The Braille Monitor                                                                                       June 2003

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Valley Album

by Ed Kemmick

From the Editor: On February 6, 2003, the Billings Gazette published a piece about Federationist Jim Aldrich and his method of traveling around town as a blind person. The reporter, who writes a monthly column providing snapshots of people in the Yellowstone area, did a fine job of expressing Jim's attitudes while educating the public about one of their neighbors. Here is the article:

Jim Aldrich knows he's lucky to be living at the turn of the third millennium. "If I lived a hundred years ago and had to make a wood fire, I don't think I'd survive," he said. "We've got it pretty good."

Among the technological devices that make his life pretty good are talking clocks, a talking thermometer, a microwave oven with a Braille keypad, and a computer that can translate text into audio. He also has a couple of Palm Pilot‑like devices that convert information from the Internet into refreshable Braille on a miniature keyboard.

But when Jim ventures outside his house, he leaves technology behind and confronts a world that he can't see, armed only with a white cane, his sense of hearing, and his sense of touch. His cane, made of flexible fiberglass with a steel tip, tells Jim most of what he needs to know. His ears are alert for what's going on in a wider area, but mainly he concentrates on the small swath of space directly in front of him, the space reached by his cane.

The cane tells him about cracks in the sidewalk, about potholes and fire hydrants, curbs, patches of ice, telephone poles, fences, and stop signs. He moves forward like a mine sweeper, his cane constantly in motion. By describing a small arc with the tip of the cane and directing his steps toward the middle of the arc, Jim is able to proceed in a relatively straight line.

Walking from his house near Terry Park to the Albertson's store near the Sixth Street underpass, Jim strides confidently, having made the five‑block trip many times before. He talks about landmarks on the way-‑feeders where birds flock in the spring, a day care where the children often greet him, and the familiar intersections, each with its distinctive landmarks.

At the grocery store he waits near the racks of shopping carts for someone to help him. On this particular day his guide is Christina Kober, a young courtesy clerk who guides Jim's cart down the aisles, finds what he's looking for, and tells him about sales and special offers.

In the check-out line he's on his own. There is no one to read him the headlines about Winona Ryder, Halle Berry, and Joe Millionaire in the scandal magazines, no one to read him the big headline-‑"Duck hunters shoot angel!"-‑on the cover of World Weekly News.

On the way home on Miles Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets, one section of the sidewalk is pushed up a couple of inches, probably by tree roots. "I call that the homestretch," Jim says, tapping the raised concrete with his cane. "When I hit that, I know I'm on the homestretch."

When the wind is blowing hard-‑hard enough to limit his hearing-‑going out can be a problem. But the worst thing is snow, which Jim calls "a blind man's fog." If you're used to seeing the sidewalk with a cane, snow levels out contours, hides curbs, and erases the contrast between the concrete and what blind people call the "shoreline," the grass or dirt on either edge of a sidewalk.

And if you cross streets by using the sound of passing cars to time your movements, snow presents another obstacle. "It sounds like the traffic is on a carpet," Jim says. "It's much more muffled."

Despite the difficulties attending something as simple as walking to the store, Jim says blindness is no more than a limitation. And it could be worse. There are people who are blind and deaf, and they still manage to get out into the world."It's beyond my imagining," Jim says, slowly shaking his head. "I don't know what I'd do."

Jim and his twin brother John were born in Billings almost fifty-four years ago. They were born prematurely, Jim with fragile, undeveloped eyes. He was given too much oxygen shortly after birth, which further damaged his eyes, resulting in complete blindness.

He says his hometown is "a wonderful place," and he has spent most of his life here. He wishes there were better transportation-‑buses running seven days a week and late at night, for starters-‑but other than that he has no complaints, and he is generally pleased at how helpful people are.

Even when he doesn't need help, he says, he thanks people for trying, "because I think it's a good idea."

Jim particularly likes the downtown, where he can walk almost anywhere he wants to go. On a recent stroll through the downtown, Jim was unfamiliar with the new curbside improvements, including fenced‑in patios, benches, and the Skypoint public sculpture at Second and Broadway. He liked them all, however, for reasons most people would never consider. Encountering an iron enclosure around the patio in front of Travel Cafe, Jim carefully runs his hand over the fence, storing memories for future reference. It will be an important landmark, telling him where he is even if there's snow.

A block later he comes in contact with one of Skypoint's support legs. "Again," he says, "this is a good clue. When I get to this, I'll know where I am."

Across the street Jim passes beneath an awning over the entrance to a store. "I must be under an awning," he says. "I could hear the sound change." In the same way, he knows he's crossing an alley because there's a gap in the reflected sound. He guesses correctly when he passes a parking garage, saying he could hear the way the traffic sounds echoed through it.

The only trouble he has is at the corners. The new sidewalks have wide, smooth openings to accommodate wheelchairs, but they don't help people with white canes. Normally Jim finds the edge of the curb and waits there for the light to change. Without a distinct curb, he doesn't know where the edge is, where the sidewalk ends.

But he'll find his way. He usually does. "I'd say we're generally very normal people," he says. "When it comes to getting about, we have to adapt. We have to find our own way."

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