American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Fall 2015 TRANSITIONS
by Ana Gschwend
From the Editor: For any young person, the move away from home and family can be fraught with logistical and emotional challenges. In addition to the usual issues around leaving home, a young person who is blind may have to struggle with the skepticism of others and the self-doubt that such attitudes engender. In this article, Ana Gschwend of Winnipeg, Manitoba, tells her story of moving out on her own.
On February 20, 2010, I turned eighteen and became an adult. From that point on, I strove vigorously to become independent. However, it took a little over four years for me to feel fully ready to move out on my own. I applied to live in a transitional living facility for the disabled. This facility helps adults with disabilities transfer from a supported living environment, such as their parents' home, to a fully independent living situation such as a typical apartment building in the community.
I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly my application to the transitional living facility was accepted. I had made inquiries twice before at this facility, once in 2011 and once in 2013. On both occasions I was advised to apply when I was really sure what I wanted to do. I kept wavering back and forth, checking out my options. I wasn't quite ready to leave the nest.
My mom, on the other hand, was more than ready for me to leave home! She helped me do so last summer. On the evening I moved into my apartment, we celebrated with some neighborhood friends.
Although my mother was fully supportive of my move, she and I ran into differences around a number of issues, some related to the move and some connected with other things. Before my apartment was ready, our differences came to a head, and we concluded it would be best for us to get some breathing room. I spent a little more than three weeks living at my aunt's house until the final preparations for my move were complete.
My furniture and most of my personal belongings were moved into my apartment on August 12, 2014. More came later as my mom changed some things in her house. Because my phone and Internet connections hadn't been set up, I was not willing to stay there yet. I felt I had no way to contact anyone if I needed to. On August 15 a family friend came into the city from her rural town, and we filled my cupboards, fridge, and freezer with food supplies. I was glad that no longer would I have to search through someone else's fridge to find foods and drinks I wanted. Now I could organize my fridge, freezer, and cupboards just the way I wanted, sorting things and putting them in places where I could find them easily. I officially moved into my apartment on August 17, the same day my phone and Internet connections were set up.
The day I moved into my apartment, I went to my aunt's house for our weekly family Sunday dinner. It felt good to come home to my own apartment when the dinner was over! I looked at the start of this new chapter in my life as an adventure, as if I were going to camp in a cabin just for myself. At last I could fully take charge of my life. No longer would I be under anybody else's thumb. I no longer had to tell people when I was going out, who I was going out with, where I was going, why I was going, or how long I'd be gone. I could stay up as late as I wanted and get up as early or late as I chose, and I wouldn't have to answer for it. I was so used to having to explain myself and my actions to others. Now all that was changing--for the better!
On August 18, my first full day in my apartment, I did some shopping on my own. I went out to buy some basic household supplies. I went to a mall downtown that I was familiar with and could navigate on my own. I used our public door-to-door transportation service for the disabled to get there and back. The door-to-door service requires users to book arrival and departure times for their rides, so they have to go about their activities within a set time frame.
From the time I moved into my apartment, I was determined to do as much of my shopping as I could on my own, not relying on friends or family for help. One of the city's malls has a shopping assistance program, and I can use it when I need to, booking appointments with an assistant ahead of time. When I go to other stores, I ask one of the employees to assist me. They always do so willingly. I'm not afraid to ask for help. That's a big change from when I was a teenager and was afraid to do so. I used to find it easier to rely on others to do things for me. Sometimes I would go without something if I didn't have the nerve to ask for help to get what I needed.
My family has been supportive of my move into my own place. However, I think that deep down it has been a struggle for the people closest to me to let go of me, their little blind girl, now a fully grown blind woman. Even a year after my move, I'm not sure how far along they are in the letting-go process. As cold as it sounds, that is their problem, not mine.
It feels really good to be able to set my own boundaries about how I do things in my apartment. My boundaries aren't many. Don't come over unannounced; don't phone after ten p.m. unless it's an emergency; don't move my belongings around and put them where I may not be able to find them; and unless I've given permission, don't ever enter my suite when I'm not here. Safety is my number one priority, with privacy a close second.
Setting boundaries is an area where my family and I have had differences of opinion. I stood firm, kept my boundaries tight, and insisted that they be respected. I know I sound like a control freak, but the time I spent at the mercy of others and their choices needed to end, and end quickly. I enjoy hosting visitors, provided I have advance notice. Things with my family aren't perfect yet, but they're getting better.
As of this writing, I've been in my apartment for a little bit over eleven months. I continue to learn new things as time goes on. For example, in April of this year I started taking the regular city bus instead of the door-to-door transportation service. So far I take the bus short distances to familiar places. I hadn't used regular public transportation much before, especially not alone. Now I can take the bus from a mall downtown to the Winnipeg office of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). So far I prefer to take buses that go directly to my destination so I don't have to make any transfers. I try to balance my desire for independence against my concern for safety as a woman traveling alone, since it can be risky to travel in some areas of our city. I am a highly cautious person, and traveling on the buses by myself is a pretty big deal for me.
