The Other Answer to “How Do You Get Around?”

So, perhaps, my original answer to the, “how do you get around?” question didn’t get to the heart of what some of you were looking for. At the very least, though, I hope you’ve been thinking about your 1% and have started to unearth ways to overcome it. Trust me—life will that much more enjoyable and infinitely more exciting when you learn to block out that piece of the equation.

But back to the question at hand: how do I actually get around? It’s a good, fair query. Early on, my doctors assumed I wouldn’t be all that mobile and, today, I’m cycling, surfing, racing, diving and doing more than most sighted guys. So how do I do it? Here’s what it’s like to literally walk (or bike or surf or skate…) a mile in my shoes:

I start with sound
My hearing is fantastic. You’ve likely heard that people with weaker vision overcompensate with their other senses—and it’s absolutely true. I have incredible spatial awareness based on the sounds around me. I walk with a heavy heel (and, as a result, wear through more pairs of shoes than I care to admit…) and I can use the sounds that bounce off the walls to determine how wide a corridor is, for example, or if there’s something or someone approaching.

Sound is a big one especially when I’m walking or biking. As I approach an intersection I can hear the noise from passing cars and people getting louder and louder, until I’m right there in the midst of it. That’s where logic—part 2 of this, to follow—comes in. I assume I’m at an intersection based on past experiences and where I know I’ve just been. And 99.99% of the time, I’m right.

It sounds crazy, I realize, but it’s really just the human version of echolocation. I listen for the vibrations of waves when I surf and, from that, can determine how steep they are and when they’re going to break. I can hear my steps bouncing off of fences and walls and can judge where I am and what’s coming up. It’s nothing new. Bats use echolocation and so do dolphins. Why not me? Try it—you’ll likely be surprised at what you hear and, overall, what you experience.

I layer in logic, patterns and memory—a lot
So that intersection that I echolocated? I could hear the sounds and, beyond that, I could feel that the footpath had a different texture. That’s where the logic comes in, and that’s something I use a lot. To get around by myself and to tackle the obstacles I self-impose I have to operate under the assumption that things are as they should be—and I have to have a keen memory to take in a new place, path or space instantly. The footpath is the same as it was yesterday, most likely. The layout of the room is identical to the last time I visited. The bright, shoulder-high beams on top of the table? Logic would dictate that it’s, probably, a lamp.

And I’m almost always right.

We spend so much time second-guessing ourselves. Living a life shrouded in logic and patterns is, in a lot of ways, extremely refreshing and empowering. I spend, literally, no time thinking about the borderline impossible scenarios and “what ifs?” I simply charge ahead with supreme confidence and a sense of certainty. And, beyond that, I’m incredibly aware of everything happening around me, and do my due diligence to take it all in, because I have to. Just because you don’t, though, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Give it a shot. I bet you like what you see and, more importantly, what you experience.

My sense of touch is everything
Because I don’t use a cane I have both hands free all of the time—and that’s also powerful. Whenever I enter a room I very discretely put my hand out to the side and brush the walls, entrances and corners of the space as I pass through. After about a meter or so of tracing the walls I’m, typically, acclimated and can fully navigate the room. I always make it my first mission to figure out how to get out of room so I can walk back to the exit or the lift freely and without incident. And, again, 99% of the time I do.

And, yes, I use my vision
My vision, like I said, is 6/120, meaning I see at 6 m what a person with average vision sees at 120 m. Not great.

But, yes, I can see a little. When I’m in motion I usually focus on the horizon. If there’s really solid contrast—a bright blue sky, dark ground below me, sun shining above—then I can make out enough to use that as a sort of navigation point in my journey. If it’s overcast? No such luck.

I can also make out general shapes and outlines, provided the lighting is good. So that new haircut you got? Chances are I noticed first—really!—because I rely so heavily on the shape of your face and head to tell me who you are. I can get there—your voice, your walk, your mannerisms—but it might take me a second or two if what I see doesn’t sync with the rest. My memory for these kinds of details, though, is impeccable.

Keep in mind that, while my senses are naturally honed because of my less than optimal vision, I’ve also worked hard to train my body, my mind and my other skills to help me get where I am today. I throw challenges up all the time to make sure I stay sharp—the minute I lose my ability to hear distance between cars, for example, or map out the wave patterns or path from A to B then I start chipping away at what I’ve worked so hard to achieve. And that, simply, can’t happen.

In my speaking and coaching engagement I often invite sighted participants to test out some of these experiences—it’s always interesting and never without a few laughs and a lot of unique insights and food for thought. More on that next time. But there you have it—there’s the long answer to that always-burning question. That’s how I get around!

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