Adapting to limitations, still on the go
Two years ago in Newark Liberty International Airport I stopped to look at a monitor to confirm the departure time and gate number for my flight to Berlin. To my consternation I couldn’t read the information and had to ask a stranger for help. For the first time I realized that my impaired vision was going to be a problem while traveling.
What I’m dealing with is age-related macular degeneration, a condition in the center of the retina, or macula, that impairs vision. Actually, I can see everything around me, but what I see is blurry. It’s almost like looking through thin, white gauze. Though I don’t have difficulty getting around, I have to be careful, for example, crossing the street with a signal. If I look directly at the light, I don’t see the color. Instead, I use my peripheral vision (which isn’t affected) to see if the light indicates it is safe to cross.
Living with this condition has required many life changes, such as no driving and difficulty reading. I am not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 1.75 million Americans over 40 suffer from advanced macular degeneration. Another 7 million Americans have symptoms and are at risk of vision loss.
Travel has been an important part of my life since 1956, when I drove with a friend in a
When I began to develop this condition several years ago, I worried that I would eventually have to give up traveling. Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that, at least not yet, but traveling with vision loss has required adjustments.
I have learned to negotiate airports fairly well by asking for assistance in getting boarding passes and reading monitors. On a trip to Thailand last year I had to ask a flight attendant for help in filling out customs forms. Once I arrived, members of my group were always willing to give me a hand if necessary. One man quipped, “You’re blind and I’m deaf, so we should stick together.’’
What appealed to me most in Thailand, besides its beautiful countryside, were the magnificent Buddhist temples. Safely negotiating the hundreds of steps required constant vigilance, which failed me once, but not in a temple. It was our first night after leaving traffic-choked Bangkok. Our accommodations were in a rustic but modern complex of cabins with thatched roofs amid lush tropical flora. The restaurant where we were to meet was at the end of a winding path. Walking there alone I didn’t notice that among all the greenery at the entrance you had to step over a narrow channel of water. Before I knew it, my left leg was in it up to my knee. A smiling Russian tourist helped me out.
Last December I spent the holidays in Mexico visiting Oaxaca, Puebla, and Mexico City. By this time I was having more difficulty reading so I overcame my resistance to newfangled gadgets and bought an iPod on which my son downloaded two audio books and several music CDs. It was a lifesaver during the flights and waiting in airports.
To my delight I found that with my small pair of binoculars I was able to clearly see the rich interior detail of Mexico’s colorful churches. When visiting museums, however, though I could easily see the objects, I was unable to read labels.
A trip in February took me to Nicaragua for a week with a local church group to do volunteer work. With all the travel arrangements having been made, it was a relief to just follow along. Once we got there my impairment was of little consequence because our mission required mostly physical labor.
My most recent trip was in March, a weekend jaunt with my daughter to attend a family memorial service. With her making the arrangements, the trip was almost painless. It was a reminder that having a companion along can reduce a lot of frustration.
In spite of my limitations, I remain optimistic. In October I’ll be visiting friends in Poland, where I served in the Peace Corps in the late 1990s. After all, I’m only 81. I think I have a few years left.
Lawrence Siddall can be reached at email@example.com.