Monday, April 27, 2009

Walking tall alone

Yes, walking tall alone, proud with my achievement. Following my last posting `a morning train ride’ I felt such a great sense of achievement. This inspired me to move forward, that is, to grow out from the ‘baby steps’ learned so far. It was time for me to crushed the ‘fear barrier’ of walking alone, time to learn to walk tall, independently with confidence. ‘Just do it’ and ‘Walk the Talk.’ Hence, for the past couple of weeks, I stayed focus, shifted into the aggressive gear mode in improving and upgrading my O&M (Orientation and Mobility) skills to the next level in achieving my goal of becoming independent as much as I possibly could.

“Ready for today’s morning walk?” Peter M coolly asked me as he turned up for our appointment at MAB, Malaysian Association for the Blind. Peter M, in spite of his hectic schedule, had agreed to allocate more time in my O&M training lessons. He patiently walked with me, stopping several times to explain, describe the surroundings so that I could register a clear mental image or picture in my mind. This mind mapping skill was important for me to know as it would help me to visualize and allowing me to focus and be aware of the potential danger spots during my ‘walk alone walks.’ Peter M reminded me that there was no need to rush and he started to show me how to walk safely to a nearby destination and he would increase the walking distance as the days go by.

“OK! I am ready” I said to Peter M who had told me to walk to YMCA’s main gate and he would be following from behind but not shouting instructions this time round. However, he would keep me under observation from a distance. As usual, with my ole’ faithful white walking cane guiding me, I started to walk out from MAB’s main administrative office, to the main gate and began my walk to the intended destination. Like all the earlier walks, extreme focus and concentration had to come into play. I reminded myself to stay calm, utilize my sharpened hearing sense and mind mapping skills and more importantly, enjoy the walk. I could hear the traffic noise, differentiate the source and direction of the noise. This actually helped me to orientate my bearings and walking direction. At the same time, probing the tiled walking tracks along the pavement with the white cane for guidance also kept me on the right track. Suddenly, I realized I could not hear Peter M’s voice since I walked out from MAB gate. `Has he deserted me, and literary left me to manage on my own?’ I asked myself. To console myself I was hoping he was somewhere around. I continued with my walk. The most scary and challenging part of the walk to me was the traffic lights junction. It was located at the cross road intersection and I had to cross over to the opposite side to continue onwards to my destination. My ole’ faithful slowly guided me to the end of the pavement and to check my position I had to `square up` i.e. stood against the pavement with my heels touching the kerb. This would mean I would be facing the opposite pavement. Squaring up also would enable me to walk straight across to the opposite side when I had decided it was the right time to cross. I had to really focus, listened to the traffic noise, making sure the vehicles are not moving. Unfortunately, the traffic lights warning buzzer was not working. So I had to be cautious. I could feel my heart beating fast and began to sweat while making the decision to cross or not to cross the road at the opportune time. As I coolly started to walk across the road, I could hear the vehicle noise on my right, indicating the vehicle was stationary and the traffic light was in the red mode. The short walk across the road seemed like ages, and I was so relieved when I reached the opposite side, albeit a bit out of alignment. I had veered off course almost to the road but luckily at the edge of the pavement. I heaved a sign of relief and stopped for some moments to catch my breath and re-checked my bearings in relation to the destination. “Not too bad,” Peter M’s voice was heard and in all honesty, I had forgotten all about him during the exciting moments when I thought I was all alone in the world crossing the intersection. What a relief to hear his voice. I then proceeded to walk along the pavement, and had to avoid some morning food stalls located near a backyard morning market. Well, at least some of the food stall operators were kind enough to warn me or help me to divert away from their ‘danger spots’ that is, the tables and chairs placed along the walking tracks and footways. Again, I had to cross the one-way street to get to the YMCA main gate. This crossing was not as scary as the former at the traffic lights. I had to remember to avoid walking into the street lamp post that stood out like a ‘sore thumb’ in the middle of the tiled walking tracks, just outside the YMCA gate. Peter M had warned me of this obstruction earlier. “What a walk,” I said to myself. After a few minutes of cooling down and a chat with Peter M, I turned around and walked back to MAB, without hearing Peter M’s voice again until we finally arrived at MAB’s office. The return walking trip was equally exciting with me getting jittery at the traffic lights crossing again. I had to stand, wait and made sure that I was safe and confident before crossing. Again, it felt like ages just to cross the road at the traffic lights. I was mentally exhausted and my shirt, too, was totally drenched with sweat. More importantly, I was a satisfied walker! Certainly, I shall be looking forward to more of such independent walks, which I strongly and truly believe, will prepare and equip me with invaluable skill to face the challenges ahead.

