“I first noticed my vision loss when I was 15 and it became very hard to see at night. Now I’m at the point where I can discern light and dark, such as I know when it is day time, but that’s about it. It was frightening in a way, knowing you were losing your sight, but at least I knew what was happening and I could plan.
I have now been experiencing the vision loss journey first hand for almost three decades. It is true that all adults carry on learning through their lives, but mostly we are unaware of this process in a day-to-day environment. With vision loss you become acutely aware of all the baseline skills and strategies you need to safely get around new areas, and you constantly are adapting in response to new sensory information, and of course new technology.
Once I overcame the denial stage that many people experience with vision loss, I chose to remain positive and tackle each new hurdle as a new challenge. I commenced using an I.D. Cane in my early twenties, initially I would use my cane at night time or in crowded situations, but I soon learned that it was far safer for me to use it more often than not.
Using an I.D. cane signals to others that you have a vision impairment, eventually I realised I needed to learn a new way to sense my environment so I could get around safely, rather than relying on others to notice me.
I progressed to learning how to use a Long Cane – you use this to feel out edges, changes in surface gradient, and floor level obstacles. It isn’t easy to pick up and you go through several levels of proficiency before you are deemed skilled enough to be safe!
The Guide Dogs Victoria Orientation and Mobility Specialist instructed me in the use of the Long Cane over a number of months, a bit like learning to drive a car – your brain sorts of rewires until it becomes ‘automatic’. Opportunities for tactile exploration and verbal description needs to be incorporated as you learn about new areas and techniques with your sighted guide or Orientation and Mobility instructor – you can’t just learn by observing and copying.
I was very conscious of the looks I was unknowingly receiving from members of the public, however I balanced this out with the knowledge that my Long Cane was the key to my safe and effective mobility. Having received Long Cane training with Guide Dogs Victoria I have become a very confident cane user and now that I use a Guide Dog as my primary source of mobility, I have no problem using it whenever it isn’t appropriate to take my Guide Dog.
Whilst I haven’t received any formal echo location training, I feel that I have developed this technique subconsciously by tuning in to the sounds around me and becoming very aware of my surroundings. I discovered the different sounds of my environment such as the fact that it sounds different when you are walking along with a wall alongside you and then the wall drops away, similar to the way it sounds very different if you are walking along a corridor as opposed to an open area. I have very good spatial awareness and while many people who are blind or have low vision might count their steps, for example, I think I rely more on intuition and using my mobility aid effectively whether that be my Guide Dog or Long Cane.
I am now paired with my second Guide Dog, Olga, so I have used a Guide Dog as my primary mobility aid for over ten years and I wouldn’t be without one. The fact that I am able to give my Guide Dog a single command for it to find a specific destination and it take me there I still find amazing.
Thanks to the quality training provided by Guide Dogs Victoria and the amazing dogs they have matched me with, I have become a competent Guide Dog handler travelling interstate and intrastate independently with confidence.
Thanks to the support of organisations like Guide Dogs Victoria I have been able to maintain employment and live a very full and enjoyable life and for that I am eternally grateful.”