Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Come Fly With Me

My in-laws will by now be approaching Dubai, en route for Brisbane. Thankfully, the strong winds that we’ve been experiencing in this part of the UK have subsided, so at least take-off should have been fairly smooth. However, I don’t envy them the long flight ahead.

Although hardly a seasoned traveller, I have found that flying can offer some very interesting experiences for the visually-impaired. For example, like other disabled customers, we can arrange special assistance at airports to help get us to and from the plane. In the bad old days, this might simply have involved providing a wheelchair, regardless of your type of disability. Better still, a few years ago on arrival into Amsterdam, we received some rather special treatment to help us get to a connecting flight. Obviously well trained in the need to protect the disabled customer’s dignity, our guide led the way at high speed, pushing through the busy airport and yelling “Blind Man! Blind Man!” at bemused travellers, as we followed on behind, apologetically.

However, it’s not all bad. Once on board the plane, the visually-impaired traveller is often treated to some extra close attention from the flight crew. On my only trip down under, flying with Singapore Airlines, my wife regularly reminds me of the time I accepted assistance for a guiding arm from the stewardess, to help me back to my seat from a trip to the gents. I maintain to this day that it was a complete accident that I grabbed the lady’s breast, and that I let go of it pretty sharpish. My wife claims she has never known me go to the toilet so much, and I think there is a fair chance that, if I ever go to Singapore again, I will immediately be arrested.

I’ve noticed that, with some airlines, assistance sometimes takes the form of being escorted onto the plane first. Next time this happens, as we’re walking past the other passengers, I think I might remark to my guide, in a nice loud voice, that “As the airlines first blind pilot, I don’t want to ruin my first flight by taking off late.”

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Getting a Grip on Obesity

Consistent use of the afore-mentioned KW turbo-whisk will inevitably lead to an expansion of the old bogsey-belly. This is no laughing matter, as it is not particularly easy for a VIP to lose weight. Having crappy eye-sight makes it easy to lose many things, but not body lard. Walking too fast is fraught with dangers (see lamppost post below) and it can be hard to find a suitable sport in which to take part. So, I have resigned myself to hauling my fat backside to my local gym twice a week. There, I get to shed a few ounces whilst humiliating myself at the same time. For instance, this week, having exhausted my interest in exhausting myself on a bike that goes nowhere, I decided to do some more challenging stuff, and headed for the free weights. The fitness instructor, a nice chap with elbows which I must discuss further in a moment, wasted no time in remindingme what a complete wimp I am. "You'd better start by just lifting the bar without any weights," he explained, following up with "It weighs twenty kilos on its own." But it was too late. By very nicely trying to preserve my physical well-being, he had inadvertently dealt a crushing blow to my ego.

The problem of obesity is one which, although troubling to us VIPs, is also one with which we can be of great service to the nation. You might think that those of us who cannot see would not notice the growing problem of growing waistlines. Not so. Better still, we feel it happening right between our fingers. Every time we accept a guiding arm, we gather evidence of the health of the nation. Forget Body Mass Index, what the Government should be using is Blind Man's Index-finger. Taking hold of someone's elbow gives a very reliable predictive test of their weight. I would estimate that around 70% of the arms that have guided me over the past year have been limbs in need of slims. Of course, there is a huge variety, ranging from the "Skeletor" at one extreme, where care must be taken not to snap the guide's arm, to those where holding on at all is not really possible with only one hand.

Unlike the conventional measures like the BMI, we can also ascertain the difference between a big flabby arm and a big fit arm, like that of my gym instructor, which feels like a smallish tree trunk.

In just the same way that we gather TV ratings or weather predictions from volunteers around the country, an army of volunteer blind people could be out there each day sending back data that could shape the future of services like the NHS. The data could be analysed in a national flaboratory.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Food for Thought

Thanks to the January sales, I am now the proud owner of a spangling new Kenwod Chef. Old Kenneth Wood really knew what boys like when he strapped an outboard motor to a whisk. I wonder why it doesn't come with ear protectors as standard.

The preparation and consumption of food are activities which present their own set of challenges for the visually impaired person (VIP). Difficulties with the latter, from my experience, are the more challenging and, to an extent, more critical for the VIP’s self esteem.

Cooking for me and my family has never really been a problem. Armed with a good recipe book and a few helpful gadgets, such as talking scales, I can be a dab hand with my apron and rolling pin. Checking the instructions or contents can be tricky – taking a chance normally works out okay, but when it doesn’t, you know about it. My most recent disaster of this type involved serving pasta with a delicious covering of carrot soup. However, I generally find that having impaired vision doesn’t have too much of an impact when it comes to preparing a meal. Perhaps it’s because there are so many other senses that come into play. As well as tasting (vital when cooking anything with chocolate in, of course), I can check texture by feeling, sniff out whether I’m using the right herb and listen to find out whether my pan is boiling or simmering. I do have to admit to leaving a trail of destruction in my wake – there isn’t usually a cooking utensil untouched, but I put this down to being a bloke rather than anything to do with my sight. Creation completed, I usually retire, victorious at this point, glowing with the pride of a hunter-gatherer providing for his dependants, armed only with a spatula and half bottle of Shiraz, and let my wife repair the damage.

