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from Fall 97 issue

Travelin' Man

by Robert I. Isakower, reprinted with permission from the Retinitis Pigmentosa Messenger, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring-Summer 1997

Editor's note: I came across this article recently about the difficulties posed by orientation and mobility when a person also has a hearing impairment. I appreciated the great sense of humor Mr. Isakower shows in dealing with the frustrations of being a deafblind travelin' man. If you are interested in receiving the Retinitis Pigmentosa Messenger contact Dorothy Stiefel at (512) 852-8515 or email

When Travelin' Man feels the need to go, he should go, even if it sometimes means going alone. But, what if he has no sight? I was born with dim bulbs. From that entry point of peak performance, my lights have been continually going out over the years. As I experienced lower and lower wattage, I retreated from one survival technique to another. First I pretended to be preoccupied while falling over baskets and short people. Then I learned to use, in this order: a sighted guide, a white cane and finally, a guide dog. There were times when I wanted to use all three, but a quick count revealed that I would need three hands. Since the average American has but two hands, and I am not above average, I had to be more selective in choosing my assistance.

My favorite sighted guide was my wife, Nancy. I held her hand rather than her elbow or shoulder because I always like to hold her hand. We worked out a set of signals which included her twisting my hand up or down to warn me when we were approaching a step.

One day in the middle of a very busy intersection, about eight feet from the next curb, Nancy suddenly squeezed my hand and I froze, dead in the street, and refused to move. She dragged me to the sidewalk, screaming at me: "Why did you stop? You're in the middle of the street."

I screamed back at her, "You squeezed my hand! What does that mean? I figured something's wrong. What is it?"

"Oh, that's just affection."

I almost beat her to the ground with affection. But, this was the middle of the county seat and there were at least 2,000 people in this busiest intersection of town, and someone surely would have noticed.

Fortunately, before we killed each other, a mobility instructor taught us the proper way to use a sighted guide, such as when going through a doorway. The sighted guide tells the blind person which way the door opens, towards or away from him and to the left or right.

My wife always says "in" or "out" instead. She also has trouble telling left from right. If she was always wrong, I would just do the opposite of what she says and be okay. But she's wrong only half the time. Which half?

Not wanting to brain myself on unyielding doors, I developed a technique of walking with my arms held horizontally and my elbows bent out. This gets me through doorways safely, but I come through looking like the attack of the killer crabs or a guy with starched armpits.

More time passed and more lights went out. I still wanted to travel and sighted guides weren't always available, so I learned to use a white cane. What a wonderful, efficient, and simple piece of equipment. It tells people that you are blind, and it tells you what's in front of you. But there are some places where even a cane is not enough.

There are some streets, however, that I dare not cross, even with a cane. Here, I need assistance. So I asked one of my talented daughter-in-laws, who is a graphics designer, to make me a sign. It had big, black, bold letters on a yellow background which said: "I'm deaf and blind. Please help me cross this street. Thank you."

I used this sign very effectively. One "helper", however, was a little suspicious. This fellow did a double take after passing me, and returned to help me across the street. When we were near the other side he asked me, "Will you be okay from here on?"

"Sure, thanks."

He suddenly stopped in the gutter and said, "You answered me. You can hear. Your sign says you're deaf." He suspected a scam, a rip-off. I was cheating him someway. I replied, "There's deaf, and there's deaf. This sign is only four inches by eight inches. What do you want, a resume?"

He ran back across the street, leaving me in the gutter, five feet from the curb. He was probably afraid I would steal his raincoat if he hung around.

Later on, I acquired my first guide dog. She wasn't very good at this business, being afraid of all noises, sewers, parked cars and even curbs. She tried to keep as far away from curbs as possible. Since there was a curb on each side of the street, this forced her to walk in the middle of the road. I told her that we were on the white line which was for bicycles, but she wouldn't get off it. She also waited for airplanes to pass and for all lawn mowers and leaf blowers to stop before she would move.

Once, when I was woolgathering, she took the wrong turn and walked me across a street that I would never attempt in my right mind. Never mind its name, I called it "Death Valley". I realized where I was ... in trouble! This was a residential section with no walkers. Here, the automobile was king. I tried to wave down some passing motorists to get help back across the street, but nobody stopped. My sign was too cluttered with words for them to read as they sped past. I thought of mooning at some passing cars, hoping they would call the police about the character flashing on the roadway. My plan was to tell the cops the real story and where I lived and ask them to take me home. I abandoned this scheme when I remembered that the state mental hospital was less than a mile down the road, and they would probably take me there instead. I was saved when a poor man walked up (he had no car) and helped me across the street. I walked home, lecturing my dog on what happens to bad dogs who do not pay attention. They are sent to the doggie farm where they are made into hush puppies and hot dogs. She ignored me as usual.

When I got home, I contacted my talented daughter-in-law and told her I needed a new sign. This one simply read, "HELP". I used this sign with even greater effectiveness because it didn't reveal anything about myself.

All these adjustments are evolutionary. The more problems you solve, the more problems you discover. I noticed, while waiting at the curb with my replacement dog for the traffic to pass, that motorists would pull up to the corner and beep their horn at me. What did this mean? Did it mean, "Go ahead, I'll wait for you." Or did it mean, "Don't walk, I'm coming through?" I didn't know because the dog has been trained not to move if there's a car at the corner with its motor running. I could overrule him, but that would ruin his discipline and negate his training. Then I would hear the driver yelling at me through his window. I couldn't understand what he was saying and ignored him. After a while, the driver, in a rage, would roar off with a squeal of rubber, and would probably chase the next blind person he saw up on the sidewalk and run him over.

I was told they even waved at me through the window, motioning me to cross. They knew I was blind because I had all the right colors: black glasses, yellow dog and white cane. I had to let them know that I was also deaf so they wouldn't expect me to hear and understand them. What to do?

Back to my talented daughter-in-law. Vicky made me another sing which read "DEAF-BLIND", but this sounded too tragic. I needed to lighten it up. I did this by having it read "DEAF-BLIND AND CHARMING." I thought about this for a few days and decided I didn't feel charming all the time. So, back to my talented daughter-in-law. I had her alter the back of the sign to read "DEAF-BLIND AND CRABBY." Now I was ready for all my moods and needs. This sign works perfectly. I even sometimes change it during a walk depending on what has just happened to me, and the townspeople enjoy having their own Walter Weird.

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