Thursday, July 17, 2014

ATC Tour, or how to get totally stressed out and then be stuck in Boise

This week, I flew down to Boise to tour the ATC (Assessment and Training Center) at the Commission for the Blind. I've been visually impaired my whole life, but I've never had any kind of training in non-visual skills. Everything I do has been self-taught as an attempt to cope in a sighted world that never believed that I couldn't see.

Going down there, I had a lot of questions.

Would the staff and other students believe that I have low vision? Or would they be like so many others in my past who say I'm seeking attention or imagining it?

Would the center have high expectations or would they be as frustrating as the school district has been for Abi?

Would I be able to leave all the responsibilities in my "real life" to go down there? Would Matt do okay juggling both work and kids?

Would traveling by myself go okay? I've done it before, but it's always frightening, wondering if I'm going to miss a sign or something.

Would the staff be knowledgeable? Nice? Professional? Would the dormitory be comfortable?

Monday morning, I tried to get everything in order to go down. We had just finished getting hay on Saturday, and some light thundershowers made me aware that I needed to get our hay covered. The piano tuner was scheduled to come, and I left with the kids to get out of his hair, but he ended up not coming, and the kids didn't behave well while we were out. The hay tarp was full of holes. the heat affected my blood sugar. Things were not going smoothly.

I realized how stressful the day was, when a friend texted something that pushed my buttons, and I absolutely blew up at her on Facebook. Classy, Erin. I'd have to apologize, but I didn't have time right then. I barely had time to pack, and I ended up forgetting pajamas.

So I arrived at the airport in less than a calm frame of mind. I wondered if that was a bad sign.

The TSA, always guaranteed to produce additional stress, decided that I would be the target for the random footwear check. The trouble was that they kept asking me for the shoes, which I did not have. They had them. I couldn't see where. They mumbled, and I felt scared and confused about what was happening. So I just waited for them to figure it out, hoping I wouldn't get into trouble for not cooperating.

They held up my bag and shoes asking if they were mine. Luckily, I could see them well enough to ID them and things proceeded. Shoes were scanned and pronounced okay.

I entered the crowded waiting room and sat for nearly an hour and a half as the plane was late. I wanted to meet the other blind guy, Pat, who would be on the flight with me and also headed to the training center, but in the crowd I couldn't find him.

Finally boarding time came, and I found Pat by his cane as we both boarded early. I used my cane too, and getting onto the plane was so much easier, not having to guess where the stairs were or tripping over the fuel hose.

We were off. In Boise, Pat and I joined up in the airport and went to find our. Luckily, Pat had called them, and they came to the pick-up point shortly. We were not supposed to pay them, but the taxi company had misplaced the Commission's authorization, so we just each pulled out a fiver.

I walked up the curving front stairs, grateful to have arrived and curious about the place I was entering.

A delightful lady named Arlene met us at the front door. She said she'd show us our rooms and familiarize us with the building. The Commission building was located in the hospital district, not far from the Capitol. The dormitory and classrooms were all in the same building, which would be convenient.

The first thing I noticed was the absolute pristine condition of the building. Not a speck of dust anywhere. No accumulated grime. Everything was freshly painted and in good repair, although the building itself seemed to be circa 1920's like our house. (I found out later it was built in 1921 and used to house nurses and nuns who worked at the hospital.)

Arlene told is that her husband Alan is the custodian. He is deaf-blind. Totally blind and except for a hearing aid and a cochlear implant, totally deaf. I was impressed at his quality of work, because I used to clean dormitories as a summer job on campus, and ours were never done that well, even though we worked hard. He obviously knew what he was doing.

After we were shown to our rooms, and left on our own by Arlene, Pat and I decided to find some dinner. Following the instructions Arlene had given, we found a pizza place and ordered pasta and salad bar. Dinner was delicious, and I enjoyed Pat's many stories. He and I were a pretty good match for helping each other out, because I could read the print on the menu, but he was better at figuring out what foods were offered on the salad bar.

The next morning, we showed up promptly at 8:20 in the second-floor conference room as instructed. We met the staff and were assigned to a class schedule. Not many students were attending classes at this point, so the group was small. We broke up and four of us headed to the basement wood shop.

Pat, Rachel, Eileen and I sat around a table in the wood shop and introduced ourselves. We all have vision impairments for various reasons, and all of us had some usable vision. Rachel was losing vision after having been sighted, so she was a little different mindset than Pat and I who have had our conditions our whole lives. Eileen was sighted, but was assisting her sister, Rachel.

The shop teacher lectured for an hour, explaining his class and his purpose for teaching power tools under sleep shades. He asked us if anyone would like to try a power tool. Rachel vehemently refused, saying she was scared, and Pat didn't want to put on sleep shades, but I jumped at the chance to try. I figured he'd use a radial arm saw, because those are big and noisy, but also easy to use.

I was right. With the blindfold on, I explored the power tool that was turned off. I found the buttons, the blade, the arm and the handle. I also found the scrap wood that was ready for cutting.

The teacher, Jason, explained the procedure for keeping my left hand away from the blade, and how to safely get my right hand from the on button to the blade handle. It all made sense, so with his permission, I turned on the machine and cut a few inches off the piece of wood, to Rachel's absolute amazement and delight. In fact, she thought it looked so easy she got up the courage to try it herself. She did it, and the tone of empowerment in her voice and look of hope on her face made me grin. The fact that my confidence had helped her made me glow inside. One of the goals in my own life is to teach blind people skills and confidence, and even though I was there as a student, I felt I accomplished that in a small way. Society tells people that blindness is a tragedy and expects blind people to sit in their houses all day. When someone losing their sight finally begins to question this, and discovers that they can still life a great quality of life, the change is overwhelming for them.

