Yesterday, I was walking home from the station when I met two friends. One remarked on how incredible it is that I can find my way around Lancaster, to which I gave my usual reply that I’ve been here such a long time that if i couldn’t find my way by now …! But this didn’t seem to fully satisfy him.
This set me thinking. You see, so many things about me seem to provoke so many questions. People ask me where I’m from, because there’s the natural presumption that I’m not British. How do they know? When I’m away, I generally say I’m from Lancaster, and then they ask “but where are you really from”? Then people ask how come my English is so good, to which I give the standard reply that Nigeria was once a British colony. Then, they ask how come I can find my way around so well? And they remark on how impressed they are.
Maybe these questions reveal a lot about those who are asking, … how little they know of Nigeria, or of visual disability. But what does my own reaction reveal about me. I’m usually surprised that these things would impress anyone. I do things because I do them, I never attach any real significance to my ability to walk unaided round town. Why should I? I’ve been doing it forever.
I can’t imagine not being able to walk round town. If I needed to get to the shops, I’d have to ask someone, or take a taxi, or just forget it completely. What sort of a life would that be? Maybe I’d have starved to death by now, or be so miserable because I didn’t ever leave the house. Or if I constantly went out, I’d be broke because I always had to pay for a taxi, or my friends would have become tired of my constant pleas to take me to this or that place.
But then, I can find my way around; and because it wasn’t something I did suddenly and recently, or because I’ve grown into the cities I regularly visit, I don’t think it’s any big deal that I can. But is it normal? because I know many who are maybe not so comfortable with their mobility. Have I tried so much to be normal that I’ve actually become different? Because, if there were more disabled people walking around, it’d become so much a part of life, nobody would think to question it. Have I started to take things that are really consequential for granted?
The thing is that most of the visually impaired people i meet are very capable. Some people do some things better than I do, and I do some things better than others. Still, if I knew that one of them did something that I couldn’t, I’d ask how, but not in a manner to suggest that I was so impressed because I thought it would be impossible to do. I suppose it’s the same with everybody else round the world. Some can sew, some can’t; some can use computers, some can’t; some can drive, and some can’t.
Have I become so used to removing obstacles imposed by visual impairment that I don’t see them anymore? I don’t want to be stuck in the ‘I’m blind but I can do it’ mode. Some people have said that I act as though I don’t need others; if that’s true, that’s a bad thing, because I always tell others of the benefits of an active community life.
I know this is difficult for some blind people who get upset when others act like visual impairment prevents them from doing certain things. In truth, I don’t mind curiosity about how I do things. I think though that I’d worry if people were ‘impressed’ or found it ‘incredible’ that I could do something like walk round town. I think there’s a difference between ‘how do you do this’? and ‘I can’t believe you can do it’.
But to answer the question about how I find my way around towns and cities; the answer is so simple, I need to, so I get up and start walking. I’ve given some talks on disability awareness. I always tell the attendees that if I blindfolded them and told them to find their way, they’d first get up unsteadily, stretch out their hands in front of them, and walk very slowly and with great fear. But gradually, as they got familiar with their surroundings, their confidence would improve. Now, magnify that familiarity by 16 years, which is the time I’ve spent in Lancaster, and you’ll understand a little of why I can find my way round town.