Learning to live with sight loss

As my sight went from what I thought was normal sight to no sight in a period of 18 months or so, I had quite a while to learn to live with it, although as it kept getting worse, I kept having to learn to do things differently.

When I could no longer see to carry out my normal bank duties, I started a period of sick leave. Work was understanding. One of my workmates contacted the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) who sent one of their employee advisers out to meet me, the branch manager and the bank’s human resources officer. The bank’s position was that they wanted to find a job for me that I could do, but they didn’t feel that this would be possible in a branch. The main reason for this appeared to be that I wouldn’t be able to tell the character of anybody who was applying for a loan. I didn’t know what to think of this; were they being ridiculous or was I being ridiculous for questioning whether this was correct or not? I fully accepted that I wouldn’t be able to handle cash on the counter, or read hand written cheques, but I wasn’t convinced that they were correct on that point. The RNIB assured us that the technology existed to allow me to do all other activities that the bank might want me to perform, so it appeared that I still had career prospects within the bank. However, the RNIB advisor was content that because of the problems with handling cash and cheques, and not being able to spot fraudsters, my career prospects did not lie in a branch. I would have to wait until the bank found me a job that they were happy for me to do. I tried to stay positive and focus on the possibility of an exciting new chapter in my banking career, but as time passed by with no movement, I found it increasingly difficult to envisage myself ever working again.

During 1991, I had started to learn Braille, how to use a keyboard as well as learning how to use a white stick, or long cane to give it the professional name. I had done this with my rehabilitation officer DS. She visited me at home to teach me Braille, and despite my fingers initially being as sensitive as a frozen sausage, I did manage to read Braille, albeit very, very slowly. It was so slow and pains taking that if a word was really long I sometimes forgot how it started by the time I got to the end. DS had also tried to teach me how to cook and iron. She was obviously expecting me to live a single life, but she swore it was just a means of giving me independence.

I was also learning how to type and use a very basic computer package with voice synthesis output at Driffield College. This was all a bit surreal to me. The college was on the Driffield School site, and I think that at the time I was the only person in the class who was under 70. To make matters worse, Driffield School had been the scene of many of my most memorable sporting moments. The rivalry between Bridlington School and Driffield School was intense, especially at rugby, and many close games had been played between us. These games required me as our stand off to be at my physical peak, dictating play, sprinting around the field, slamming opponents to the floor and evading grasping arms. I don’t think we ever lost to Driffield, but the margins were minimal. The coach journeys back to school were always great fun. By contrast, the coach journey’s home from the college with my octogenarian buddy’s were a little more subdued and I wasn’t aware of any of my colleagues mooning passing motorists!

I had also competed in inter-school athletic tournaments at Driffield School, beating all comers, and I had also scored many memorable goals at Driffield School as well in our always close football matches. Two such goals stand out due to the unusual nature of both.

The first goal I scored at Driffield School was an extraordinary one. A long ball had been launched forward for me to run onto and use my pace. The ball bounced just ahead of me and kicked high into the air. I had sprinted past my marker and I could see the keeper coming off his line towards the edge of his penalty area. As the ball dropped I was in two minds whether to shoot immediately or to take the ball down on my thigh and go around him as he sped towards me. The uncertainty led to an exquisite lob with my knee over the keepers head into the empty goal. All my teammates said it was a fluke, but I didn’t do flukes, everything was always planned.

The second goal, my last ever goal for Bridlington School during the sixth form, was a painful memory. I had received the ball in the middle of the field and started driving forward towards the opposition penalty area. Our right winger, our most forward player, was wide open and so I fed the ball out wide to him. He went past the last defender to the by-line. The keeper, seeing the danger, left his line and moved out to our winger. I had continued my forward run and was closing in on the edge of the six yard box, having sprinted past the Driffield defenders, totally unmarked as our winger pulled the ball back to me. However, the ball was at that special height where it was just too high to volley, but just too low to head. I decided I would stoop to head it, but then decided it was too low. Uncertainty reigned again. Half way through stooping, I jumped so as to volley the ball. Half way through my jump I realised that I had misjudged the speed of the ball – that’s 2D sight for you – meaning that I didn’t have enough time to get my foot up and make contact, so I just threw my body at the ball. Ball met balls, and as the white leather one rolled into the unguarded net the two quickly swelling ones hit the deck with the body that was attached to them. Never have goal celebrations been so muted!

