Friday, May 13, 2011


I planned a trip to Leduc with a curious sense of anticipation. Though my work at the Hope Foundation takes me lots of places, it is most unusual for me to visit a group of visually impaired seniors. But that is the thing I would be doing in Leduc. Sometimes a thing in your future will take you right back to your past.
The first full time professional job I ever had was with the CNIB in Edmonton. I was the area representative for northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The year was 1977 and I had been hired to travel thousands of miles along dusty country roads offering CNIB services to blind people in their homes. The CNIB employed drivers to assist those of us who could not drive ourselves. Monday mornings would find my driver and me heading out of the city. Between us on the front bench seat stood a box of file cards containing client information organized alphabetically by town. All the blind people living in Smoky Lake, for example, would be filed under S. Each card would contain specific directions for finding the house or farm we were seeking. Behind us were boxes of goods that our clients might want. There were players for talking books, magnifying glasses, white canes, braille watches, and tubes of silicon we could use to make tactile marks on the dials of appliances that were designed solely for the use of sighted people.
The country clients, living as they did among the sighted, were glad of our visits. And I, remembering a childhood spent on a farm 9 miles south of a village most people never heard of, felt at home on the dusty roads running along the railroad tracks where the crocuses unfolded their flowers in early May. Hour after hour we’d sit sipping coffee at kitchen tables in sunny farmhouses and tiny villages discussing the problems posed by vision loss. At some point in the discussion I would produce the technological wonders designed to solve them. Friday afternoons would find us back in the city, us tired, the boxes half empty, the car caked with mud.
On the whole it was a great job. On the whole, I figured I was a most suitable candidate for the position. Born with very little vision, I was raised in the British tradition—the stiff upper lip, don’t wine, take on your goals, overcome barriers tradition. There had been times when I despaired as I tried to compete on an unlevel playing field. There had been unmentionable worries about my future. But now, with this great new job, I was making a contribution, earning money, using my professional skills, setting an example. Who, better than I, could offer something of value to these isolated country folk?
I did not know, when I took to the road for the first long trips of early May, how different from me my clients would be. Because most vision loss happens in response to diseases associated with aging, the clients tended to be older—70 was a young age on my case list. Most of them had lost their vision late in life, and the adjustment was difficult to make. This did not surprise me. What did take me by surprise though—me with a narrow viewpoint of my British raising—was the manner in which people from other backgrounds responded to their circumstances.
Take, for example, the Ukrainian grandmothers. The Ukrainian settlement towns of northern Alberta had dozens of them. Beckoning us to enter tiny warm homes fragrant with garlic, they would throw their arms around me and burst into a flood of tears. “Oh, oh!” they would cry in thickly accented English. “You are so young! You are blind! It is a tragedy! So sad! You are so beautiful and so afflicted! It is so sad, so so sad!”
My first impulse, on receiving this unexpected onslaught of unreserved pity, was to jump into the car and lock the doors, for the rules of professional conduct, with their focus on confidentiality and boundaries gave no helpful direction. But there was a job to do. There were braille alarm clocks these women would never see if I did not show them. So I would do it.
Into their kitchens I would slink, wet-shouldered and protesting. “I am fine,” I would say.
This, however, was not the message they wanted to hear. They had no ears for it. “It is so sad,” they would wail. “So sad, you are so young.” As they moaned in sympathy for my plight, it was clear that they were feeling better than they had in some time. Here was rehabilitation turned on its head. Finding somebody in worse condition makes you feel better.
In the first year I conducted a hundred human experiments, trial responses to keep my shoulders dry and my pride intact. I kept my arms primly crossed to ward off their hugs. I brought pictures of my husband to prove that I could get a man. I took to introducing myself as a social worker. But all of it was a waste of time. I could show them how to mark their spices with large print. I could teach them to tell when a cup was full by placing a finger a little below its edge. These things they might learn from me, but what they loved most was to feel better by feeling sorry for me. Eventually I got used to it, even grew to welcome it in some strange way. It was they, more than anyone else, that I missed when I moved on to other jobs.
It was these passionate women who came to mind the day Mary called to ask if I would speak to the Sight-Seekers support group for visually impaired seniors in Leduc. She said, “We need somebody to come and tell us not to feel sorry for ourselves.” She promised me that transportation would be provided. When the day arrived, and Leona from the CNIB came to pick me up, it was the memory of them that stirred my thoughts.
The Sight-Seekers meet in a church hall. They were sipping coffee and chatting when Leona and I entered the room. I was careful not to cross my arms. Boundaries are not nearly as important to me as they used to be.
So maybe I was a little disappointed when hands were politely extended, greetings were cordial and nobody rushed forward to enfold me in a watery embrace. I was thinking of this, and that’s when the force of a new reality hit me. Even if there were any Ukrainian grandmothers in the room, things would be different. That was 1977, this is 2011. And I—no longer a girl in the bloom of early 20’s--am so much closer to being one of them that I might not even qualify for their sympathy.

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