I’ve just entered Cape Town Medi-Clinic, and am in a rush to make visiting hours.
I walk at a brisk pace, eyes focused straight ahead.
Whack!! Something has smacked into my shoulder, knocking me off balance.
‘’You just ran into me!!’’ a woman shrieks.
I scan the area directly in front of me and take in an elderly, and fragile looking woman.
With horror, I realise that I’ve just ploughed into her. I curse myself for not walking more slowly.
‘’I’ve just been treated for a shoulder injury!’’ the woman screeches, clutching her shoulder.
I’m completely mortified. ‘’I am so, so sorry. I’m partially sighted,’’ I say, hoping to reduce her anger.
‘’ I’m right here!’’ She rages.
‘’But I didn’t see you.’’
‘’Really, well then why don’t you get some glasses?’’
I begin to feel frantic. I have no idea how to explain in a few short sentences, what my particular situation is, and am aware of visiting time running out. I should march on, leaving this nasty and infuriated woman behind, but am suddenly desperate for her for her to understand; I’m not clumsy, I’m not an abuser of elderly ladies, intent on causing them injury by deliberately crashing into them.
‘’I have retinitis pigmentosa,’’ I say quickly, ‘’it means that I have tunnel vision, so I don’t see around me. Which is why I didn’t see you. I should have been walking more slowly, but I was in a hurry, because I’m late for visiting hours…’’
‘’Really,’’ she huffs, unconvinced, ‘’well you look fine to me.’’
I’m crushed that this stranger doesn’t believe me. ‘’How is someone partially sighted meant to look?’’ I want to shout, but a lump has formed in my throat and I’m terrified it’ll come out as a squeak. I can also feel tears pricking my eyes and don’t want the humiliation of crying in public, so walk away as quickly as my eyesight will allow.
As I’m approaching the lift, I can hear her shouting after me.
‘’Partially sighted,” she says, “Where’s her dog? Where’s her cane? Partially sighted indeed!!’’
I keep walking.
‘’What a complete bitch’’ I think as I clean up my running mascara in the hospital toilet, ‘’so callous, so lacking in sympathy!!’’
When I’m in bed that night and have time to reflect, I wonder; is that woman a bitch? The reality is that here’s a fragile and elderly lady with a shoulder injury, minding her own business, when a robust woman ploughs into her, causing her pain.
It’s not the first time I’ve unintentionally collided with someone. In fact it’s been happening rather a lot lately. Colliding with people and tripping over toddlers is becoming fairly common. And people get really upset. It’s unusual to be screamed at the way the woman shouted at me in hospital, but people do look alarmed or mutter under their breaths.
Retinitis pigmentosa is a degenaritive disease, and the loss of peripheral vision has been so slow for me, that I’ve barely noticed the deterioration. That is, until I started walking into people, or bashing my shins on unseen objects, or almost getting run over crossing the road, or giving myself concussion banging my head on a shelf, knocking coffee over into my friends lap, strangers at a restaurant assuming I’m drunk … the list goes on.
Going out has become such a major stress, that I wonder if I should just stay at home. Not a good option for me as I’m highly sociable and need to feel the presence of people around me.
But, I think in a splurge of self-pity, maybe I should just never go out. I’m a hazard to others; a public nuisance!
The woman’s words ‘’Where’s your guide dog? Where’s your cane?’’ keep looping in my mind.
Is it time to get a cane? I can’t even begin to describe how resistant I am to the idea. How other people will view me, the fact that I’m not actually blind, so will using a cane make me seem like a total fraud? I mean my forward vision is perfect. So I can picture myself walking along, tap tap tap (do you actually tap a cane), and then telling someone they have a great haircut or something and they’ll think I’m trying to trick them. Unless I just pretend I don’t see them at all. Which is kind of impossible really. Or worse yet, people will think that I’m just doing it for attention. I could always just stop going out. Do online shopping and create my own quniverse at home, where I can’t be a danger to anyone. My main jobs being a writer and a mom means that I could definitely pull it off. But that just wouldn’t suit my personality. I’m too outgoing and I need other people and different environments, even if I’m only seeing ten percent of it. I’m sure I’ll need it if I lose my vision altogether.
For much of the night I wrestle between the various scenarios.
By the time I’m up and about the following morning, I’ve decided that I’m going to tentatively explore using a cane. I open my laptop and punch in ‘’using a cane’’.
Clearly not the best keywords, I think, as everything from ‘’cocaine’’ to ‘’fantasies of being caned as a school boy’’ pop up. Maybe ‘’training with a stick’’? I dare to imagine what might appear. I settle on ‘’Training with a stick for blind people’’, and find LOFOB (League of the Friends of the Blind), a centre in Cape Town that offers mobility training. Although the thought of walking in public with a cane is excruciating, the fact that I have caused injury to someone is worse, so I pick up my phone and dial their number…