It was with a similar feeling in the pit of my stomach that I sat in the college typing out audio sections of Marti Caine’s life story listening to how good things were during the war. As I painstakingly typed the words from the audio cassette at a snail’s pace, I was aware that the location couldn’t have better signified what I had been and what I had become. I felt a great sense of loss. I found it very emasculating and difficult to come to terms with.

I had also chosen to learn how to use my long cain in Driffield rather than in Bridlington. The reason for this was embarrassment. If I was going to make a fool of myself, I would rather do it in front of people who didn’t know me. Being 21 it didn’t take much to make me feel like I was making a fool of myself, and as at the time I felt that being blind was an embarrassment in itself I think that it was the correct decision to take. At that time, I certainly was not proud of my blind status. From the centre we would do small routes around the vicinity, and eventually progressed to longer routes through the throbbing heart of Driffield. Eventually I was confident enough to take my newly acquired skills home, and although I didn’t go far I felt confident enough to venture out of the house on my own occasionally. As well as routes to the local Post Office to cash my £38 weekly Giro, I learned the route to my local bookmakers, which luckily was half way between my mum’s house and the Post Office.

The initial boredom of not working and spending my days alone had been replaced by an acceptable routine that kept my mind busy, preventing it from straying into areas best left unvisited. My Grandma Lily, who lived in a granny flat extension to the guest house which my parents ran, would make me a cup of coffee at 11:00 am and we would watch/listen to day time television until my Grandad Walter returned from his morning walk with the Daily Express. My Grandma Lily would then read the newspaper to me, using her magnifying glass as she was, for all intents and purposes, partially sighted herself.

Irrespective of my Grandma Lily’s eye condition, inevitably she started to read the horse racing columns to me as part of her trawl through the sports pages. Just as inevitably, a column heralding the coming of the next Pegasus in the 3.30 at Plumpton was followed by a scouring of the race card in order to assess the proposition that one could treble one’s investment for no risk at all. And so began my love affair with horse racing and betting. After we had read the paper, picked out my nags and a record of their names made on my pocket dictaphone, I would grab my stick, my £28 a week stake money (£10 of my benefits being given to my mum for my keep) and off to the bookies to sit on my stool next to the counter whilst the staff, P, B or D, wrote out my £1 win or 50p each way bets for me. From the time my Grandad returned with his paper until I returned home from the bookies after racing, my mind was distracted from the reality that had become my life.

Just like all great love affairs, it has had its highs and its lows. Periods of not being able to tip a wheel barrow and runs of appalling luck were put to the back of my mind by outrageous wins and periods of unbelievable runs of winner after winner. On several occasions I had to be accompanied back to my mum’s house by concerned punters who thought I might become the victim of a mugger carrying that much money in my bulging pocket. Whilst I was never prepared to invest massive amounts on a single horse, I was prepared to invest in multiple bets which promised large rewards if the majority of the selections were successful. On many occasions all the horses came in, hence the need for an OAP bodyguard on the way home. £3 stakes would often result in payouts of more than £200, which, to a person with a disposable income of £28 a week, was a massive sum.

Regardless of the financial sense in my pastime of choice, the fact is that it did the trick of keeping my mind active and giving me something to fill the void that was my life until evening time, which was more often than not spent training. It shouldn’t be forgotten that at this time, daytime television was a very poor relation when compared to today’s offerings; had I not spent the afternoon in the bookies, I’m not sure what I would have done to remain relatively sane.

At this point in my life, when I went out drinking with my friends at the rugby club it was the done thing for any comic genius to nudge me, wait for me to apologise, bump into me again, and keep on doing this until I realised it was the same person trying to wind me up. Once I had realised that this was what was going on, I then had to try and figure out who it was just by using touch and smell alone. I know what your thinking– hilarious! Such behaviour happened a lot, presumably because they didn’t know how to talk to me, but at least they were trying to interact with me; several friends pre-blindness drifted away, their lack of contact suggesting that they found it difficult to deal with my changed situation, a suspicion which has been confirmed to me later in life by those concerned.

