I have been visually impaired since early childhood, first with with glasses as thick as portholes. I was lucky to not be called ‘four-eyes,’ but just ‘owl, owl,’ as well as ostracized from the regular activities of childhood and adolescence. I then progressed to hard lenses which barely corrected my vision, but I learned to adjust and simply live with it.
Over the years, I learned to function independently in all senses of the word — even driving — to a point of superficial oblivion, because I was indeed living on borrowed time as it were. Then, in my mid-40s in the mid-1990s, I was abruptly and irremediably classified as “legally blind.” That term in itself is rather brutal, especially for those who are not fully blind. It means, in administrative parlance, anybody who has a visual impairment above a certain level of incapacity or impediment, and includes both fully blind folks and those still with a spectrum of visual capacity.
It was a punch in the stomach, petrified, a bad dream, a wrong assessment — I could not sort out my feelings. And when I came to my senses, I realized that there was no way to backtrack, nowhere to hide, and no way to deny it anymore.
The almost total freedom I had carved began to crumble from the very foundation. I was now confronted with what I had been evading all along, just yanked back by sporadic retinal hemorrhages that were now impeding my vision more at each stab. Each time I was simply sweeping the time bomb to oblivion and resuming my personal normality But this time, I felt like an escapee trapped in a dead end. So now what?! Where to turn? What to do? Even though I had been resourceful all of my life by necessity, this time I was lost — really on my own, in the middle of nowhere and suspended in a strange reality that had finally caught up with me.
For a while, I stumbled around, in and out of possibilities. At the time, I had access to very few resources by nature of being alone and brand new to my classification as “disabled.” I had to find my way in this new category of existence, and specific resources were scarce in those days due to lack of exposure and outreach. In my search, I eventually landed upon the Braille Institute.
At first, I thought this was a mistake. Again, I wasn’t blind, but it seemed this dedicated place was for the blind only, their title over the building entrance “Braille Institute For The Blind” confirming it. Clearly, I was on the wrong track. Wasn’t there anything for the non-blind, rather extremely poor vision folks? I was yet in another dead end and stranded back in bare land for my kind.
After some demystification from them that the Institute was for fully blind as well as visually impaired, they noted that I was not the first to point out this problem, beyond semantics, of reality and inclusion, and they assured me they were about to change the title. I was told in order to receive services, I had to register as a student and complete a core of mandatory courses, before moving on to optional offerings.
After a series of forms, documents and verifications, I became a Braille Institute student for one year and a half, and got a picture ID card that read: “Braille Institute — Student — Legally Blind”. At the end of this period, I was evaluated to return to mainstream life, the other category being either permanent Braille Institute pupil or returned home. When I completed my last class, “Rights and Resources,” I received an assessment of my capabilities and wishes for the future. I was led to Los Angeles City College (LACC), where I would further prepare to go back to independent life through vocational studies.
For that next step as an adult student, I found myself back in the spin of the unknowns, especially after being cocooned attending classes for over a year. I had to contact a social worker from some social agency. I forget her name but I will always remember her and her dog.
By this point, I had postponed the full realization of losing my sight even more to the point of no longer being able to work, and I was now boiling with a latent but growing pot of frustration and anger.
With phone number and name in hand, I called and had my first conversation with my social worker. Truly, she was the first person I could talk to about my smothering reality. And I did just that. During our first connection, I ventilated all of my awful, terrible, poor me, dead end situation feelings.
Finally, I had someone to talk to who was listening intently and carefully — so much so, I felt as though I was talking to myself. I was literally overflowing with emotions to the point of drowning, a pressure-cooker spewing suppressed, repressed, and compacted layers of current and decades old fears, anger, sadness and, for the first time, vulnerability and hopelessness. I repeated to her several times “I am between two worlds, still seeing but not enough to be safe and independent,” or so I thought. “And, I am not even fully blind, so I could go with the logic and systemic procedures of being blind.”
She listened to my outpouring of frustration for as long as I needed. Then, she responded with the casual and poised tone of voice of a true professional.
“I am blind — yes — since birth, and even if I don’t know the difference or your particular conflict, I can hear and understand your frustration.”
In my newfound world of visual impairment, I wished I could have disappeared in a small hole with my feelings of being awkward, stupid, and ashamed. In honest ignorance, from general assumption of the days, I thought I was talking to a fully sighted person. I stayed absolutely mute, unable to say any apology or even mumble the slightest syllable.
Toward the end of this long, 45-minute telephone consultation, she asked what I wanted to learn at LACC. I told her Microsoft Word and the internet. In the mid 90s, “Word” was the new upcoming word-processing software. I already knew the previous software, but Word was different and supplanting the first. The internet, of course, was the up-and-coming computerized communication system.
“I’m planning to work as a translator from home, using a personal computer,” which I did not yet have, along with any technical knowledge, but after a quick assessment of my options to sustain myself, at least partially, working from home with this an almost unknown technology was the only solution. And I would see what develops from there.
My social worker scheduled an in-person appointment to meet at the LACC disabled students’ office to register me for technology classes. By luck, the college was located on the same block as Braille. I later learned that it was one of the rare colleges — if not the only one at the time — to have a full-fledged “Disabled Students Office” and offering programs in social and disability graduate studies.
The day of the appointment, I found the Disabled Students Office. sequestered off in a corner by a secondary, remote entrance, it was in fact a trailer among an endless squad of dormant trailers, positioned precariously on uneven, decrepit ground in a sub-zone far from the center of the college’s campus.
