Wearing Many Hats For Independence: Traveling Safely

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include an audio recording of Maribel Steel’s short story, “Many Different Hats.” Listen to her story.

Traveling Through a Battle Zone

Editor’s Note: In the wake of Independence Day, we bring you this 3rd in a series on independence.

Maribel wearing several hats on her head

When a blind person ventures out from their home, it can feel like going into a battle zone. Navigating a safe path around obstacles and unpredictable barriers and maintaining one’s dignity is like taking a merry waltz through a mine-field. At any moment, the ground can shift beneath your feet, the white cane may sweep a path straight into a hole and not for one second can you allow your thoughts to lapse to become caught up in the whirlwind of commuter activity. While standing on the pedestrian island in the middle of a busy Melbourne highway, with peak hour traffic zooming past, I stop to consider just how challenging it is to get from home to my workplace.

My Mother and Survivor Hats

First, with my mother hat securely in place, I walk my son to school. The entire time all of my senses are switched to high alert, maneuvering around a host of obstacles in the unpredictable environment. My mother hat is swiftly replaced with a survival hat to help me cross the six-lane highway using my white cane as my trusted guide. I listen with complete focus and concentration – not one other thought crosses my mind except “Stay safe”. I cross the tram tracks and appear calm as I wait with the other city-bound travellers.

My Sensitive Hat

With my sensitive hat on, my nose twitches and my eyes are stinging and my ears are bombarded with the unpleasant roar of the traffic. At the tram stop, a friendly gentleman starts chatting with me, attracted by the white cane. The brief interaction with a kind stranger gives me a sense of connectedness with others.

My Don’t Panic Hat

A helpful pedestrian assists in crossing the street

I step off the tram clinging to two hats, my well worn survival hat plus my “don’t panic” hat. I am delicately poised on a meter of uneven ground, ready to lunge forward at the next break in traffic. My body is tense, my hand and feet rigid, thoughts and hearing focused. It is an unnerving place to be, heavy metal roaring past, with trams thundering by only inches from my heels. The deep vibration on the metal tracks linger well after the tram has moved on.

An observant woman comes to my rescue, asks if she can help, and gently guides me to the safety of the pavement. My cane always alerts others to my impairment and often brings much appreciated help which has sometimes lead to lasting friendships. I count the ten concrete steps to the front foyer of my work place with a deep sense of relief.

My Work Hat

Not only have I located the right building in our busy city, I have arrived safely and its time to don my work hat. I squeeze into the lift (European name for an elevator), and listen to the robotic voice announcing the floors. At the right moment I dash out, careful not to get my cane caught in the uncompromising doors. Making my way to my desk, I slump into the chair.

It has taken so much mental energy and emotional courage just to get this far. Although the journey into the city may have ended, new challenges are about to present themselves. An unpredictable environment awaits: unexpected objects amid the clutter of desks, filing cabinets and loose items on the floor. But my work day passes quickly and before I know it, it is time to set off again for home but in reverse order. The lift, the steps, the roads, the traffic, the tram stop, school, home.

My Adventurous Hat

A blind pedestrian navigates through a sidewalk full of trash bins

Each time I step out of the house a whole new adventure begins. It presents a different set of unpredictable challenges as well as hazards of all descriptions: people, poles, rubbish bins, post boxes, shop signs, outdoor chairs and tables, steps, uneven pavement, parked motorbikes and bicycles, even dogs on long leashes. As a visually impaired person, to cope with my limitations and to successfully function in a sighted world, I have learned to refine certain qualities along the way. Starting with well-honed orientation skills, courage, trust, good humor and above all a fetish for many different hats. You might say “it’s like celebrating Independence Day every time I venture forth from my home”.

To read the adventures of another visually impaired woman and her travels with many hats read “I go adventuring” by Helen Keller. It is a touching account of Keller’s independent spirit through New York City.

What Hats Do You Wear?

As a visually impaired or blind person what kinds of hats do you wear? How has wearing your hat helped you with independence? Do you have a story to share? We’d be delighted to hear from you in the comments below.