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In January of last year, I received my membership card to a club I’d never imagined I’d be part of. It was from the New York State Commission for the Blind and affirmed that I was legally blind. I had started 2021 fully sighted, but in June I suffered an attack in my left eye of non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION). In simple terms, my left eye had had a stroke as a result of the ceasing of blood flow to the optic nerve due to a drop in blood pressure in the eye. The top half of my left eye is totally blank. In 30 percent of cases, the condition reverses itself; in 20 percent of cases, those who suffer NAION in one eye have it in the other. I was soon to find myself in the smaller minority: in October 2021, 40 percent of the vision in my right eye was obliterated. Though I can see—most who are deemed legally blind can see, though poorly—I have little peripheral vision, and what I do see I see partially and through a milky blur. I can no longer read books (though e-books with the font enlarged to the max are readable). It’s hard for me to make out traffic lights, I have a problem judging heights, and suffer total visual confusion in crowded places. To ease my problems getting around, and to signal my disability, I use a white cane.
When the trainer from the Lighthouse Guild for the Blind brought me my cane and instructed me in its use, I embraced it as an homage to one of the great scenes in American cinema. I’ve always thought the funniest scene in any American comedy is the one with the blind man Mr. Muckle in the WC Fields classic “It’s a Gift.” The marvelous havoc he wreaks was now to be mine, and I set out with Fields’s voice calling, “Watch out for Mr. Muckle” echoing in my head.
I also realized this would allow me to carry out an important social experiment. I would now be a different kind of person in the eyes of the world. I would be “the Blind Man.” What does that mean? What could I expect of others? David Lodge, in his novel Deaf Sentence, wrote that “the blind have pathos. Sighted people regard them with compassion, go out of their way to help them, guide them across busy roads, warn them of obstacles.”
Would humanity—at least the sample of it that inhabits New York—rise to the occasion?
My first outing with my cane set me straight. Great brightness, as much as darkness, leaves me helpless, and I was stopped dead as I tried to cross Downing Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. I couldn’t even locate the traffic light, much less determine its color. I stood there, gesturing helplessly, as pedestrians passed me by. I should have been aggressive about it and asked for help, but I was a novice and thought my plight would be noticed and that assistance was imminent. It wasn’t, and I stood there for several minutes until I was able to determine it was safe to cross. The template for my life as a blind man was set.
It’s over a year now that I’ve navigated using a white cane, and if I had a dollar for every time someone helped me to cross the street, I’d have a dollar. One young man, waiting for a bus on busy Kings Highway near my home, saw my predicament and took my arm to guide me. That’s been it. To be sure, some have offered to help me and the situation didn’t require it, so I demurred. I’ll add these instances and say I’d have five dollars after 15 months of blindness. I stand at street corners with my cane, and it’s as if I’m not only blind, but invisible.
I’m often given a wide berth when I walk down the street, since proper cane technique requires swinging it before me from shoulder to shoulder. It’s not rare for people to abandon the sidewalk to me entirely. The rest of the time, it’s an adventure, an unpleasant one at that. The sidewalks are encumbered with bicycles, scooters, e-bikes, and people with their heads down concentrating on their phones. Add in those who are impatient and cut you off. Catching my cane in people’s legs is not rare, nor is my whacking people on the ankle—sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. The latter is my liberal interpretation of what I was told when I was trained in cane usage: I have it to warn me of obstacles, to signal my handicap to others, and to guarantee my space. I’ve developed a mastery of the slight flick that will hit the ankle of anyone who fails to respect my space. No one has ever cursed at me when they’ve received a blow. Whether it’s pity or recognition that they’re in the wrong that inhibits them I can’t say.
I am aggressive on buses and subways. For some reason there is always a subway passenger who will give me a seat; buses are another matter. If a bus is crowded and none of the handicapped seats are free—usually filled with young people on their phones—I stand in front of them, bang my cane and announce: “One of you is getting up.” It almost always works, but shame shouldn’t be the motivator, decency should.
It was first and foremost as a signal to cars that I can’t see them, especially when they turn in my direction, that I was overjoyed to be given a white cane. My peripheral vision is negligible, and turning cars are invisible to me until the last second, if then. The proper technique for crossing when blind is to set out only when the light has just turned green, so cars can see you and you can establish your ownership of the crosswalk. The assumption is that drivers, upon seeing you start to cross, will wait until you’re clear before turning. In the majority of cases, this is true, but with many exceptions and a caveat. In many neighborhoods, including my own, stop signs and red lights are merely advisory, not compulsory. Often, before I’ve had a chance to step off the curb when the light turns green, drivers will shoot out as fast as they can to make their turn. More often they’ll simply edge forward as much as they can and as close to me as possible, as if the seconds saved will extend their lives, leaving me with motorized beasts hovering at my side. Worst of all, though, are those who cut in front of or even directly behind me, leading me to feel like a matador executing a paseo, with the car a bull all but grazing me.
Is there a place or a situation where people act as one would hope they would? There is, and it’s the most unlikely one of all: airports. My wife and I recently traveled to Norway and Iceland, which required several passages through airports. In every case, airport staff, upon seeing my cane, ushered me to the head of lines, from check-in to scanning of boarding passes, and even passport control. I have to be clear, though. It was airport staff, not passengers who deferred to my handicap. Though we were able to board our flights among the first group, the other passengers in every instance jostled past me. The Nordic countries allowed me to expand the scope of my social experiment, and it’s also worth pointing out that I received more assistance in five days in Oslo than in a year in New York. It was in the Norwegian capital that I finally witnessed the decency I’d hoped for and expected. A young woman, when I thanked her for helping me up a flight of stairs, replied: “It’s the least I can do.”
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.