sensitive to light and I was registered blind before I turned 2 years old.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. I am content with my disability; it’s something I have learned to live with. In some ways, I’m thankful because my disability has made me who I am today. Sure, I will lose my remaining eyesight in the years to come, but I have lived with it for so long that I know what works best for me. So, let’s take a closer ‘look’ at the types of mobility aids I use daily to get around safely, access services and navigate an inaccessible world.
I am a firm believer that by using the right technology and the right equipment, anything is possible.
When I describe a white cane (I hate the term stick) with a rolling ball on the end that sweeps on the floor, what do you think of? Someone who is completely blind and can’t see anything? Incorrect. Visual impairment is a spectrum; my blindness is completely different to the rest of the community. And canes work differently depending on the user’s needs. A user’s needs can constantly change, so one day they may need a cane that sends more vibrations to the user and on another day, they might be able to use a simple guide cane.
For example, I did long cane training when I was in primary school. I hated it. I hated everything about using a cane. Because I was embarrassed to be seen with it. I was one of two kids in my village who had a visual impairment. I always tried to hide my disability and tried not to draw too much attention to myself. But the disability team I was under, the one visual impairment teacher who stuck with me until I finished sixth form, made sure I was always using my cane. I switched from a long cane to a guide/symbol cane. This was a lot smaller and discreet, it could be hidden away, and I used it when I needed it like crossing the road. But I still hated it. And I hate it even more now, but there is one significant difference.
I’m not embarrassed to use it.
Instead, the reason why I hate my cane is because of the people I encounter when I’m using it. The public can either behave in one of two ways:
they can either leap out of the way and apologise;
or they will not move, meaning when I accidentally hit them, I get abuse shouted in my face.
The former I can cope with, because it's sometimes hard to see a cane, especially a guide or a symbol cane - they are not as obvious as a long cane. But the latter I detest. When people keep walking in my direction without moving, it's almost like a test to see if I’m actually blind or not. Before, I used to move out of their way. Now, I don’t. Because why should I? If I was completely blind, I would have no idea who was coming toward me. I have been pushed, shoved, and kicked while using my cane. All of which I find unacceptable.
I am currently in the process of being re-trained for a long cane, simply because my guide cane can’t keep me safe when I’m not walking with my Guide Dog. Being re-trained is difficult because I already have some knowledge of a long cane, but I have forgotten how hard it is to walk with one. It hurts and it pulls muscles I never knew I had. It's going to be a long process until I’m fully comfortable again with a long cane, but practice makes perfect. I love using my cane, it's just the ignorant folks who have no regard for disability who I find frustrating.
And I’ll admit a cane does come in useful in busy environments because people tend to move out of the way for fear of getting hit.
When it comes to Guide Dogs, most people know what they are and do. From the wonderful charity Guide Dogs for the Blind, I was matched with my first dog in the summer of 2016 after being on the waiting list for over four years. Yashka is a Golden Retriever and she’s my best friend. I owe everything I have achieved in the last six years to her. She’s graduated with me twice and, hopefully, she’ll be able to graduate with me when I finally receive my PhD.
Like a cane, having a Guide Dog comes with its problems and most of these problems relate to other people rather than the dog. However, unlike a cane, I cannot hide Yashka. Since working with Yashka, my confidence and self-assurance have rocketed. Just like a cane, Yashka is my mobility aid but she can do so much more than simply guide me.
I’ve been working with Guide Dogs for the Blind on several interesting pieces to raise awareness about the working relationship, the emotional support and the day-to-day activities having a Guide Dog enables. It has brought several things to light.
Firstly, how important a service animal is to someone’s emotional and physical health. Yashka came at the right moment in my life. I was depressed and anxious, and I was thinking about dropping out of university. Then Yashka came along, giving me a reason to keep going. Even now on my bad days, I have to get up for her. She makes me go outside and exercise when I don’t want to. She’s there at my lowest points and doesn’t want anything in return for her love apart from cuddles and food.
Secondly, how there are still barriers between my disability and the outside world. Without doubt, Yashka has granted me an independence and confidence I never knew existed. But because of her, I get abuse and discrimination from small-minded people who refuse to accept that service dogs have a duty to their owners: to keep them safe and let them access a world that can be inaccessible. We still get denied entry to shops, restaurants (yes, Burger King and Primark, I’m looking at you) as well as independent services and taxis. Every time an access denial occurs, it hurts. It hurts because I’m being denied basic human rights. It hurts because I know Yashka wouldn’t hurt anyone - she’s well-behaved and obedient. It truly hurts because I face barriers every day simply by having a disability - time and time again, situations like these render me a second-class citizen who is a burden on society.
Finally, being a service user of Guide Dogs for the Blind means I have support in place when I get refused access. But at that moment when the refusal occurs, I am much more well equipped to deal with the abuse and discrimination than I was when I first qualified with Yashka. I will now stand my ground, informing the person or organisation that has denied me access about the Equality Act (2010) and the rules relating to access and Guide Dogs. The daily discrimination I face has made me stronger than before, and that’s thanks to an amazing mentor, a strong friendship group, my mobility aids, and Guide Dogs for the Blind.
So, what's changed?
Using mobility aids means I have independence. Being in a partnership with Yashka for the last 6 years has allowed me to do so much that I never thought possible. Aside from graduating twice together, we’ve travelled across the country, we’ve been to an award ceremony in London, and we have visited London on several occasions. Yashka is my mobility aid, and I don’t know where I would be without her. Combined with a cane when I can’t work Yashka, they have both given me so much more freedom, confidence, and enthusiasm for sharing my personal experience of disability, being part of the LGBTQIA+ community and having mental health disorders.
Making use of the tools available to you is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of. They make you stronger, they make you who you are, and they allow you to live a life you want. Isn’t it something to be proud of?