There, in front of the office stood a small crowd of students, or would-be students, of all ages. Most were dressed in unremarkable sneakers and t-shirts, either alone or in the company of two or three other peers. Most were smoking, walking, or idly leaning against the shingle cabin, enveloped in clouds of swirling smoke, lost in other worlds.
The sheer weight of the whole scenery, punctuated by the overcast day, felt surreal to me. I had stopped smoking back in the mid-80s, and a decade later, I still could not stand the smell of a cigarette. Yet, I’m not a person to let my emotions plumb me. I quickly spotted and focused on the entrance door and lunged inside, catching in my mind the largest sign on the door showing a “No Smoking” logo.
Inside, the “Disabled Student’s Office” installed in this prefabricated small 2-room construction, was holding one large public room with a long counter, and a tiny kitchen. There was a packed crowd of sorts with chairs, wheelchairs, canes, dogs, walkers, crutches, etc. There was a single toilet for all concerned or interested. I detached myself from all possibilities of using it, grateful that I had — like always — taken the necessary precautions before leaving for an unknown destination and duration.
Fortunately, no smoking was allowed inside. Yet the heated interior was just as unbearable as a smoking parlor -- stuffy with next to no ventilation. I had the feeling of being on a makeshift rescue raft in the middle of nowhere.
I locked on to a long counter, and by some miracle, blazed my way to the front, was sent to another spot where, seated on the other side, I finally met my social worker. After a cordial greeting, she gently asked me:
“Please don’t get offended, but I’m asking this to everyone, especially my clients, so I can get a better feel for each person. May I touch your face, lightly with my fingers? It helps me to get better acquainted.” I agreed. The rest of my encounter with her is a large blank as I was still overwhelmed by my morning first part experience, and I just concentrated on going through the administrative motion as quickly as possible to simply-- leave.
When we finished our meeting, I assumed my social worker had other students appointments. I proceeded out of the office and was barely off the ramp and onto the college grounds, when the entrance door banged open. She was hurrying out, only a few seconds behind me.
She wore an elegant dress with an equally elegant coat, unbuttoned despite the cold day. She was medium in size and overweight, with small feet pressed into dressy pumps with low, stiletto heels.
I stood in silence, trying to figure out how she had managed to get her coat on, pick up her briefcase and umbrella, as well as bring her guide dog, maneuver around the corner, and slalom through the crowd in what seemed like all of an instant. She must have flown over, like Mary Poppins. And in that moment, I also realized she was younger than me.
“Oh, I thought you were there for the day for other students” I remarked when she stopped near me pausing to regroup. Using the sound of my voice as a guide, she positioned herself in front of me and engaged in a conversation.
“I had just another student before you today. Now, I need to get to a meeting across town, and I’m already running late.”
She gesticulated wildly; it seemed she was trying to organize herself. Before I could comment, she added, “A corporate meeting, with the brass. This is why I’m all dressed up today, you know…corporate outfit and all.” I caught the connection. She was referring to the long office experience from my resume.
“Ah, you have another job?” I asked. It seemed this was more of a private business position rather than public social work.
“Yes, but it’s only part-time”, she replied now fumbling with her briefcase. “Now, we have to run to catch our cab waiting for us on the other side of campus. I usually have the same driver, he knows me, but still… We’re running late and he might not wait too much longer,” Her tone still light and jovial, her face bright, a version of a happy-go-lucky.
I was thoroughly puzzled. “Run? You mean? —“
Before I could finish, knowing it sounded odd, she continued, “Yes, running. We’ve trained my dog and I and he knows what to do.” She paused. “The only thing is we trained in sneakers…never with dressy heels. This will be a first!” She laughed, reveling in experimenting with the unknown, a daredevil echo in her voice.
“You don’t have your sneakers in a bag or something?”
“On no, I’m already carrying enough, and this is not the kind of meeting where you can carry a bag with your shoes in it.”
My head was still churning through the eclectic and downright strange happenings of this half day when, after a rushed goodbye, she commanded her dog by name and ordered him: “RUN!”
And, off she went still wrestling with her flapping, open coat, arms in all directions, a closed umbrella in one hand, the briefcase and long dog leach in the other. She was half bent forward, not running but flying across the college concrete ground in a plump silhouette with small feet in unstable heeled shoes. I would not have dared even walking in those shoes alone, even with my residual vision.
I froze, body and gaze pointing forward, not daring to turn my head. I mentally closed my eyes but refrained from closing my ears as it would have looked weird.
I was waiting for a catastrophic sound. After a few seconds I threw a quick slant pick in her direction. She was already 30 yards away, and going. For few seconds I cringed with the thought she could step on a small stone, twist her ankle, fall--badly.
Again, I turned away from her, thinking if I kept watching her it might bring her bad luck. After a long silence (and no catastrophic sounds), I ventured a glance back in her direction and instead say the immense and empty gray ground. She had disappeared, absorbed into the horizon. Just like quicksilver, she — my Mary Poppins social worker — had vanished just as she had appeared in my life.
I never knew if she had wanted to show me that not everything was lost or impossible, or if her dramatic departure was simply circumstantial. Again, I was left utterly stunned and baffled. Yet, this time, I was impressed and somewhat amused as well. A whiff of lightness lifted my entire being.
Deliberately or not, she had given me an invaluable lesson: there is always a ‘beyond’ if you put your mind to it and focus on how you can change yourself, if you adjust your mental eyes. This had been a motto that had guided me for much of my life but had been sucker punched out of me two years prior.
I never saw her or spoke with her again. Yet, I often think of her, and she will forever be my Mary Poppins Social Worker. And, when I reminisce on that encounter, sometimes I crack open laughing, and sometimes tears are not too far. Don’t know why. Maybe one day.