The uncanny clarity of blindness
For years, I've seen Jim Conklin walking in Hillsdale — but he hasn't seen me. Jim doesn't see dozens of people who pass him on his walks.
Jim is blind.
It wasn't until one of my recent walks that I introduced myself. After sharing that we were Hillsdale neighbors and knew a few people in common, I suggested that his experiences walking blind in Hillsdale, where he has lived for nearly 40 years, might make an interesting column.
Jim, who is 73 but looks at least 10 years younger, agreed that the subject seemed worthy, but he suggested he had a better one. "How about people who try to help but don't?" he said. "They can even make matters worse. Such 'help' is a common occurrence for someone who is blind."
That initial exchange, with its counterintuitive twist, led to more insight-filled conversations.
Jim's blindness was first diagnosed in 1996, when he was working in the high-tech industry. He was declared legally blind in 2002. Today, he vaguely sees light and dark.
But the years have sharpened his other senses and his perceptions of the world around him. I learned his acuity shows up in more than his ability to negotiate Hillsdale's sidewalks and seemingly vague road shoulders.
But walking is a good place to start: What is it like to walk aided by a long, white cane, the feelings of one's feet and, most importantly, sounds in one's ears?
Most of the time it's not hard at all, Jim says.
Street traffic, which you might think of as a potential danger, is his best guide. When there is no traffic, say on the transit mall downtown on a Saturday when fewer trains and buses run, things get dicey. Nor does it help that the mall's pavement isn't crowned or higher in the middle. Crossing the mall, which is level for the MAX trains, the blind can't feel an incline or a crest in the pavement.
And then there are the challenges at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Capitol Highway. There the activation of left-turn-lane lights varies depending on the time of day. Sometimes they go before through traffic gets the green light, sometime afterwards. And the automated voice announces, "The walk light is on," but doesn't say WHICH walk light is on, Jim says with some frustration.
It's at places like this that Jim's hearing is put to the test. If you are blind, it takes concentration to establish and maintain orientation. And it takes time. Several signal light cycles might be needed to determine when to cross a street safely. And so Jim stands on the corner reading the sounds.
Often, someone steps in to help, unfortunately breaking Jim's intense concentration. And sometimes the help even takes the form of physical intrusion — unannounced, someone grabs his arm and pulls him across the street.
Which isn't to say Jim is averse to help. He asks for it when he needs it. "As a male, I definitely had to learn to do that," he adds with a laugh.
Talking with Jim, you realize his experiences are related to your own, despite obvious differences. How often do we receive help that is unhelpful? That breaks our concentration or intrudes inappropriately? And how often does our own "help" prove to be unhelpful?
Jim makes a larger, telling point. "We are all different," he says. He shares the saying (from communications guru Frank Luntz), "It's not what you say; it's what people hear."
People who share a world — the world of the blind, for example — are more apt to say and hear the same thing. Jim, who attended to wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam, says veterans find they can talk more easily with other vets than they can with non-veterans — particularly about the war.
"It's the same with talking about and experiencing blindness," he says.
Jim makes a distinction between those he meets on his walks. "There's a difference between those who ask, "What is it like walking down the street?" and those who say, "It must be really hard to walk down the street for you."
"The first treats me like the expert I am," he says. "The second starts with a false assumption."
Jim has learned that blindness, like most change, "is not something to be afraid of." "I've found nothing that I can't do if I really want to. I just have to do it differently. Not the way a sighted person would."
Rather than saying "I can't do that," Jim asks, "How do I do that?" He gives examples of blind doctors, a blind mountain climber who surmounted Everest, and a friend who does woodworking, safely using a table saw.
People often tell Jim he is inspiring.
"Inspiring others isn't something I set out to do," he says, "but if I make people feel that way, I'll take it."