November 18, 2016
“Looking at the world through a milkshake straw”
By Keith Edgerton
Photo at right: The author, center, snowshoes near Deer Lake, White Pass, Washington with Lee Telnack (left) and Derek Devries. Photo by Ivor Melmore
Imagine looking at the world through a milkshake straw. My central vision isn’t blurry, but I can’t see someone unless they are standing directly in front of me.
Born with a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), blind spots in my peripheral sight became noticeable when I was a teenager and continued to grow as I aged.
RP slowly kills the retinas — the tissue that lines the back of the eyeball and helps the brain interpret the images seen through the eye — by first taking away the peripheral vision and then the central vision. A normal functioning retina has a 180-degree field of vision.
When I was 35 my life changed forever when my field of vision had decreased to less than 20 degrees. My diagnosis: legally blind.
Crossing the threshold into legal blindness made the reality of being blind more palpable and I could only envision a life of misery.
My life changed again in November 2014 when I participated in a mobility class and learned to use and navigate the world with a white cane. The instructor taught me how to navigate completely blind by using blackout glasses — eye glasses with blacked-out lenses.
The cane itself provided me with information on how to locate curbs, steps, cracks and other obstacles, and I learned techniques that still allow me to travel anywhere safely and efficiently.
Gaining the use of a cane and using other helpful navigational tips opened up a whole new world of independence. Not only did I lose the fear of being blind but I also gained the confidence that I could pursue any activity I wanted.
Ice skating, sledding and building snow forts in Long Island, New York were my common winter activities as a kid and when my family moved to the White Mountains of New Hampshire when I was 13, I soon learned to downhill ski, snowshoe, cross-country ski and camp in the snow.
My love of winter activities is still alive and well despite my visual disability. I continue to go sledding, ice skating, snowshoeing, and cross-country and downhill skiing every winter. However, in order for me and others to be safe while I participate in these activities I make important adjustments. Inviting a friend along provides plenty of sound and allows me to easily follow.
Feet receive an immeasurable amount of information when walking on an established snow trail. I can feel uneven surfaces in boots, snowshoe or skis, or even how thick, thin, powdery or icy the snow is by the sound it makes and how it sinks under my weight.
Another strategy used for navigating in the snow is echolocation. This is a navigation technique using sounds to bounce off nearby objects allowing a person to identify and navigate around or through them. Dolphins and bats use echolocation to navigate.
While I don’t make make a clicking sound with my tongue like a dolphin, snowshoes, boots and skis generate enough sound to echo off objects that I can actually hear that they exist and where they are located.
Ice skating can be a relaxing snow sport if the lake is large and has very few skaters. There are less obstacles to hit and people are easy to find because I can hear their skates carving up the ice with each leg thrust.
Downhill skiing, however, is the snow sport that needs the most forethought. I go to a ski area I know well at least once a season and only on a week day when there are less crowds.
Ever-cautious, I rely on the information received from my ears, nose, and yes, my eyes. The contrast between the white snow, the dark backdrop of the woods and people’s ski outfits all help me “see” and feel safe.
As time goes on I will continue to make adjustments in order to continue participating safely in snow sports. Being in nature is important; it keeps me centered and grounded.
It is this commitment that has me looking forward to my next winter adventure.
When Keith Edgerton isn’t pursuing snow adventure he’s coaching high school girl’s lacrosse with the Olympia Lacrosse Club in Washington state. He also runs Camp Abilities Olympia, a sports camp for visually impaired children.