Blind Girl Packing

My first misadventure as a visually impaired person happened about three months after my surgery. I had to get myself back to Charlotte from Cleveland, and I needed to do it on the cheap.

As this link demonstrates, there are several options available specifically for visually impaired people who want to travel safely. But the mainstream discount bus service I chose had no such concerns. I was picked up in the middle of the night at an otherwise closed terminal in downtown Cleveland and dropped off for a two-hour layover on a sketchy corner in a rundown Cincinnati neighborhood. There was no shelter, and all the stores surrounding us were closed.

I was still taking anti-seizure medication and my phone was nearly dead. The ticket to board the next bus was on the phone, and the medication was only to be taken with food. So it felt vitally important that I find somewhere to recharge.

A passerby, seeing the group of us waiting for the next bus, told us that there was a coffee shop about three blocks straight ahead and five blocks to the right. Despite many people’s gripes about being left on that corner with no way to get out of the sun or use the restroom, nobody wanted to go find it. I suppose my fellow passengers clearly saw our surroundings and decided to act like they had common sense. I couldn’t and don’t, so I set off by myself, dragging a waist-high suitcase noisily behind me.

Since I’m here to tell the tale, I obviously made it. But that was the most frightening stunt in a life filled with reckless decisions. The streets and sidewalks were all torn up, making me paranoid that I was going to trip and break an ankle any second. My phone was dead, there weren’t that many people out, and those that were didn’t exactly strike me as the kind you’d want to show weakness to. No lie, on that five block walk I heard a woman scream as she was slapped, two different men tried to threaten me into going down two separate alleys, and two other men discussed putting a bullet in a third man’s head while the victim tried to convince them they had the wrong guy.

Looking back on that experience, the thing that had me so shook wasn’t the individual incidents themselves. It was the fact that I couldn’t clearly see any of the dangers I could perceive all around me. I’ve lived in relatively safe, suburban areas most of my adult life, but I grew up in inner-city Cleveland. I’ve been around violent situations before. Hell, I’ve actually dodged bullets before. But I’ve never felt the kind of exposed, helpless fear I felt that day in Cincinnati.

As it turns out, my fear was merited. According to this report from CNN, a national study by the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that people with disabilities were 50% more likely to be victims of violent crime than non-disabled people. According to this article, a breakdown of a study found that visually-impaired or blind women were more likely to be victims of non-lethal assaults than their male counterparts, which is not the case with women in other disability groups.

The report didn’t try to measure reasons why crime against the disabled was so high, and I certainly have no concrete measurements to go by. But I do have common sense. If I was going to commit a crime, why not go against someone who appears vulnerable? Who probably can’t fight back or identify me later? It seems logical to me that disabled people would be more vulnerable to crime because many disabled people are more vulnerable period.

Other than when I thoughtlessly put myself in potentially harmful situations, I’m fortunate enough to live in a fairly safe environment. I’ve lived in my community for almost a decade, and many of my neighbors have been here for several. Many are retired and spend a fair amount of time strolling around, walking dogs, playing golf or just socializing.

Since I no longer drive, I’ve gotten to know quite a few of my neighbors as I pass them on my frequent walks through our community, and many of them are very kind and friendly. I’m often offered rides when they pass me making the mile long walk down our street to my townhouse, and on a few occasions someone has remarked that they saw me walking by and came out just because they thought I might want a lift.

Even that level of benevolent attention, though much appreciated, can sometimes leave me feeling uneasy. Exposed. Something about knowing that my movements are being tracked by eyes I physically cannot see makes me feel uncomfortably observed. I don’t feel anyone in my immediate area means me any harm, but then again, how would I know?

That vague sense of vulnerability, and my newly acquired awareness that I’m now more likely to be targeted for a crime, led me to jump at the chance to participate in a concealed carry class designed exclusively for blind and visually impaired people. The class was led by Dan Starks, an Emmy-winning firearms safety instructor who has been ranked in the top Ten Instructors in the USA by the NRA since 2009. He agreed to do a special course for myself and about fourteen other blind or visually impaired people.

Having attended an introductory class on gun management for women prior to losing my sight, I know that Dan and his instructors went out of their way to make the class accessible for us. There was a lot more tactile, hands-on demonstrations, giving everyone adequate opportunities to handle the pieces of equipment we learned about in order to get a feel for them. Touch is important when you can’t see what’s being describe. After the academic portion of the course, for which we all had to pass a standardized state test to determine our knowledge of safety rules and gun laws, we were transported to the gun range for a field test.

Some may not realize that the visually impaired can legally obtain gun licenses. But disabled Americans are still Americans, under the protection of the second amendment. The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits drug addicts, the mentally ill, and convicted felons from possessing firearms, among other classifications that exclude citizens from their right to bear arms. Visual impairment is not on that list.

In fact, this article from CBS News quotes Prof. David Kopel of the University of Denver’s Strum School of Law’s assertion that 42 states have changed their gun laws in the past 25 years to state that a sheriff “shall issue”, as opposed to “may issue”, gun licenses to law abiding citizens, irrespective of their level of vision.

FWIW, North Carolina requires visually impaired citizens to pass the same live round tests as everyone else. And I witnessed completely blind individuals successfully pass that test. True, the instructor initially helped them out by pointing them in the right direction, but it was up to the person to maintain the correct stance and keep the gun trained on the target. That initial assistance isn’t likely to be available in the event they need to use a firearm in real life situations, but the same can be said for anybody whose shooting experience is limited to a controlled environment like a shooting range as opposed to real life.

