First off, thanks to everyone for being so patient. It’s tough collecting all my notes and trying to bang out something coherent. I know that’s small consolation for you guys, who are here by your own choice. I really do appreciate it. And don’t forget: you can like the blog on Facebook and follow me on Twitter! If you want to tell your friends, that’d be awesome. Thanks again for reading, and for waiting.
When I was in London at the beginning of last summer I met a bunch of people in the hostel. Palmer’s Lodge Swiss Cottage is an old Victorian mansion converted at some point into a hostel at some point in the past. It’s grand and stately, situated on a quiet side street. It looks, in fact, so unlike most hostels that I walked past it three times before I figured out what the hell I was looking for. Granted, that bit may be due to the fact that I’d been up for about twenty hours at that point, dealt with Toronto and London airport security, the flight, the madness that is Victoria Station, the Tube, and, obviously low vision. Taking my time to find the place might be more understandable, looking back.
Anyway, the first part of the trip was extremely tough. Luckily, I’d been to London before, so at least I had that going for me. I’m very serious when I say a history of playing video games has helped me develop a good sense of place and direction. I’m not kidding. I could likely draw you the full overworld maps for five Zelda games alone, with Heart Container and Empty Bottle locations detailed. In the same way, I can get around a city after having spent a few days there, and I don’t forget the map. London, Paris, Marseille, Munich, Dublin, Edinburgh…when I go back to these places I’ll have a decent head-start on a lot of people. I’m told by lots of people that this is an impressive fact, biut the truth is, I can’t comprehend how someone wouldn’t have a good sense of direction. You’re moving around in a 3D space, you’ve moved from point A to point B, and you can’t get back? What were you doing in the time between points?
If your answer is “I was blindfolded and kidnapped,” then you’re exempt.
Anyway, so, London. It was tough for a few reasons. First, maybe understandably, it was a bit of an emotional thing. Without going too deeply into it since it’s not what this blog is about, I’d been there before with someone and this time I was alone. Places we’d stayed at, seen together, laughed at, drank in, and explored together were all too jarring for me at the start. But, I had to do it, for some reason that I’m still unsure of, exactly.
What was even harder was coping for the first week alone. When I was finally checked into my room at Palmer’s (I’d arrived well before check-in and crashed hard on a couch in the common room) I sat on my bed, my bag stuffed and locked away in my locker. It suddenly became very apparent that I was well and truly alone. Over 5700 kilometres away from my family, I sat, listening to the light rain tick away on the window. I wasn’t homesick – I’d lost a sense of the word “home” anyhow – it was more of a cross between exhilaration and dread. I suddenly had no one to answer to but myself, no obligations to be anywhere in particular, no real commitments of any kind. I had pure, unemcumbered, terrifying freedom.
For the first week of the trip I was basically living out Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Much like the prisoners I had (mentally) trapped myself in a situation that I accepted as the status quo. (Note: I’m saying I was a prisoner of my own mind, not in any other respect). I wasn’t necessarily happy, but I was taking things day-by-day and I accepted my lot. Arriving in London, then, was like being released from Plato’s cave, my reality thrown out the window. Suddenly I was seeing the world in a whole different light: one with acceptance, accessibility, and decent public transit. But my senses were overloaded and I was terrified. See, back in Canada I’d become complacent with my situation, unknowingly “accepting my fate,” as it were. After getting some insight when my world fell apart I came to learn that by living that way it was hurting those around me. It ruined my relationship, that. I didn’t mean to come off that way, and truth be told, I had no idea I was dragging everyone down.
What had happened is I became a very insular person. I had a small safety net, but a lot of the onus fell to one person. Losing any sort of sense, limb, or other major life event really messes with you in a lot of ways. I was depressed and angry. I learned to control and redirect the anger, but the depression hung around. It faded and presented itself in new ways, but it was still there. And that’s the part that’s the worst, really. When you honest-to-God have no idea that something is even happening, affecting the ones you love. The depression was (and, if I’m honest, still is) compounded by the job search.
It’s annoying, finding a job. Everyone has to and I don’t have to explain why it’s annoying. However, throw a disability into the equation and things get much more complicated. First of all, you’re automatically different (if, that is, your disability is a visible one). If I walk into an interview wielding my cane, I know there’s a point where the hiring manager thinks “oh, he’s blind, I wonder how he even got here?” or something along those lines. I’m not saying everyone thinks exactly that, but we’re human. You’d think different of me as anyone would. It’s not a bad thing, though, it just simply points out that everyone carries questions, fears, or (in extreme cases) prejudices against something out of the ordinary. I mean, I know I’m smart. My resume is alright. But easily a huge defining note to any job interview is the disability. Sure, people can’t openly judge against me or turn me down for a position – and I don’t think that happens on purpose, either. Or with malice, at the very least.
But think about it. Say I’m applying for an everyday retail gig. Nothing fancy. Here’s me, nearly a decade of customer service experience, solid communication and customer service skills, and I’m generally a nice guy all around. However, there’s the cane. Next, we’ve got some kid, nice enough guy, worked a few retail gigs before, but, maybe he’s nervous around customers or isn’t good with attachment ratios or something.
The sad reality, that generally the other applicant. The thinking isn’t along any cruel or offensive lines (I’d hope), but I think there’s a feeling of trepidation – though that may be too strong a word. I figure the line of thinking is roughly “well, he’s got experience, but what’s up with the cane?” It’s a matter of them being unsure of how the cane and the disability. I explain up front as best I can that it won’t be a hindrance to my work life, but, it’s a strange thing for them. And I understand that. But it does really start to drag you down.
I went off a bit there, but really, it’s relevant. Let’s go back to London.
So, in London I spent nearly a full week in silence. That feeling of being shot down and passed over for jobs and the like was really taking its toll. I grew very insular and I was afraid to talk to people. I can’t tell what someone is necessarily up to, so I was afraid to interrupt people. And so I sat there, on a couch in the hostel, prodding away at my iPad, just wishing someone would talk to me.
After another day of wandering the city alone I decided to have a pint in the hostel’s basement pub. I made (very) small talk with the bartender and ate a thing of fries. A second pint of liquid confidence in my belly I began to scold myself (internally, I wasn’t shouting at myself like a crazy). I thought “man, you’ve been sitting here a week, not talking to anyone, worrying ‘oh, no one will want to talk to the blind guy.’” I realized that may have been because maybe they don’t know how to approach me, not the other way around. That understanding took a while to grasp fully, but in time it made more and more sense.
So, I hopped off the bar chair and moseyed over to the couch area. I flopped down and eavesdropped on a few Americans talking about “getting soooo drunk in Ibiza,” a few Australians talking about rugby, and, suddenly, I heard someone pronounce “out” properly. Well, the same way I do, anyhow. The girl’s voice mentioned that she was from Edmonton. I saw my chance and took it.
“I’m…I’m from Toronto…” my voice cracked.
“What?” she asked, turning to look at me.
“I’m from Toronto. Sorry.”
I explained that I’m not actually from Toronto, but rather “a small town that no one has ever heard of” north of the city (I actually had to make this distinction a lot, most Canadians don’t seem to like Toronto, but I’ll cover that some other time). The conversation spread to other travellers, and they sat, listening to my story and asked questions about the vision. Rachel (the Edmontonian) went on to tip me off on what would later be possibly the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at (Vagabonds, in Belfast).
So, for inadvertently helping me get my head out of the sand, thanks, Rachel.