Eating food, however, is an altogether more tricky business. For a VIP, eating a meal is fraught with physical, social and emotional dangers. Struggling to eat a meal in front of others can be a humiliating, frustrating and embarrassing experience. The basic problem is similar to that suffered by the toddler who, due to a lack of fine motor control, finds it difficult to co-ordinate what he sees with what he does with his hands. For me, the problem is the other way around, but the result is often the same – spilled food, too much food in the mouth, dribbles and spills. The toddler has the advantage of low expectations, a high chair, nice plastic spoons and a bib. For the VIP, there is often only polite attempts not to notice.

Through this experience, you learn that there are ways of managing the risk. Finger buffets, for example, are a potential disaster zone, and I now gladly let someone else fill my plate for me rather than risk picking up one and a half sandwiches or putting my fingers into the salsa dip. Lighting is also key – generally people like to eat in subdued lighting, whereas I will always ask for a window seat in a restaurant, or extra candles on the table. If I have the choice, I’ve learned to be careful about what I choose to eat – there are some things that, however tasty they may be, just aren’t worth the effort. If you think of a scale with porridge at one end and lobster thermodore at the other, you’ll get my drift. I am currently at risk of becoming the world’s slowest eater, as half my forkfuls of food are all fork and no full, and I can spend a mouth-watering amount of time chasing food around my plate. Being told exactly what is on my plate and where can help, such as “sausages at 3 o’clock, chips at 7 o’clock and beans at 10 o’clock ” Unfortunately, some of the food (especially little bloody peas) inevitably ends up in a totally different time zone, but, hey, what else are table-cloths for?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Shedding Light on Lampposts

In the streets all around my house at the moment the local council are busy replacing all the lampposts, presumably with more environmentally-friendly versions.

For a visually impaired person (VIP), the humble lamppost is a double-edged sword, though thankfully not as sharp. On the one hand, it not only provides the sort of additional light that VIPs usually crave, but certain posts provide useful reference points without which finding the way back home can prove that bit more difficult. My last two houses have had lampposts right outside them and while my wife would complain that, in one case, it was too bright to get to sleep at night, I was grateful for its bright glow – my own night star, guiding me back to a safe landing after a night out on the town. Without it, I probably would have ended up being branded a nuisance neighbour “Sorry officer, I know it’s not a pleasant way to water the plants, but I couldn’t get my key in the door. What do you mean it’s not my door?”

On the other hand, I have had several ‘tête-à-tête’s’ with lampposts over the years and I can only hope that they that they that they have not done any permanent damage. This is because, despite the added light they provide at night, they nevertheless also provide a bloody hard obstacle that, from my experience, doesn’t have much’ give’. The forehead normally takes the brunt of the impact, but seems to transfer the shock immediately to the lower jaw, leaving you feeling like you’ve just taken an uppercut from Mike Tyson. For this reason, I tend to avoid walking with my tongue hanging out. It must be tough for visually-impaired dogs, now that I think about it.

One other tip for fellow VIPs is to always carry a polystyrene pizza box (12 inches, preferably). Rushing home one night with my deep-pan pepperoni I remember vividly the crunch of the box as I ploughed into the lamppost. Unlike the pizza-box, I emerged unscathed. Knowing how much I like pepperoni pizza, it’s a fair bet that my tongue was hanging out too! That’s what I call a close shave.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I'm not waving, but blogging!

Yikes, this is a bit scary. For years I've been trying to get stuff published and now I have the world at my mercy, but what the hell do I say? Is this how it is for all blog virgins?

First, let me fill you in on the guide dog situation.

There, that was easy. I don't have one. Nor do I know when I will be getting one. I am, however, a high priority case, having recently lost my last dog to cancer back in October when he was just three years old.

Being without a guide dog is both a traumatic and liberating experience.

3 things I miss about having a guide dog

  • They are so much more sociable than white sticks - they attract people rather than making their ankles bleed (generally speaking).
  • They are fantastically good at what they are trained to do. My last dog, Ellis, once saved me from walking straight in front of a bus - honest - I still have the stains to prove it.
  • They are great family pets.

3 things I don't miss about having a guide dog

  • Picking up doggy doo-doos.
  • I have the use of my left arm back. Although, admittedly, my right arm is now generally taken up with holding a white stick.
  • I do feel a little more independent. This is a bit weird, because a guide dog is supposed to increase your independence...which it does, but you are still dependent on a dog.

Anyway, the advantages definitely outweigh the drawbacks, so each time the phone rings I'm eagerly hoping that it is news of my new dog. Keep your fingers crossed for me.