Since I've been in my apartment, I've learned a few new things that have made completing small daily tasks a little bit easier. In no particular order, here are some miscellaneous tips for making it on your own. I hope they will make another person's start with independent living easier.
1. If your home has lots of cupboard space, make the most of it. My kitchen, general storage, and bathroom cupboards have multiple shelves. This has enabled me to establish areas for different things. For example, I put plates, bowls, and cups on one kitchen cupboard shelf and vases and other glass dishes on another in the same cupboard. I have a cupboard for powdered drinks and assorted boxes of teabags and another cupboard for nonperishable foods in cans and boxes. Keeping things organized helps me find them more easily. My shelves are adjustable with the help of clips that connect them to the cupboard walls, so I can have items at a height I can reach on my own.
2. If you're going to use Ziploc bags, don't store them on a hot surface, such as the flat space on top of a stand-alone convection oven. I learned this from experience! I knew that plastic bags melt if they're in the heat for too long, but I thought they would be safe if I kept them in their original box. I didn't completely ruin the bags I'd put on top of the oven, but it was definitely hard to get them out of the box, as they had become pretty stuck to the cardboard! I moved them to a safe place on the counter, far away from the oven.
3. Now that others are no longer arranging your social schedule for you (or at least aren't as involved as they were before), it is important to get out and find things to do in the community. I attend several groups for blind adults at the Winnipeg office of the CNIB, an organization similar to some of the state and private agencies in the US. I also sing in my church's choir and volunteer once a week at a local food bank. I work closely with another nonprofit organization--sometimes for money, sometimes not--that serves Canadians with a variety of disabilities. Currently, I am on income assistance, and this work earns me some extra money. Eventually I intend to look for a job, but in the meantime, I'd like to save some more money for future expenses. The facility where I live is only a temporary living situation for most of its tenants. They encourage the tenants who, like me, are following their "learning through living" program to find more independent housing within two to three years. I'll stay in Winnipeg after I leave here.
4. Blind people need people in their lives to look up to, just as sighted people do. I am fortunate to have a close female friend who is totally blind, and she lives just a few streets away from me. I can share my trials and triumphs with her, and I can get advice on how to do things from the perspective of someone else who is blind. She had low vision in the past and has given me some advice on color coordination, cleaning techniques, and several other things. She is quite a bit older than I am, and she has a lot of knowledge she acquired from her own life experiences. She's always willing to share, woman to woman, friend to friend. She has been a big moral and emotional support for me when it comes to learning how to handle my family and their adjustment to the fact that I'm my own woman now. I'm not someone they can control, in any way, anymore. My friend had similar struggles with her family in her younger days.
5. Losing keys, regardless of your level of vision, is a frustrating and at times a panic-inducing hassle. Find a place in your new home to store your keys so you'll always know where they are. I keep mine in my purse at all times, and I keep my purse in a particular spot beside the wall just around the corner from my bedroom. Put a spare key onto a separate key ring and keep it where you'll be able to find it quickly if you need it. If you're close to someone you trust to access your home and belongings in the event of an emergency, have an additional key cut to give to that person. I gave my mentor/friend a key to my apartment building, a key to my suite, and a key to my mailbox. I have other keys for important things, such as my filing cabinet, on a key ring on my desk, and my friend knows where to find them.
6. Ask family and friends for advice regarding grocery stores that offer good customer service and frequent deals. My mentor/friend recommended a grocery store on our city's main street. Since its hours are long, I can go there at times of the day when I know it won't be packed with people; that way I'll have a better chance of getting help with shopping for my groceries. Some of the staff have seen my friend shopping there, so they're familiar with assisting blind customers.
7. When I first moved here, I considered having my groceries delivered. After a few unsuccessful attempts to connect with a store that delivered, I decided to go to stores myself to get what I needed. I'm glad I made this decision. It gives me greater independence and the ability to choose what I want, staying within my price range.
8. When you're on your own and living on a fixed income, it can be handy to look for household items at second-hand stores or stores that have frequent sales. I enjoy second-hand shopping. I shop for my clothes and general household items at second-hand stores and for food at a grocery store that frequently has sales. This store gives its customers some cash back in February each year as an incentive for them to keep shopping there. In short, spend wisely, look for deals, and follow the saying, "One person's trash can be another person's treasure."
9. Since I like to do as much of my shopping as possible myself, I make sure I have a way to carry my items in one hand and my cane in the other. I have a bag that has two wheels on one side. I can pull it behind me, just as one would pull a suitcase. This bag may not be as spacious as a suitcase, but it's made of waterproof material and stands upright without easily tipping over. I've tried carrying cloth bags of groceries, and my bag on wheels is a much better option for me. Even when it's filled to the top, I can still move it, thanks to its two trusty wheels.
10. To help with labeling your personal belongings, it could be a good idea to invest in a Pen Friend, a product initially put out by the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) in London. You can use its accompanying stickers to label just about anything. You put the device on a sticker and record a label with your voice. While I'm a strong supporter of Braille and Braille labels, I like using my Pen Friend's labels for folders in my filing cabinet and for important print papers. The product is a bit pricey, but I've found that it's a worthwhile investment.