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Navigating the gray space of blindness

Last October, I started therapy. Not physical or psychotherapy but Orientation and Mobility (O&M;) therapy. O&M; is when a person with a visual impairment learns skills for independent travel, including how to use a white cane. October is Blindness Awareness Month, and I'd like to share my experience with you.

Blindness is not an absolute. Light perception, peripheral and central vision, and blind spots differ from person to person. I live in the gray space of low vision between the light of sight and the darkness of full blindness. My right eye retains partial vision, so I wear glasses, but my visual signals are untrustworthy, so I use a white cane. I'm sure that confuses some people, to see me in glasses using a white cane. It's part of that gray area.

Some people struggle to accept using a white cane when medical issues require it. Not me. I couldn't wait to master this tool of independence, tired of feeling disoriented with diminished vision after complications from retinal detachments. Walking mimicked a roller coaster — unexpected drops with brief moments of panic. That's no way to get around.

I applied for and received services from the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services. They coordinated my O&M; therapy. For my first lesson, my instructor modeled cane mechanics, and I practiced between weekly lessons. I had homework and loved it. Later, I navigated my neighborhood grid, curbs, stairs, street crossings and public transit.

Eventually, we planned a trip downtown to incorporate my skills. From the Metro parking lot my instructor followed me, letting me figure out my course. I drew from my O&M; work to make decisions. I located large, color-coded signs, listened for others and swept for pathway obstructions. I paid for a day pass and rotated through the turnstile.

My white cane acted as a silent communicator, informing people of my disability. I verified that I stood on the southbound platform before I boarded the train and sat down. The day before, I had route-planned and counted the stops to my destination in case the intercom sounded like the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon. I prepared to exit as I heard "Lexington" over the squeal of brakes. I tapped my cane through the underground station with the mass of bodies toward the escalators and emerged into the daylight near the corner of Lexington and Eutaw.

The smell of fried potatoes reached my nose. The lunchtime chaos revealed all manner of behavior and direction as I studied the intersection activity, deciphering the traffic patterns of cars and pedestrians. Next week, my instructor said, we will use a monocular to spot traffic signs and signals.

I listened for the start of the next light cycle and crossed with parallel traffic. I trailed the brick sidewalk down Eutaw, hearing a street preacher, and then grasped the heavy metal door and entered Lexington Market. A symphony of scents and sounds greeted me as I stood to the side to adjust to the lights. I discerned green booths stretching out before me, stall after stall of food and items for purchase.

I switched grips and wandered along the aisles in no particular path to practice navigating in crowds. I recognized the alert posture of police officers. I heard conversations around me and inhaled aromas of prepared food like crab cakes, but the presentation glamour was lost on my eyes. I only felt the energy, the hunger, the life.

I circled the market and exited onto Eutaw. I trusted my instincts, not the people who jaywalked and talked on cell phones. I caught the Light Rail to Pratt Street and ventured east, encountering a traffic officer directing the flow with whistle toots and crisp arm movements at Light Street.

On my walk back to the Metro, a lady wearing pleasant perfume and a monochrome houndstooth coat offered to help me cross the street. She waited for my response instead of grabbing my arm to "lead" me, which would disorient me.

"Thank you ma'am," I said. I appreciated the favor and her approach. I took her elbow, staying half a step behind to anticipate our course. We parted ways on the corner.

I swept along the sidewalk and through the passageway until I boarded the Metro, completing my O&M; lesson. With planning, politeness and patience, I traveled independently. I smiled in accomplishment. Sometimes, how you feel is more important than what you see.

Susan Kennedy lives in Glyndon. She blogs at

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