Phew! More challenging times ahead!

Monday, April 6, 2009

A morning train ride...

“Dad, mind your step” my daughter WY said. I could clearly sense her deep concern judging from the tone of her voice. This happened when I was just about to make my first step in boarding the KTM Commuter train at the Kuang station, located not far from my humble abode. This simple ‘historical and maiden step’ too was my first after my loss of sight slightly more than a year ago. The ‘gap distance’ between the edge of the platform and the train door opening was shocking as I did not realize that I could easily miss the wide gap, slip and fall down between the train and the platform, thus causing undue serious injuries! As I could not see, I had gotten into putting my faith in my ole’ faithful white walking cane in my daily orientation and mobility tasks. My heart almost stopped when my white cane suddenly registered a potential danger zone ahead and promptly ‘informed’ me that the gap was too wide for my normal walking step distance between strides. Suddenly too, I felt a reassuring touch and hold on my shoulders from a kind stranger standing behind me and he coolly said “OK, take a big step.” Well, as I could not see, I did not know what a big step was supposed to be, so I took the biggest step ever in my life stepping into the train! As I sat down in the comfortable air conditioned train, I heaved a sign of relief and quietly said to myself, “What a shocking start to my first ever train ride after my sight loss.”

Earlier on, the same morning, WY who had recently returned home from a two year working and holiday stint in the UK, suggested that we take a train ride down to KL Central Station to get myself familiarised with the route and work on my mind mapping skills. She too, had been a loyal follower of my blog and she remembered about one of my challenging tasks ahead is to be able to travel independently between the Kuang station and the KL Central Station, walk out from the station, cross the busy roads, walk to the MAB, Malaysian Association for the Blind and vice versa. I was a bit hesitant then but WY coolly reminded me what WJ said before, “Let’s do it and make it happen!” This phrase again jolted me in uplifting my spirits almost immediately. So, it’s Hello and Welcome MIH (make it happen) and Goodbye to Procrastination! After parking the car at the station’s parking lot, I told WY that I would attempt to walk unaided to the ticket counter, walk across the pedestrian overhead bridge to the train boarding platform and I would have to listen and follow her instructions in helping me to achieve the challenging tasks ahead.

As the train was about to arrive at the KL Central station, good recorded voice system announcing each approaching station, it occurred to me that I must remember to know which side of the train that I would need to disembark on arrival and it was important that I sit or stand at the correct location situated nearest to the exit door enable me to disembark with ease. When the train door opened upon arrival at the KL Central station, WY quickly said “OK, you can step on the platform without a big step” and explained that the gap between train and platform was minimal. “OK, you can start shouting instructions” I said to WY as we began another phase in my mobility lessons about getting out from the platform, up the escalator and proceed to the main exit barrier. My daughter, my mobility instructor for the day! As we stood outside the exit barrier, I reminded WY to brief and describe to me in detail about the vicinity, my position in relation to the bearings and look out for the grooved tiled walking guide tracks, not easily visible to the sighted and not easily detectable to the sightless. The noise made by the large crowds walking about doing their own business was quite an earful so I really had to gear into extreme focus and attention in registering the various landmarks and locked it into my mind. WY was, too, in full focus and provided me very clear instructions and directions now and then. As we approached the area where the buses/coaches were parked in transit, the noise generated from the vehicles was simply too loud. Surely, it must have exceeded the allowable 85 to 87 decibels! I had to listen and hear very carefully the traffic noise as I had to cross the road to continue to walk to the main roads to MAB which is located across the road, the opposite side of the main KL Central station. This phase of walk was more difficult due to the ongoing building construction work, and the diversion for walking pedestrians made haphazardly. Still, we made it to the traffic lights, another important landmark for me to note. We stopped at this traffic lights junction and again, WY briefed and described to me in detail about the surroundings, etc. It is very important for me to know where I am and be able to visualize or see what is around or nearby as this will help me in improving my mind mapping skills and, therefore, be able to walk with confidence, exercising caution in safety at all times whenever I am on my own in the future.

