What I Learned At Blind Bootcamp, Part 1: Keys To The Cage

EHC tactile map

by Will Butler

Lying on a firm twin bed in Cabin 8 on Sunday night, I remember thinking “why did I come here again?” I didn’t feel nervous, or sad, just a little bit at a loss. It’s a long drive up winding Napa roads to get to Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind, and though I had committed to it weeks before, I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place. I felt like less a person, more a confused animal. I could tell some other people were feeling the same way: of the other eight adult students who came for the training retreat this week, many were similarly hunched, quiet, hats or sunglasses covering their faces, unsure how to act. Some had only been dealing with changing vision for a couple years; others had been coping for decades. And on the first night, overloaded with information and in a new, unfamiliar (dimly lit) environment, everything felt jumbled — up in the air.

Then it all started to fall into place. The first thing you realize about Enchanted Hills is that there are almost no stairs. The paths run seamlessly into one another with paved trails spanning the rural acreage and leading straight into the many different buildings. Everything has its place, from the dinner bell to the dog patch, and though there’s not much that would signify that it’s a camp specifically for blind people, everything is designed, subtly, with the visually impaired in mind.

But most of all, when you step outside with your cane, no one does a double take. No one rushes to your aid. No one second guesses where you’re going — even if maybe you are a little lost at the moment. There are no arbitrary barriers limiting where you might roam. Doors aren’t locked or obstructed. Living in the city as a blind or visually impaired person, these are the small but many roadblocks to which you become slowly accustomed.

We’re here all week. This is Changing Vision, Changing Lives, the new immersion training retreat for adults at Enchanted Hills. The program, which started about three years ago, occurs now every few months and focuses not on swimming, horseback riding and foosball (though those things are here too) but on education, skill-buildlng, and talking openly with peers. Some people describe it as simply a first taste of the blind learning journey, but truly, if you haven’t had any experience with other blind folks before, it can feel like you’re drinking in a lifetime (or multiple lifetimes) worth of information in just a few days.

Everyone gets something different out of immersion. Some of us are here to get better at cooking; others want to brush up (or start learning) orientation and mobility skills; some of us want to get back to work; others just want to know how to download and read a book. We’re going to do all of that this week — and I’ll talk more about those things later — but when you first get here, it’s just a matter of taking in all the ways that living amongst the blind, amongst peers, is profound, a little bit jarring and ultimately enlightening.

There are so many things out in the “real world” that, without really noticing, I’ve come to accept as routine. A big one is the constant nagging knowledge that everyone sees you and you can’t see them. It’s a kind of one-sided mirror, that makes so many blind people feel caged. It’s a zoo that devastates them and keeps them from acquiring all the skills and benefits that they deserve. Here at camp, you can walk into a room at your leisure and rest easy. There is no pressure to put on an act, to try and look healthy or happy, to perform for anybody. If you need help, you simply ask and someone inevitably can provide it. No one will try to feed you. This, admittedly, is a little scary for a newly released blind person, but if you can take control of this newfound independence, it’s intoxicatingly fresh. Moreover, no one is scrutinizing your appearance against your blindness, which means you can rest assured because blindness is not anomalous, but assumed. Sure, this isn’t the “real world” that most of us live in, but I imagine that, if you can get comfortable in your own body here at a retreat, and leave CVCL with some newfound confidence, that’s more than half the battle.

“I didn’t even know all this stuff existed!” — that was Sydney, who has low vision and until today hadn’t used a cane. We were sitting around a table getting an overview of a bunch of technology, and she was understandably overwhelmed. Acronyms and proper nouns abounded: JAWS, ZoomText, KNFB, TWAIN, CCTV, Victor, SARA, Bookshare, VoiceOver, the list goes on. We’ll get into all that later on, the tech instructors assured here. No need to take notes. The important thing is just sitting down and hearing that there are solutions. There are answers.

It can be undeniably overwhelming here. I’ve been told that on Wednesday nights there might be a breakdown or two. Often, it’s not even a typical, “negative” breakdown though. One man recently was reduced to tears, not because he was sad or upset, but because he had such a powerful revelation not only that he was much blinder than he realized, but that all the answers were just at his fingertips.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. At lunch today, Janet knocked a glass off the table. Magically, it didn’t break, but it rolled to who knows where. It being made out of glass, of course we had to find it. But there was no sighted person around to ride in and gallantly rescue us by pluck it off the dining hall floor. So we had to hunt. Janet was on hands and knees, some of us tried using canes, feeling, listening for the sound of the glass. The problem was that because it was a cylinder, every time the cane touched it the cup would roll farther off. There was a moment there when I genuinely thought we were going to give up. I stood back and laughed out loud, and I wasn’t the only one. Maybe it didn’t exist anymore. “Here it is!” Janet exclaimed suddenly. Problem solved. And no one had panicked, cordoned off the area, or pushed all the blind people out of the way to retrieve it. There was nothing wrong.

