Western Leader : December 23rd 2010
19 WESTERN LEADER, DECEMBER 23, 2010 NEWS Changing landscape helps blind Being blind is the reality for thousands of New Zealanders. Michelle Cooke experiences a glimpse into their lives and talks to two people who deal with it everyday. Nothing in the way: Despite being blind, Tony Mosen doesn't let anything get in his way. He skis, snowboards and loves spending time with his three-year-old son Riley. Photo: FIONA GOODALL Leading the blind: Chris Orr lost his vision when he was shot in the head at the age of 21. He now works to ensure Auckland's infrastructure is accessible to everyone, including those with sight impairments. Photo: JASON DORDAY I know exactly where I am. I can smell the grass and feel the air against me. But I can't see anything. This is the reality for millions of people throughout the world. I'm only experienc- ing it for an hour. I'm in Parnell at the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind's headquarters with orientation and mobility instructor Andrea Munroe. Blindfolded, I hold the back of Andrea's elbow as she leads me up and down stairs, along ramps, around corners and across streets. Andrea helps people adjust to their loss of vision. She visits them in their homes and guides them through their neighbourhood. The aim is to get them used to using their other senses -- smell, hearing, touch. We're used to using vision in such a dominating way but you can do without it,'' she says. There's the trees, the cars, the buildings -- all of those things are creating a feeling of space or closure.'' I can hear the buildings while Andrea guides me through Parnell streets. While I talk to her, I can subtly hear my voice change as we walk past a building then past an open space. I can hear the echoes and feel the air pressure alter. Everything is completely dark -- but only 5 percent of people classed as legally blind see nothing. While wearing a blindfold allows me to experi- ence what it is like not to see -- it does not represent a true simulation of blindness. Most blind people have some sight -- whether they have tunnel vision or the centre of their vision is obscured by a spot. There are a range of con- ditions such as diabetic retin- opathy, where blood vessels in the eyes have been damaged, or cataracts, which cause blurred vision and a sensitivity to glare. Some people are born with these conditions -- for others, they arise throughout their lives. Chris Orr's vision was taken away from him. He was celebrating his 21st birthday when he and his mates got into a fight with a motorcycle gang. Four of them were shot -- one in the face, one in the chest and one in the shoulder. Chris was shot in the head and immediately lost his vision. I went from being sighted to blind like that.'' He moved from Dunedin to Auckland for rehabilitation and has since called the city home. Remarkably, he says it wasn't difficult to adjust to being completely blind and counted himself lucky that there was an organisation to facilitate his rehabilitation. I just took to it like a duck to water,'' he says. Learning the blindness skills was very easy -- what I didn't realise till much later was that there are a whole lot of other things that you've got to embrace and come to get grips with, such as the social aspects. I made every effort to look sighted. That was almost a denial thing.'' After a year in Auckland Chris was matched with his first guide dog and was offered a job working for the foundation on the switchboards. The 57-year-old is now in the role of community edu- cation adviser and works with councils and transport agencies to make the city a more accessible place -- not only for blind people, but for everyone. Things that are in now would never have been put in years ago because people just didn't consider people with impairment,'' he says. There's no way we could have ever known what time the train was coming because it was just painted on to a wooden board at the side of the station -- so access to information has been one of the biggest changes. But what's been the biggest change is a mind- shift. People now say how can we build our city so people with an impairment can move around. Now it's not a question of should we have tactiles? It's what sort of tac- tiles should we put in?'' Tactiles are the pads of small, raised dots that are often found on the side of busy driveways and street curbs. They warn blind people to stop or slow down and point them in the right direction. Tactiles and traffic poles are often yellow because it is a good colour for those with limited vision to see. The yellow line drawn along the edge of a station's platform was originally designed for blind people but now everyone is encouraged to stand behind it. So it's now become part of the landscape. People don't realise the original design was for blind people,'' Chris says. What was special has now become mainstream.'' Even one of the earliest typewriters was designed with blind people in mind. Printed material can now be turned into electronic text, larger print or audio -- mak- ing it easier for blind people to access. It can also be converted into Braille but not every blind person knows how to read it. When I talk to Chris in his office a voice from his com- puter speaks fast. Oh, that's just data trans- ferring,'' he says. At Newmarket Train Sta- tion, tactiles indicate when you are about to walk down the stairs or hop on the esca- lator, and guide you to the main platforms. Chris worked with Auck- land City Council's disability issues advisory group to ensure the station was easily accessible. Large yellow writing flicks through on a black screen, informing commuters of the next train's destination and time and announcements are made over the speaker. Chris catches the train from his Manurewa home to Newmarket and back most days. He says it works because the advisory group worked with the council on its design. The father-of-three is diffi- cult to keep up with when he walks to the station with his guide dog Riley. When I'm walking down the road I'm not thinking: oh -- there's a tactile pad','' he says. Without realising I'm processing information in exactly the same way as you are when you're driving to work. You don't consciously think about driving around a corner or how many times you brake -- because you do it automatically. That's exactly whatIdo ,bu tIdoitina different way.'' Tony Mosen has skied, snowboarded and climbed Mt Ruapehu -- despite only having around 5 to 10 percent vision. The 23-year-old was born with Peter's anomaly, a con- dition so rare that he believes he is the only one in the country with it. He's never known much about it and doesn't want to. It's nothing unusual to me,'' he says. It's not genetic -- my son has perfect vision and so do my parents. It was just bad luck.'' The Henderson resident can't focus or see details, but can see colours and shapes. When he was 16 he ran into a rose bush and cut his eye open. That was before he got Gilbert, his energetic, excited guide dog and friend. Gilbert goes everywhere with Tony -- whether it's to his son's swimming lessons, to the shops or to a night club. He's helped me get out more and given me more independence. Especially at night because I can't see at all when it's dark.'' Tony has always tried not to let his impairment get to him. I don't let anything get in my way. I went to the Gold Coast a couple of months ago to party it up with a couple of friends. I do quite a lot of water sports -- I'm probably more confident in the water than I am on the streets. I'll go out to Piha and swim as far as I can.'' For thousands of years roads have transformed our streets and the built environ- ment has changed the land- scape -- all without blind people in mind. But Chris says that has changed in the last 30 years. In the history of our entire planet it has never been bet- ter for blind people than it is right now,'' he says. The pace of change is faster. It is now our time. It's a time for inclusion, not exclusion. In the words of the Bob Dylan song: The times they are a-changing'.'' Go to www.rnzfb.org.nz/ about/news-and-information/ latest-news to hear this article in audio. Go to www.west ernleader.co.nz to watch Chris Orr speak about Auckland's design features that make the city more accessible for blind people.
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