Cultural Competence

At work today, I attend a program entitled, “Providing Culturally Competent Services to Individuals, Especially Those with Disabilities.”  The audience consists of counselors, nurses and social workers like me. We learn how to become more sensitive to and effective with clients of different cultures, ethnic groups or disabilities.

Walking home, I mull over what I’ve learned.  I reach the first crossing, where cars turn from a busy street onto my side street.  As I step into the crosswalk, a voice from the car turning in front of me screams a phrase including “mother” as the first half of the whole word, then two words that aren’t “dim wit” but which rhyme and mean the same thing.

My first thought is that this man obviously didn’t attend the same program I did.  If he had, he’d be more sensitive to the blind culture.  He’d understand that blind people can’t see cars.  He’d have learned that a person attached by a harness to a guide dog has the right of way.  My second thought is that I’m glad he didn’t run me down.

I try to understand this man’s culture. Driving is stressful.  Road rage rages.  Offensive driving is the rule. Perhaps he had to drop out of school to support his drunken parents who now get on his case because he doesn’t make enough money.  Maybe he’s just having a bad day.

The man must not be a member of the blind culture.  He may not even know anyone who is.  He probably doesn’t counsel blind clients.  Perhaps he thinks disabled people ought to stay home and out of sight.  Maybe he hates dogs.

I cross the street and walk on.  I don’t take this man’s harsh words personally.  I neither call him a dirty name nor judge him harshly.  I am a professional.  I am above that pettiness.  I just  hope his girlfriend in the passenger seat says, “That man was blind, you moron.  Drop me at the next corner and never call me again.” That way, he might learn a lesson in cultural competence.

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Rehearsing for a Mugging

What would I do if a stranger demanded my money and my cell phone?  Order my guide dog to “Quit wagging that tail and look fierce?”  Beg and pray?  Flail away with errant crotch kicks?  I ponder these questions because, being a blind person, am I an easy mark? Or shall I put my faith in the kindness of criminals?  I pose these questions not to add to our pervasive culture of fear.  Rather, I endorse the motto, “Be Prepared.”

Deterrence is preparedness.  Cruising the urban landscape with a big black dog may appear a street crime deterrent, but Randy’s primary threat is drooling on peoples’ shoes. Self-defense can be a tactic.  One blind fellow in Philadelphia learned martial arts and flipped a mugger so effectively that he broke his neck.  But manslaughter — mine or the assailant’s — is too extreme. And don’t mention any “Blind Conceal and Carry” silliness.

Perhaps self-knowledge is the better deterrent. I recognize I am capable of outrage.  On bad days, when disrespected as a blind pedestrian, I scowl and hurl verbal zingers.  And while I have found a voice as a blind person, I need to know when to keep my mouth shut.  If confronted by a street criminal, my outrage might boil over into an impulsive physical response. That I would lash out is tempting, even cathartic, and it satisfies my sense of outrage at being victimized.  But self-preservation trumps. I can feel outrage at being mistreated, but it’s best expressed in this medium rather than on the street.

I am fortunate that street crime etiquette has remained hypothetical.  I feel safe out there.  I feel confident and at ease and that’s what I wish to project.  But I also want to be prepared without expecting the worst or skewing the Law of Attraction toward negative outcomes.  So, when a stranger says, “That’s a big guard dog you got there,” I’ll just nod and say, “Yup, Brutus is one mean mutt.”

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October Light

I’m raking autumn leaves in my front yard.  I pile them high, high enough I just want to jump in and roll around.  But I’m a man at work, not at play, so I scoop them into big brown bags, lug the bags to the curb and…I…become…disoriented. Nothing is where it should be and what is there shouldn’t be.

I don’t panic, though it’s tempting.  I piece the scene together — curb, parkway, sidewalk, OK.  I start raking leaves again.  The front door opens and my neighbor Martha says, “Gee, thanks, Jeff.  Is this random kindness or do I owe you?”

Becoming disoriented is disorienting, but ending up across the street is astonishing.  I blame the October light, all shards and angles.  It turns my cataracts into mirror balls and assaults my wounded retinas with strobe lights.

Disorientation is a buzz kill.  It shoots me from an autumn-induced, leaf-raking acceptance back to square one on the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.  But denial holds no credence when I must ask my neighbor for directions to my own house. Anger isn’t an option when I’m so frightened all I want is to flee to familiar turf

It’s depressing to think I might need to use my white cane at home.  I have viewed my space as a respite from blindness, at least the getting-around part of it.  But how far things have fallen.