Next, we went to ADL (Activities of Daily Living) with Lisa who is also blind. Everyone loved having a blind instructor. The sighted teachers are nice, but they don't "get it" in the way that the blind ones do, and the blind teachers are generally harder on us. The sighted ones seem to be more willing to give us a pass for being blind, which I find annoying. I grew up having to cope on a non level playing field, and learned that I just had to push myself harder than everyone else. The blind teachers seemed to understand this.

A lecture in this class was a little harder to sit through as it was nearly lunch time and I was hungry. I tried to keep my blood sugar up between classes by drinking a protein shake, but I was still ready to go eat. We still had one more class: Discussion Group. There, the teacher led a round-table about blindness philosophy and imagining a hypothetical world where no one had ever had sight. I've written an unfinished novel about that, as such a world appeals to me. It's not that I dislike sight, but the binary of blind versus sighted makes my life a lot more complicated. The cultural bias toward sight is so strong, it affects everything we do and how we think about ourselves. Such a world without that would be significantly different, but also fundamentally the same, as we'd still struggle with greed, with politics and relationships and logistics.

The four of us decided to go to lunch together. We walked several blocks to a little cafe, and got good coffee on the way back.We arrived back at the center late, but the braille teacher accepted our apologies. Pat and I sat in the braille class, and the teacher wanted to know my experience with braille. When he found out that I have a transcriber's certificate and read tactilely faster than he does, he told me there was nothing he could teach me. I asked about Nemeth, and he said I was welcome to study it on my own. I planned to do that by myself anyway. His computer class was equally disappointing. He didn't have many suggestions for the problems I've had with PhotoShop. Apparently there aren't many blind graphic designers. I've already used NVDA and ZoomText, and that was about the extent of his offerings.

During the break before the last class, I got an email from Matt that the friend I'd insulted on Facebook was reacting back even more strongly, escalating the conflict far beyond what I had expected. He seemed really stressed out that the conflict was now involving him and another unrelated person. He was struggling to watch the kids and also keep his work clients happy. I felt terrible for him and the rest of the day, I had trouble concentrating on the classes or instructors as I just wanted to be home sorting things out and helping him.

The last class was O and M (Orientation and Mobility, AKA cane travel). We talked about canes and cane travel, but I remember little of the conversation as I was so worried about Matt and wishing I was there to apologize to the friend and try and resolve the conflict.

At the end of the day, just before we were to catch the taxi back to the airport, we got a call that our flight was canceled. Pat and I spent a harried half hour on the phone rebooking the next flight in the morning which would take us to Seattle and then to Pullman, rather than straight to Lewiston. We had to ask the training center staff if we could stay in the dorm and extra night, and luckily they were accommodating.

Of course, all of that didn't help my frame of mind in the least. To have to call Matt and tell him he'd have the kids for another night was the last thing I wanted to do. Plus, the situation with my friend was likely to sit longer or escalate, and I didn't want that. I was having trouble holding back the tears.

I called Matt, talked to each kid, and then spent a while crying and trying to pray. I called my friend, hoping she'd talk, but she'd requested a face-to-face meeting and she did not answer my call. I left an apology on her voicemail, feeling that it was less than adequate, but was all I could manage at that point.

Pat found me and asked if I wanted to go to dinner. I decided that going out was better than hanging around the empty center. We both googled the bus system on our phones, discovered that the Boise bus system is terrible, and chose to ride the bus to the mall anyway.

The work of figuring out the bus and finding the right one when neither one of us could read the signs took my mind off my troubles, and I felt better. Actually getting to the mall and getting dinner at the food court also helped. I ate TacoTime, which is comfort food, and Pat got McDonald's.

We wandered around the mall for a while, and had to take a taxi as the bus inconveniently stops running at 6:45. A student with a Russian accent asked to share our taxi, and the driver entertained us with stories about an upcoming vacation she was planning to take.

Because I had packed extremely lightly for only one overnight, I was out of clean clothes, and didn't have any shampoo or soap. Three days in the triple digits made me desperate to use the dorm showers, so Pat lent me his bottle of shampoo. A shower felt delightful, and then I talked to Matt for a good long while before turning in early.

The next morning, I woke at 4am, which is 3am my time. I had to be ready to go at 5 anyway to catch the plane, so I just stayed up. We reversed the whole routine: taxi, plane, etc. only this time we had to fly twice. It took all morning to get home. Honestly, it probably would have been shorter to drive.

Pat's wife gave me a ride home from the airport, and I was a tired, tired Tuttle when I finally hugged my kids hello. I got some lunch and taught a flute lesson. By then I was so tired I was dizzy. The kids agreed to watch a movie quietly and let me take a nap. Matt, of course, headed straight back to his office. He is really short on hours this week, and in my thinking that was even more important than my nap.

In pondering whether I want to attend the training center, the obvious roadblock is my responsibility to my family. I need to hire child care so Matt can work. But we don't have hundreds of dollars to pay a nanny to replace me.

I do think I could learn some new skills and techniques there. My self-taught skills were surprisingly up to par, but there are still things I could use and things to teach Abi. An eleven-week term is out of the question, but two weeks down there might be helpful, and they were willing to accommodate that. It just remains to make decisions on when and how.

As far as my friend goes, I'm still trying to get things resolved and figure out the future. Circumstances dictate working together for the rest of the summer, and I'm not sure what that will look like unless we find a way to patch things up.

All things considered, the trip was beneficial, I think, although I think it might have shaved a few years off my life expectancy. Such is life. Seldom do things go as smoothly as I'd like. Onward from here.

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