I presumed that I had bumped into one of the rugby club comedians one day when I was going to the bookies on a particularly windy day. Such windy days for blind people are the equivalent of foggy days to sighted people. As the wind howls around, only very close sounds can be made out through the sound of the wind rushing past your ears, crossing roads is dangerous, and non tactile clues as to what is around you disappear. Conversely, I can “See” for miles when it is foggy as there is no wind. Give it a go, you really can hear for miles on a foggy day.

On this particular occasion I found the curb as usual where I crossed the road. As I stood on the curb edge listening for cars I was bumped into by a burly figure on my right shoulder. I apologised, as was my default position at the time, especially if I thought they were bigger than me, and went back to listening. Again, a bump on my shoulder followed. I asked who it was, no reply. Oh god, here it goes again, the rugby club jokers are stalking me, which wasn’t surprising as at least two of them, NA and RL, were fairly regular visitors to my bookies.

“Who is it” I asked again. No answer still.

“This really isn’t funny now, just tell me who it is”. I was in a rush, I had a dead cert for the first race, so I couldn’t be messing around like this. Still no answer but still the bumping on my shoulder. I could feel the frustration beginning to build in my chest. The volume level started to rise.

“What’s your name? Why won’t you talk to me? Just tell me your bloody name” I said in a raised voice.

When no answer was forthcoming I put my arms out to try and find some tactile clues. The first thing I realised was that this was a particularly burly figure – I was right to have apologised for him walking into me. The second thing I found out was that he appeared to be wearing a camel skin coat, or something very similar to that; it could be NA, he was a market trader who I could imagine in a Del Boy style coat. The third thing I noticed was a strange smell, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. When I heard him snort, whinny and stamp his hooves it all became clear; I realised that I had been arguing with a horse. I really do hope that no-one saw me talking to this horse. They must have thought it wasn’t just my sight I had lost, especially when I was asking it what its name was and why it wouldn’t talk to me! Who knows what they’d have thought when they saw me entering the bookies a minute later – perhaps they’d think I’d been looking for inside information!

When I went out drinking with my mates I didn’t use my white stick, I just held on to my friends elbows. This on occasions also led to embarrassment, but as I had been drinking it was easier to laugh off. On one night out, the ex-wife’s younger brother, DB, took me to the toilet, I went to my urinal and he went to his. We kept on chatting whilst performing, and as I finished first I stood back and waited for him to finish. I thought I heard him move back and stand next to me, the usual position for someone who is guiding me. I grabbed the arm that was there and carried on our conversation. After about 30 seconds of me gripping the arm and talking to the face that was attached to it, the person to whom both belonged plucked up the courage to tell me that he wasn’t who I thought he was. I soon found DB metaphorically urinating in a heap on the floor. He told me later that the look on the persons face was worth its weight in gold.

At one pub in town, I knew the doormen from the rugby club, and always stopped to talk to them on the way in. Whilst chatting away one night my guide, CT, waited for me on the top step of 3. “Come on Andy, it’s your round” came the cry. After two more of these hurry up calls I reached my hand out for the waiting elbow whilst saying my goodbyes to the doormen. Although what I felt was firm, rounded and at the same height as CT’s well developed set of triceps, there were a few clues which told me that I was not in fact grasping CT’s arm. Firstly, this body part was a lot bigger than CT’s tricep. Secondly, it was slightly softer than his triceps as well. Oh yes, and there was the shout of “Get off my boobs you pervert” which really did give the game away. A slap nearly followed until CT jumped in and pointed out that although I was in fact holding her ample bosom, and that she may be right in calling me a pervert, that it was in fact my blindness that had led to this, not an uncontrollable urge to feel her up.

When we went out in the early days of my blindness it was a regular occurrence for drunken people to threaten me with physical violence due to me staring at them, or worse still, staring at their girl friends. When either my friends or I told them to stop being so silly and explained the situation the usual response was one of disbelief. People just weren’t prepared to accept that a 21 year old could be blind. “Prove it” was the most common reply. Well, how do you prove that you can’t see? The usual way of doing this amongst the drunken community is apparently to count their fingers whilst they hold them up – it wasn’t just the classifiers at the blind athletics championships that favoured this technique (more of this in my blog about my first championship). The problem with this is that it is a one in five chance that you can get it right, which means a 20% chance that a fist will follow, as obviously this means that you can see and were in fact staring at their girlfriend’s breasts as they had suspected.