Maybe I can bargain my way out of this mess. If I’m more careful out here and kids keep their bikes off the sidewalk and the lawn guys don’t run their mower over my feet, then I’m pretty safe.  But this bargaining is sounding more like rationalizing, and that’s not healthy.

So, what’s next?  Harness Randy to help rake leaves?  Rake one-handed, white cane in the other?  Venture out only in October overcast?  I’ll ponder a solution.  Meanwhile, I’ve got a job to do. I pick up my rake, tap my way back across the street and hug the maple tree in my yard, the one whose leaves brought me into this dazzling, disorienting October light in the first place.

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I Write What I See

From my vantage point, the problem is obvious: the blind man wants to go up the stairway and his guide dog wants to go down.  The solution is being negotiated — the man’s wagging his finger at the dog and the dog’s wagging his tail.  The man’s lips are moving, but I can’t hear a word, me being inside looking out.

I’m sitting in my easy chair, red pencil in hand, manuscript in my lap.  The blind man and his big, black dog are standing out on that skeletal staircase — more a fire escape, really, cast iron exposed to the elements.  And tonight, the elements are blowing a gale off that great lake.

Looking out as I do, curious who’d be out on a night like this, I see the blind man trudge up the stairs, grabbing the railing with his right hand while his left holds onto his dog by its handle, its harness I guess they call it.  The dog’s leading the man, pulling him, really, when all of a sudden the dog does a 180 and starts down the stairs.

I don’t know why the dog decides to head down the stairs, but he’s a Lab, so it’s food, probably.  Or another dog, maybe.  Anyway, when the dog swings around, I don’t know how the man’s shoulder doesn’t pop out of its socket.  But it must not, because the man’s not howling in pain, which I wouldn’t hear anyway, but I’d sure see the look on his face. As it is, the dog nearly drags the man backwards, ass over teacup down the stairway.  But he stays upright, hanging there, all splayed out like Christ on the cross.

When the blind man finally gets his footing, he lifts that dog’s front half clear off the ground by its harness and puts him back so the dog’s facing up the stairs.  Then the man points up the stairs with his right hand.  But no sooner does he put his foot on the next step up when, don’t you know, that dog does an about-face and starts down the stairs again.

Now I’m wondering if the blind man and his dog can agree on anything.  And I’m curious what the man’s going to do next.  Well, instead of giving the dog what for, with the finger-wagging and the harness-lifting, he sits down on the step and puts his head in his hands.  And it looks to me like he’s either going to crack up or break down, so I’m thinking it might be time to call the cops or the SPCA.

Then the blind man reaches into his overcoat and pulls out this strap and fits it around the dog’s nose and fastens it behind his head.  And the man does this real gently, all the while talking to the dog, which I can’t hear, but I see the frost coming out of his mouth.  And the dog licks the man’s face and I see the frost coming from him, too.  Then, they stand up and the man takes hold of the harness and the dog leads the blind man up the stairs and they get to Upper Michigan Avenue just as the #147 pulls up and they get on the bus and away they go.

Well, I watch all sorts of folks from my vantage point — drunks and cops, lovers and thieves.  I’m putting them all in my novel.  I write what I see: struggles for dominance. Handcuffs and nightsticks, headlocks and knives are currency in those transactions.  I’ve even seen how a Taser quells the headstrong.  But the blind man didn’t use that kind of paraphernalia and I for sure didn’t see any electricity or the dog’s hair stand on end.

No, the blind man only had that strap gizmo to calm his dog.  Tomorrow, I’ll call around to zoos and animal places so they can clue me in on how that thing works. I reckon it’s just a muzzle-type what not, but it sure had a peaceable effect on that dog.

All of which leaves me pondering.  What I’ve just seen — how once the blind man stopped the rough stuff and used his magical strap to get through to his dog — maybe is a metaphor for something bigger, something we can all learn from.  Like how we humans can live together better, and animals too.  I have deep realms to delve into.  I’ll heat up some cocoa because a nice hot beverage helps me think things through.

I bear witness and testify about the world from my window.  I’ll keep watching, watching for people and things I can put in my novel.  I see them all from my vantage point — calm and furious, cowed and untamed, all who rise and all who fall on that steel staircase.

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During my walks between home and work, my feet follow the course while my mind wanders.  Some days, I list things—U. S. Presidents, state capitals, pro sports teams (30 in baseball, 32 in the NFL).  Other times, I sing “Sgt. Pepper’s” or the first Doors album.  Today, I’m making a gratitude list.

