I spent a week at the end of the summer on a holiday for people who are visually impaired. My role, apart from to have loads of fun, was to act as the ‘eyes’ for a different person each day. I didn’t have any experience working with blind people, or anyone with any kind of disability, so to say I felt like I was thrown in the deep end would be a real understatement.
After about five seconds of hanging out with my new travel companions at Heathrow airport in a really awkward circle forgetting everyone’s names, I realised there had been no need whatsoever for me to be nervous. We were going to have a great time; I was going to have naked adventures (more on that later…Do you see how I enticed you?) and eat lots of food. It soon became apparent there is a tendency to treat people with disabilities with kid gloves, watching every word and patronising them, perhaps accidentally. The first time the wine was cracked open, my brain kept telling itself, “Don’t say ‘blind drunk’” for fear of offending someone, but when eventually it slipped out everyone was in stitches. It turns out they were fans of blind puns.
Within a day I felt completely calm and natural, so it was time to start playing jokes on the general public. After a day out in Florence, during which a Japanese tourist fell over in the street because she was staring so hard at my friend’s cane, we realised there was endless potential to play with people. My favourite occasion was in a self-service restaurant at Rome airport. I was sitting with two of my visually impaired friends drinking beer and eating pizza. It was time for a refill, so they volunteered to get the next round. They got up and were navigating the chairs and fridges, examining every can they passed. They were fast approaching some stairs which I knew they were aware of, but the people in the restaurant were beside themselves, fidgeting in their chairs and shaking their heads in my direction. Their discomfort really set us off, so when we had our beers in hand we raised our cans to them while I raved about getting free access to places with my blind pals. I guess some people are so paranoid about being helpful, that they forget what it feels like to have independence. I could have followed my friends around, pointing out hazards and cutting the food on their plates, but would that have helped them? These two people lead independent, exciting lives and I’m sure they would find it insulting if I treated them as though they were blind, deaf and immobile.
Unfortunately, I received an email from one of my friends about his journey from Heathrow back to America. By this stage he was on his own, which is something that presents no problem for him when given the right assistance. He tried at three different points to get some assistance navigating his way to the departure gate. When he at last found someone who would take him there, they insisted that he had to ride in a wheelchair. This guy is an extremely capable rehab worker who walks to work every day and managed to get from San Francisco to Rome without a hitch, so to be told he has to be pushed around the airport like a child in a pram really irked him.
Aside from these problems, my holiday was amazing because I learned new ways of seeing things. When I travel on my own, I feel like I ‘see’ a lot, but this holiday taught me that I was looking not seeing. Challenging yourself to describe something to a person who can’t see it forces you to examine it much more closely, furthermore, you are encouraged to explore with your hands, your nose and your ears. I always wondered who bought those miniature models of monuments from tourist stalls, then I saw one completely blind guy visiting the Coliseum with his hands and realised what a great idea they are. We have a lot to learn in this country about making services more accessible to people with disabilities. Most people don’t want to have to ask for help because they are used to leading independent lives, but until people in public services receive better training (perhaps we should send them on the kind of holiday I went on?!) the over-helpful clumsiness will prevail.
The most bizarre moment of my holiday occurred when my partner for the day decided she would like to visit a health spa, being that that was what the small mountain town we were staying in was famous for. Pampering myself is not something I ever do, hell, my body is lucky if it gets washed twice a week let alone massaged by stocky women in overalls. I agreed to do the cheapest treatment available; something called ‘The Total Mud’. It sounded pretty amazing, so I managed to rope some other pairs into doing it with me. The general consensus was that we believed we would all bathe in mud together, chatting about crap and drinking champagne…Or something.
Imagine my horror when everyone had been taken away by same-sex total mud operators and this elf-like Italian man jumps out of a door and takes me into a little room. He hands me a thong made of paper and a shower cap and motions that I should put it on. I had already paid at this stage and worse than that, when we were still in mud-bath-bliss mode I had agreed for this documentary maker to film me preparing for my treatment. I had just put on my thong ensemble and was feeling mighty uncomfortable, when the Italian comes in saying the cameraman is outside. I leap face down on a table and start shouting ‘No! No!’ considering that I was totally confused about what the hell was going on and I was naked. I didn’t think my parents needed to see this on TV. Eventually the cameraman goes away and the man comes back in and starts saying ‘Ha! Ha! Reality TV, yes?’
Before I have an opportunity to consider the spiralling terror of these events, a handful of mud is slapped on me. Ten minutes later I am covered in extremely hot mud, wrapped in clingfilm so that I can’t move and the man is running out saying, ‘I go to call coroner! Ha!’ On his way out the Europop comes on. I am alone. I believe this part is supposed to be relaxing, but considering that the communication breakdown between me and the man meant I was feeling vulnerable, embarrassed and bloody hot… It wasn’t so relaxing. Twenty minutes later and he is back, unwrapping me and throwing me naked into a shower, putting me in a Jacuzzi and running off again. To cut this rather long and embarrassing story short, I came out and everyone had had a really relaxing time with a same-sex, English-speaking mud-operator. I guess the lessons learned from this include a) learning another language is helpful in weird situations, and b) spas are just as insane as I imagined they would be.
1) Getting all ‘involved’ in activities at uni. Am I mad?
2) Applying for a job in Austria. Am I mad?
3) Loving Calexico AND Moby. Sounds mad?
4) Saw American Hardcore at the Leeds Film Festival. Fucking ace film! I highly recommend it to everyone who likes punk of the hardcore variety. Fun galore.