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It was the same street, same row of buildings on either side. I was sure that the rickshaw puller would get a sadistic pleasure by swerving dangerously close to the startled pedestrian. And the pedestrian must weigh the danger of standing unperturbed by the veering three-wheeler or move away to confront the stray cow bounded in his direction.

Yes, it’s not that easy to traverse the congested streets of south Indian cities, but people here are so used to the place that they make walking in these streets an art.

Not so long ago, I was one of the practitioners of this art, trying to time my jump to stay away from the speeding vehicle or panicking stray animal. Well…as long as I could see.

It’s not just challenging, but suicidal if I try practicing that art as a blind man. After all, traffic related injuries and deaths are increasing each year in cities like Bangalore and Chennai and the mishaps almost always involve people with perfect vision.

Forget about confronting chaos, but even a space with absolutely no movement or obstacle would be challenging for a person who had to undergo gradual vision loss. And herein lies the distinction between those who never had to use their vision before to perceive physical space around them and those who lose it over a period of time.

Despite the common belief that loss of one faculty strengthens the others, which may be true in general, not using vision to fathom the dimension of the space around us could pose quite a serious challenge.

Consider this example: how do you react when you find an empty chair blocking your way?

If you can see, you’d surely move it away.

A visually challenged on the other hand would put out the hand, touch it and move it away.

But a person suffering blindness as a result of gradual vision loss would lack the instinct to put out the hand or understand if he/she is standing behind the chair or in front of it.

No, I’m not saying the way to sidestep obstacles cannot be practiced and learnt over a period of time, but it is harder to change a lot of what we do instinctively.

Adjusting the walking speed to the environment, for example, cannot be taught consciously. Well, at least we still don’t have the wherewithal to modularize it, break it down to a set of instructions and teach those who are becoming blind in their 30s and 40s.

It also needs tremendous mental preparation and emotional acceptance for those of us becoming late blind to take the white cane and start learning mobility. In fact, many late blind still consider the white cane as an unnecessary advertisement of their blindness, but they would do well to realize that the world around them actually knows about their blindness irrespective of their decision to embrace or abjure the white cane.

As someone who had gone through that transformation, I can tell you that using the white cane is tremendously liberating. It quite literally puts the swagger back into your steps and to a great extent removes the hesitation, the uncertainty and the fear of colliding with objects.

But as late blind, we need to be careful with the surrounding environment since it is easy for us to get disoriented.

It often happens in my case. When someone stops me in the middle of the hallway or while I walk towards the door in my news department, I get absorbed with the conversation and find it harder to comprehend which direction I’m facing. I don’t know, for example, if I should walk straight or slightly sideways.

Even those who know how to handle the blind can’t understand this rather strange difficulty and probably end up wondering how someone who can’t comprehend his immediate space could be in a kind of job I’m in.

Though it used to embarrass me earlier, I now realize that observing the dimensions of the space and the obstacles around me could sometimes pose a challenge and I, with my physical condition, can do only so much to demonstrate my understanding of the space.

But if people are going to judge us only on the basis of our ability to walk a straight line (knowing that our blindness puts a certain limitation on us), we shouldn’t let that affect our morale. I don’t flagellate myself over it and in fact, I take pride in finding my own way out of such situations.

That is the only option left to us to tackle the space and the people who populate it.

**As mentioned in the previous posting, my book “Lights Out” will be introduced to audience in Chennai on Saturday, June 14 between 2.30 pm to 5.30 pm. APRED is holding a panel discussion on the occasion on some of the challenges persons with R.P. are facing. Venue: Rajan Eye Care, #5 Vidyodaya East Second Street, T.Nagar, Chennai – 600 017 (near valluvar Kottam).
For more details please call Rajan Eye Care at: +91 – 44 – 28340500, 28340300.

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