I am grateful for my Seeing Eye dog, Randy.  His work ethic enables me to relax my mind a bit, to list things and sing songs during our walks.  He is my guide and companion.  With him, I never walk alone.

I am grateful to have GPS rather than relying on guesswork, memory or counting steps when I try a new route to work.

I am grateful for a sense of adventure that gets me out of the house to explore new places and things.

I am grateful for the willingness to say, “Please help me” for direction in life from a higher power and directions to the bus stop from a stranger.

I am grateful for the occasional wisdom to apply the phrase, “Don’t Give Up,” judiciously—to know when to keep pushing and when to give it a rest and come back to it later.

I am grateful that, for me, there is no physical pain with blindness and I am grateful to have the empathy to extend to those who suffer.

I am grateful for people in my life who love, care, encourage and try to understand and I am grateful when I find those qualities in myself.

I am grateful for the perspective to view blindness not as punishment, deficiency or a bad break, but to see it as a part, but not the defining part, of a larger me.

I am grateful for the gift to accept blindness as real life and to make of it what I will.

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Time and Tide

Labor Day, 2015.  I stand on the balcony and stare at the lake.  Waves lap the shore, sails snap in the breeze. The sun sinks low and shadows settle over me.  It’s the end of the season.

My first summer here was 1957.  Early that season, Cleveland pitcher Herb Score got hit in the eye by a line drive.  The Yankee hitter said he would quit baseball if Herb Score went blind.  I was seven and heard it all on my transistor radio.

I was here in 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot and killed.  My high school buddies and me came for our post-Prom party.  I drank too much and could barely focus on the lake.

In 1977, I tried out my new mask, fins and snorkel.  I dove and rose, paddled and breathed underwater.  I saw schools of shiny fish and watched them scatter like shooting stars.

In 1985, I saw a lightning bolt split a towering oak.  I watched red sails blown across slate gray water.  I saw a waterspout connect the lake with the sky.

I stand on the balcony and stare at the lake.  I add blue to splashing waves, red to snapping sails, gray to clouds that shadow the day’s last light. My Seeing Eye dog lies at my feet.  We’ve been here a week, just the two of us.  We are companions.  He leads our walks and retrieves our Frisbee. I write on my laptop and listen to books

We wait for the phone to ring.  It will be my wife, saying she’s almost here and the holiday traffic  isn’t as bad as she’d feared.  I’ll know before I answer that it’s her — she’s the only ring tone with Quacky the Duck.  Now, a wood duck quacks from the lake and Randy nuzzles my hand, telling me it’s she on the phone.  “Time will come, big guy.  You’ll see her soon.”

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While most people equate sun with fun, I prefer overcast.  This is not a mood disorder, for I radiate a sunny disposition.  Rather, this is a matter of perception.  A good, solid overcast removes glare from daylight and softens shadows through which I must pass.

Light perception, which I retain as a vestige of full eyesight, provides vital clues about my surroundings.  I sidestep car headlights and aim for the light at the end of the tunnel.  But light perception turns navigating on bright days into a guessing game.  Is that a manhole cover or a black hole that drops all the way to China?  Is that deep, dark shadow the mouth of a cave or just a leafy tree?  Logic and experience suggest I am safe, but one can’t be too careful these days.

A pedestrian passing between me and the sun casts a shadow which I perceive as a baseball bat aimed at my solar plexus.  For a passing truck, the shadow is a tree trunk.  In either case, I recreate a scene from that Psych 101 video—the “exaggerated startle reflex.”  My reaction, in turn, scares passers-by.  They think I’m having a heart attack.  And on such a beautiful, sunny day, that’s such a shame.  And my reaction beyond being startled is to get mad at whoever startled me.  How dare you cast your shadow across my path?  Well, how dare you?

So, what’s a fellow to do?  For one thing, my Seeing Eye dog, Randy, takes a lot of guesswork out of sunny day uncertainty.  If Randy doesn’t fall down the manhole, I guess I won’t either.  A white cane solves some dilemmas.  And baseball caps help, too, but sunglasses make the whole scene too dark.  Most of all, though, when shadows fall across my sunny disposition, I keep smiling.  I want to exude cheerfulness; I don’t want people to think I’m having a coronary or a tantrum —or both.

Posted in Adapting, Blindness, Guide Dogs | Tagged , , | 2 Comments