A winning strategy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 November, 2010, 12:00am

I travel alone to and from work by bus the same way each day. The stops are opposite my home and office. There's nothing complicated about the trip and rarely does anything extraordinary happen. However simple it may seem, though, I always have a sense of accomplishment on arrival.

To my mind, I've good reason to feel this way: being visually impaired, I make the journey with only a white cane and my senses of hearing and touch for guidance. It's the same whenever I attain a goal by myself, whether at work, home or out and about. Researching an article, cooking a meal, buying bread - each time the job gets done, I mentally chalk up another victory. A deep sigh, a subconscious high-five and then it's on to the next task.

Daily life, for me, is a game of chess. I need strategies and moves to find my way around rooms, buildings and streets. That requires memory, forward planning, being ever-alert and knowing what to do when all isn't going well. Outside my comfort zone, the wider world can be as cruel as an enemy.

My choice of words may seem dramatic, but they're appropriate for what has to be faced. An unexpectedly sharp kitchen knife, a careless driver, a self-absorbed fellow pedestrian, a failed traffic signal - each poses a hazard that could cause injury or worse. Sighted people faced with the unexpected see it as an inconvenience. I look on it as a challenge, but there are times when it can cause concern, worry, fear and, sometimes, panic.

That was my emotional cycle the time the bus went past my work stop and pulled up at a place I'd never been before. I was the only passenger to alight and when I stepped onto the footpath, it was obvious that this wasn't a usual Hong Kong street, bustling with activity. I was the only person about. To one side was a wall, to the other, a road full of vehicles whistling by.

I went back in the direction the bus had come and found a street crossing. It took me to a no-man's-land of tram tracks, a rumble of wheels and urgent bell ringing warned me to go back. Heart pounding, I retraced my way and found some steps, and an underpass to more unknowns. Eventually, my meanderings were spotted by a passer-by and I was returned to familiar surroundings.

My cane mobility is self-taught, but the fundamentals were gleaned from an American exponent who believed that technology was to be used, not wholly embraced. Her school of thinking was firmly grounded in self-preservation: tactile surfaces, chirping signals and GPS guidance systems were useful aides, but shouldn't be wholly relied upon because they sometimes don't exist and occasionally don't work properly or at all. It's a lesson that's easy to forget as I tap my way around this compact, transport-laden city.

GPS on my phone might have helped me that day. A call to the office would have led to someone figuring out where I was. If there had been an audible signal on the crossing, I would not have walked into the path of a tram. Whatever my lack of tech-savvyness or misfortune, though, I'm glad for the experience.

On this occasion, I was prompted to explore more advanced mobile phones than my bottom-of-the-line one, speech software and Google map-related apps. The blogs and websites I discovered have become useful insights into what the future holds for the disabled. I've become more aware of where tram tracks run. If the bus overshoots my stop, I now know what to do.

Being disabled is a learning process. There's all manner of help available to make life easier, but it can come at a financial and personal cost. While the government and companies are making an effort to equalise circumstances, there will always be limits to how far they can, or are, willing to go. The blind, deaf and wheelchair-bound will always face frustrations from time to time - that's the nature of being a minority.

My mother recently told me that her deepest wish was that one day I would be able to see. She was surprised when I replied that I liked things just as they are. Having vision would take away that game of chess I was living, I argued. It can be challenging at times, but winning can be ever so exhilarating.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post