If on the other hand you refuse to guess saying that you cannot see their fingers they still don’t believe you. The usual response to refusal was to accuse me of extracting the urine. Experience told me that the only way to prove that I was blind was to wiggle my eyes about a bit and stare vacantly into the distance. This seemed to be all the proof required, so wiggling the eyes was my adopted strategy for such problems, and it seemed to work as I always avoided being punched.

On one such occasion down the Cock and Lion nightclub in Bridlington, a particularly aggressive lad, a couple of years older than me and part of the fishing community, insisted that I had been staring at him all night and demanded that we sort it out like men on the pavement outside. After the usual routine had been played out and the eye wiggling had done the trick, a very drunken physically incapable friend, AS, who had been charged with “Looking after me” whilst the rest of the rugby lads were buying beer, drinking beer, sweating out beer on the dance floor or getting rid of processed beer in the toilets, relayed the story to an equally drunk but much more physically able friend, MP. MP, backed up by the rest of the rugby club gang, marched across to the lad that AS had pointed out as the aggressor. MP grabbed him by the throat and dragged him across the nightclub to apologise to me. The problem was that the lad that MP was slowly strangling, who was followed by his gang of friends, was the wrong person. Luckily, eventually, peace was made and the two gangs parted, but it did little to encourage me to follow my friends to nightclubs after that.

My friends also suffered problems when guiding me. Obviously allowing someone to hold our elbow means you are a homosexual, and such comments often followed. Walking into pubs meant lots of stares to which I was oblivious, so it didn’t bother me, but some of my friends were very uncomfortable with it. There was also just plain old non-homophobic ignorance as well to cope with. On one night out, my friends and I were refused entry to a night club. There were four of us, and none of us were that far gone, in fact, it was quite a steady night really. However, the doormen just would not let us in. We kept asking why, and one doorman in particular just kept saying you’re not coming in. Eventually, he said that MP was too drunk to enter. We couldn’t believe this, he had only had about six pints and he usually had nearly double that before we left the rugby club and with him being 18 stone it didn’t affect him that much. We kept arguing and it looked like it was going to get ugly. I thought a fist might follow shortly, so I started to give out signals that I was blind and shouldn’t be hit.

Eventually the doorman said “Look, I don’t care what you say, he’s obviously pissed out of his head, and the guy with the wiggling eyes is having to hold him up by the elbow.”

Now many years of athletic training had made me a strong chap, but strong enough to hold up an 18 stone bloke by the elbow – I don’t think so! We immediately questioned his IQ and explained the reality of the situation. Free drinks followed for some time that night. It turned out that the doorman was not in fact lacking certain mental attributes as we had asserted, but did in fact possess mental attributes that not many do. In short he was a fortune teller with the power to see into the future. These powers obviously got the better of him during our confrontation, as not much more than an hour later, fuelled by the free drinks, MP did in fact require holding up due to being so drunk.

Nights out with the rugby club boys posed another problem for me. When I go out I like to talk, in fact, I like to talk a lot. This means that I can lose track of time, with the result that often the only beer which had left my glass had done so through evaporation only. This resulted in me having to down my pint in one as everybody prepared to move on to the next hostelry. This became rather annoying, and a self perpetuating problem. Downing my pint in one made me somewhat giddy. This made me talk more, which made me drink slower, which made me have to down my drink in one again, and so on, and so on. Attempts were made to purchase half pints, or soft drinks, but those words apparently are not in the vocabulary of rugby players, and as I was unable to find the bar myself, or when found attract the barmaids attention, I didn’t have a choice.

One night I just couldn’t keep up with the pace, and so I asked MP to get rid of my pint for me whilst no-one was looking. He slyly poured it into a plant pot and the problem was solved. This happened in a couple of pubs, and it looked like a long term solution had been found. However, the following week when we all met at the rugby club MP came in for a lot of stick. Rumours had been spreading regarding his masculinity as several independent witnesses had reported seeing him pouring his beer into plant pots. To prove his manhood he had to drink a pint of mixed shorts, a regular occurrence at rugby clubs, and after that the watering of plants with beer stopped.

Instead, we came up with a different way to avoid the having to down pints in one problem. If I was lagging behind in the drinking stakes either MP, CT or JK, or whoever was the designated guide, would nudge me, or tap me on the forearm to signal that I needed to speed up. The more vigorous the nudge the quicker I had to drink. On the whole, this worked rather well, but one night it failed drastically.