This afternoon at the swimming pool I talked to two blind, college-aged camp counselors about the word “inspiring.” In case you don’t know, that’s a touchy term in the blind community. We finally agreed that if someone says “you inspire me” it’s a lot less icky than if someone says “you’re an inspiration,” because the latter of those turns you into an object, a show for the sighted rather than an active agent in the enthusiasm of others. After I left them, I realized that, as a young person myself, I had never had a discussion with anyone younger than me who was blind.

Tonight, twelve more youngsters arrived. They’re here as part of the counsellor-in-training program, that will prepare the dozen 16 to 20-something year olds for spending the summer at camp mentoring the even younger kids who will arrive soon. It’s a cycle that’s been going on for more than sixty years now, and I can say without reservation that I’m so glad to be at least a small part of it.

Finally tonight we took a walk. Earlier they passed out “training shades,” which are really just sleep masks from the dollar store — mine was cheetah print — and encouraged us to try them on from time to time. Often, we’re told, residual vision can be distracting. It’s fine to use your eyes if you have them, but if you rely on it entirely, you’re bound to find yourself in some tough situations, especially once night falls.

“So now is a great time to put on your training shades,” said Kathy Abrahamson, who runs CVCL. We were standing in front of the dining hall at dusk, about to take a short perimeter hike around the grounds, and she wanted us to go fully blindfolded. Half of the students didn’t have to wear one, because they were already there. But I did, and along with a few others, we put on our cheetahs and zebras and relied solely on the input from our canes. It may surprise you to hear, but nothing went wrong.

We walked out the breezeway, past the lake, up the hill, and under the canopy of some dozen seventy-year-old olive trees. Once the trees loomed overhead, we all stopped. You could hear them above, even forty feet up, shaping the sound of our voices, our steps, and of course our mobility tools. We continued strolling and George Wurtzel, the camp’s new construction manager who has been blind since birth, eyed an invasive Eucalyptus, which he says will soon meet the steel of his chainsaw and become fodder for our brand new woodworking shop, now under construction. Kathy gave us another challenge: “I want you to tell me when we get to the spot where we’re in between two buildings.” That seemed a little more daunting, but even with only fifteen minutes behind the blindfold, when we hit the point in the path a hundred feet later, the sound of the structures on both sides was obvious. There were those among us who didn’t want to take a single step on their own when they arrived the previous day — and now they were identifying parallel buildings at twenty feet away.

When I finally took off my blindfold it was dark outside. We sat in the Kiva room, around a big table and, from my photos later on, everyone looked more relaxed. Their faces were open, contemplative, even smiling and laughing. We talked about everything from gardening to writing academic papers, going around the circle sharing tips and voicing our curiosity to learn more about sorting clothes, hardboiling eggs, using GPS and whether or not we’d buy that Apple Watch. Our O&M instructor Katt Jones, one of the few fully-sighted people in the room, recommended “The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up,” a book which probably anybody could find useful.

Because if there’s anything I learned in the first 24 hours here, it’s that this isn’t really about blindness. That’s only what may feel confining at the moment. What it’s really about is seeing the humanity through the situation. And I think that’s why people who have been blind or visually impaired for as long as sixty years still find it useful to return here to Enchanted Hills. For them, I think, it’s the best possible reminder that you are a human, like everybody else, with a regular human ego and human problems, and escaping the initial, claustrophobic side effects of blindness is just the next big break.

Read Part 2, “Why We Meet,” here.

Will Butler is the Media and Communications Officer at the LightHouse for the Blind. Follow him on Twitter or email him at communications@lighthouse-sf.org.

One thought on “What I Learned At Blind Bootcamp, Part 1: Keys To The Cage”

  1. very well written, perceptive & real. I have been low vision since birth & have been a rehab. Teacher for blind & visually impaired people since 1985. Thank you.
    Very well done! I enjoyed your writing.

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