I did not attempt to cross over to the opposite side of the road which would also enable me to continue walking towards the MAB complex. I will continue this next phase of my mobility lessons in the very near future. So, after more briefings and debriefings from my new mobility instructor for the day, I turned around, backtracked and walked to the main station. My mind mapping skills again, was put to a tough test in remembering the various landmarks, etc in enabling me to locate the KTM Commuter train ticket counter to purchase a ticket for the return journey. I managed the task quite well but needed to stopped now and then to recheck my bearings in relation to the intended destination. A ‘natural built in GPS system” coming into play in providing mental maps, so to speak! It was again, a comfortable train ride on the return leg of the journey. It was indeed a train ride that was both enjoyable and educational to me as part of my rehabilitation in achieving independence after the loss of my sight.

More challenging times ahead!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Touch and Feel.....

The continuous advancement in today’s modern world of ICT has, without any doubts or arguments, played an important role in improving the lives of the blind community. It allowed and empowered the blind community to achieve independence and live a normal life alongside the rest of the sighted world. I, for one, can truly vouched that the assisted technology and the various accessibility options available had provided me the much needed tools and inspiration to cope with my sudden loss of sight. I know that there are still a lot more ICT to learn and to acquire but I am glad I am on the right track.

Not forgetting the basic tool aid in communication, an almost 200 years old communication tool for the blind which still proved to be an invaluable asset and skill to acquire besides the various assisted ICT tools. Yes, I am talking about Braille! The ability to read Braille will certainly further enhance and improve my life. I am IT literate but Braille illiterate!! The feeling of helplessness, frustrations and anger in not being able to feel the words, for example, Braille written notices on doors and different floor levels of the lift buttons located next to the lifts, etc.

Well, I have recently started to learn Braille, beginning with the basics and perhaps, similarly to a young lad learning the ABCs. Unfortunately, I am an adult and understandably, the touch and feel sensation of my fingers may not be as sensitive as the younger guys. The theory part of recognizing and the memorizing the different sequence of the six dots combination proved to be easier than I thought it would be. However, the practical aspect in the touch and feel for alphabets, words proved to be more of a tougher task and challenge. According to my VIP friends, it would take some time in discovering the right finger that would be most sensitive to touch and thus, be able to feel the letters and words. After a few months of experimenting, I realised that my right hand index finger, particularly the right part of the index finger has much more sensations and feel than the other digits. There is still a lot of hard work, patience and practical experimentations in my quest to learning Braille, in the months to come. I do hope that with my strong determination, I would be able to acquire some of the Braille reading skills and perhaps too, be both IT and Braille literate one day.

More challenging times ahead!

Following is an extract from Wikipedia of a brief biography of Louis Braille, a truly remarkable man who had truly, undoubtedly, changed and transformed the world in bridging the world of communication between the sightless and the sighted.

“The Story of Louis Braille
There was a time, not long ago, when most people thought that blind people could never learn to read. People thought that the only way to read was to look at words with your eyes.