Myself and the ex had arranged to meet MP and his wife JP for a drink before we all went out for a meal together. We met in the Nags Head in Bridlington as the John Smiths was a fine pint that went down very well indeed. It was fairly noisy in the pub so we all had to lean towards the person we were talking to in order to make ourselves heard. MP was on one side of me, the ex was on the other side of me, and JP was opposite me. We were chatting a lot and as usual I had neglected my pint. The ex tapped me on my knee and I leaned towards her to hear what she had to say, but she started speaking to JP. As the ex had in fact invented the whole signaling system (trust a woman to be so practical) I immediately took this as the signal that I should finish off the rest of my pint. As the glass left my lips and started its descent to the table I thought I would try to hide the fact that I had required the signal and asked MP if he was getting them in. He duly rose and soon returned with refills.

More chat followed, and after a while MP tapped me on my knee. I leaned over towards him to see what he wanted but as he started to talk to JP, I again took this as the signal to get a wobble on with my beer. My drink was immediately finished. I brandished a tenner at MP and said “same again?” It was obviously going to be one of those nights where I was going to have to do my best to keep up with the big fella. As the old Tetley bitter advert used to say, if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Lots more chat, lots more knee tapping, lots more gulping of beer. After a while I didn’t need any more taps as I was now quite obviously keeping up with MP. We went for our meal, and from what little bits I can remember it was very nice indeed.

The following weekend I met MP and the rest of the lads at the rugby club and was immediately met by MP with a plea that I don’t drink as fast as I was doing the previous weekend as he had struggled to keep up with me. “Struggled to keep up with me? I think you’ll find it was the other way round!” I replied. From his perspective he explained I had been sat there chatting and drinking steadily when all of a sudden for no apparent reason I had picked up my pint, looked slightly startled and downed it in one and then demanded a refill.

Following this the signaling system was ever so slightly altered. We adopted a communication method that retained the better points of our original system, but removed the possibility that the intention behind the nudge or the tap could be lost or misinterpreted. In short, a series of well chosen words would be spoken which would convey the secret message. “Andy, you’re drinking like a bird, speed up” became the preferred option.

By 1992 my keyboard skills were good enough for me to move onto the Sight Centre at the Queens Gardens College in Hull, a rather confusing name for a centre for blind people I thought. There I learned how to use all-singing all-dancing computers with voice synthesis. Input was through a standard keyboard, but output was by way of a computerised voice rather than through looking at the screen.

My fellow students were a strange bunch. None of them had jobs, and several of them lived in homes. There was a pair of twins, who seemed to know every song ever produced in the 60s and early 70s, were clearly “special”, and who had occasional outbursts of naughtiness, often aimed at ladies and certain parts of their bodies. My lessons would often be punctuated with a female voice saying “now then, you know you’re not supposed to touch me there”. There was also a deaf-blind student who I tried to ignore, simply because I didn’t want to have to think about his situation. I did become aware of him on several occasions however, as he did tend to let out a series of very loud farts whenever he ate his sandwiches!

Within no time, and with a massive amount of help from local charities, I was using a similar computer of my own at home all the time. My dad had managed to find a computer gadget which allowed my computer to receive Teletext data. For those readers under the age of 30, Teletext was text data which was broadcast alongside the television pictures and normally accessed through your television screen using an analogue aerial. Whilst there was no search functionality, and the range of information limited, it did at least allow me access to this very limited range of data on equal terms to those with sight. Using my screen reader software I was able for the very first time to access information on my own. This to me was more empowering than my long cane or being able to cook a lasagna. I could now not only take part in sport but also read about it as well. Herein lies the reason why sport, which had previously been important to me, became of vital importance to me; it was the only thing that I could do independently and without help from others.

Throughout this entire period athletics was my saviour, being an escape route from these everyday trials and tribulations. Through the day I was a novice guide dog user (separate post on my guide dog experiences to follow!), a developing computer user, an amateur gambler and whilst able to make a hot drink and cook the most basic of meals, unable to do the majority of the domestic chores necessary to look after myself, but in the evenings I was one of the world’s fastest blind sprinters. The track was the only place I felt comfortable, at home and an equal; that was what really kept me going.

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