The common sense argument against granting gun licenses to the blind seems so obvious, a lot of people have trouble articulating it with a straight face. How can you shoot what you can’t see?

But advocates for the rights of visually impaired citizens say that isn’t the question that needs to be addressed. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled Americans are entitled to the same rights and privileges as anyone else in society. If people meet the legal criteria for gun ownership, it would be illegal to deny them a license based on assumptions about what they could or would do. It’s important to note that there have been no reports of armed blind people throwing down their white canes in order to go on a shooting spree.

Gun rights for the blind is as controversial a topic as gun rights in general. Not every advocacy group agrees that people with low vision should be given access to firearms. Opponents cite concerns over public safety. Proponents cite the importance of protecting disabled American’s basic civil rights. The National Federation of the Blind addressed this issue as follows:

The National Federation of the Blind, the oldest and largest nationwide organization of blind Americans, understands that guns are dangerous weapons and that anyone who owns, carries, or uses them must therefore exercise great care and sound judgment in doing so. Blindness has no adverse impact on a person’s ability to exercise due care and good judgment. State firearms laws must be applied in a nondiscriminatory manner to blind individuals.

It’s probably obvious that I don’t personally support the push to ban guns in America. To me, it’s a question of history and efficacy. Didn’t we already try to ban legal but potentially lethal behavior because special interest groups made a compelling argument about the consumption of alcohol’s adverse effects on society? Considering how many people have been killed due to drunk driving, it’s hard to argue that the temperance movement didn’t have a very valid point. People who drink irresponsibly not only cause irreparable harm to themselves, their families, and the fabric of our society, they sometimes outright kill other people. But remember what happened after Prohibition?

So let’s say we all agree that life in our country would be much safer if there were no guns in civilian hands. The problem with that is, there already are. So what’s the plan? Even if we outlawed guns tomorrow, how would we enforce it? If we simply ask people to voluntarily turn over their firearms, how many would comply?

I suppose those who followed the rules and legally registered their guns could be tracked down so the weapons could be confiscated. But who would we get to do the seizures and how are we going to pay for it? What about all the unregistered guns floating around out there? Criminals by definition don’t give a shit about our laws, and an outright ban would criminalize otherwise law-abiding people who simply want to hunt, go target shooting, or protect their families. It seems highly possible, if not downright probable, that a gun ban right now runs the risk of turning us into a nation where only the criminals are armed.

But I’m not mindlessly on the side of the NRA. I think there is room for common sense restrictions in the name of public safety. I recently had the opportunity to shoot an AR-15 rifle, which I was repeatedly told is a semi-automatic rifle NOT an assault rifle. Whatever. I enjoyed my personal Scarface moment, but would be okay with having some reasonable restrictions on high caliber firearms. Or attachments that convert semi-automatic weapons into de facto machine guns.

And as much as I feel confident that I’m as capable of handling my gun as the next man – I was able to position myself in front of the target unassisted and got a 99% on my live round test – I would be open to common sense restrictions on gun licenses being given to people who can’t see a target unaided. I don’t think it’s unconstitutional to have a national litmus test for gun ownership that everyone must meet, no exceptions. As long as the criteria was relevant, known to all and fairly administered.

Of course, picking up a gun isn’t the only self-defense strategy available for the visually impaired. This link offers sightless self-defense strategies to ensure people are educated and aware of techniques they can use to protect themselves.

Other popular options include:

Cane Fu. Developed by Mark Shuey, an expert in tae kwon do and hapkido, this technique has been designed to encourage students to view their canes as assets, not liabilities. Marketed to the elderly as well as the visually impaired, students learn and practice targeted strikes, using their canes both offensively and defensively in the event of an attack.

1Touch. Developed by Professor Stephen Nicholls, a martial arts instructor based in London, England, this martial-arts inspired technique was especially adapted to meet the needs and abilities of people with little to no vision. Students are instructed to rely on a set of techniques which make use of leverage and joint locks that do not require either sight or unusual strength to be effective.

Personal Safety: Self-Defense Strategies. Offered by the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired, this nine course class takes a more academic approach to self defense. Judging by the course titles, students will learn practical tips and techniques on subjects ranging from dealing with violence and sexual assault, to basic precautions to take at work, home or while traveling, to effective methods to physically defend themselves against attack.

As I read different articles about defending myself as a blind woman, I’m struck by the fact that they aren’t much different than tips for women in general. At the end of the day, visual impairment only adds one more layer to the vulnerabilities I’ve always faced, whether I acknowledged them or not.  I’d like to think my increased awareness of that fact will make me more careful when I’m out and about, but I know how I am. So in order to reinforce that life-saving awareness, I’ve started consciously reminding myself to:

Be aware of my surroundings. When walking alone, it isn’t a great idea to be so focused on your phone or listening to something on your headphones that you can’t fully engage with your environment. Especially if you can’t see – if you also impair your ability to hear what’s coming at you, you’ve doubly handicapped your ability to respond.

Stay off the phone but keep it handy. You may need to call for help. Or you may be able to use it surreptitiously to get a pic or recording of your attacker. Just because you may not be able to see them clearly doesn’t make them invisible to a camera.

Be aware of my methods of defense and don’t be afraid to use them. You don’t have to be helpless just because you may be vulnerable. A gun, Taser, or pepper spray. – even your cane – can effectively provide defense against an attacker. But even a machine gun won’t do you any goo if you’re too afraid to use it. Most people won’t expect a blind person to fight back, so you have the element of surprise if you do. Don’t waste it.

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