A young French boy named Louis Braille thought otherwise. Blind from the age of three, young Louis desperately wanted to read. He realized the vast world of thought and ideas that was locked out to him because of his disability. And he was determined to find the key to this door for himself, and for all other blind persons.

This story begins in the early part of the nineteenth century. Louis Braille was born in 1809, in a small village near Paris. His father made harnesses and other leather goods to sell to the other villagers. Louis' father often used sharp tools to cut and punch holes in the leather.
One of the tools he used to makes holes was a sharp awl. An awl is a tool that looks like a short pointed stick, with a round, wooden handle. While playing with one of his father's awls, Louis' hand slipped and he accidentally poked one of his eyes. At first the injury didn't seem serious, but then the wound became infected. A few days later young Louis lost sight in both his eyes. The first few days after becoming blind were very hard.

But as the days went by Louis learned to adapt and learned to lead an otherwise normal life. He went to school with all his friends and did well at his studies. He was both intelligent and creative. He wasn't going to let his disability slow him down one bit.

As he grew older, he realized that the small school he attended did not have the money and resources he needed. He heard of a school in Paris that was especially for blind students. Louis didn't have to think twice about going. He packed his bags and went off to find himself a solid education.

When he arrived at the special school for the blind, he asked his teacher if the school had books for blind persons to read. Louis found that the school did have books for the blind to read. These books had large letters that were raised up off the page. Since the letters were so big, the books themselves were large and bulky. More importantly, the books were expensive to buy. The school had exactly fourteen of them.

Louis set about reading all fourteen books in the school library. He could feel each letter, but it took him a long time to read a sentence. It took a few seconds to reach each word and by the time he reached the end of a sentence, he almost forgot what the beginning of the sentence was about. Louis knew there must be a better way.

There must be a way for a blind person to quickly feel the words on a page. There must be a way for a blind person to read as quickly and as easily as a sighted person. That day he set himself the goal of thinking up a system for blind people to read. He would try to think of some alphabet code to make his 'finger reading' as quick and easy as sighted reading.

Now Louis was a tremendously creative person. He learned to play the cello and organ at a young age. He was so talented an organist that he played at churches all over Paris. Music was really his first love. It also happened to be a steady source of income. Louis had great confidence in his own creative abilities.

He knew that he was as intelligent and creative as any other person his own age. And his musical talent showed how much he could accomplish when given a chance.

One day chance walked in the door. Somebody at the school heard about an alphabet code that was being used by the French army. This code was used to deliver messages at night from officers to soldiers. The messages could not be written on paper because the soldier would have to strike a match to read it.

The light from the match would give the enemy a target at which to shoot. The alphabet code was made up of small dots and dashes. These symbols were raised up off the paper so that soldiers could read them by running their fingers over them. Once the soldiers understood the code, everything worked fine.

Louis got hold of some of this code and tried it out. It was much better than reading the gigantic books with gigantic raised letters. But the army code was still slow and cumbersome. The dashes took up a lot of space on a page. Each page could only hold one or two sentences. Louis knew that he could improve this alphabet in some way.

On his next vacation home, he would spend all his time working on finding a way to make this improvement. When he arrived home for school vacation, he was greeted warmly by his parents. His mother and father always encouraged him on his music and other school projects. Louis sat down to think about how he could improve the system of dots and dashes. He liked the idea of the raised dots, but could do without the raised dashes.

As he sat there in his father's leather shop, he picked up one of his father's blunt awls. The idea came to him in a flash. The very tool which had caused him to go blind could be used to make a raised dot alphabet that would enable him to read.

The next few days he spent working on an alphabet made up entirely of six dots. The position of the different dots would represent the different letters of the alphabet. Louis used the blunt awl to punch out a sentence. He read it quickly from left to right. Everything made sense. It worked...

(Louis Braille's invention continues to inspire new and innovative products that help build a world that is more inclusive for people with disabilities, such as ADA ramps, also known as "braille for the feet.")

Phil Shapiro
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