Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Am Not My Car

(My car, freshman year in college)

Yes, I was in love with cars once. We had seven good years together, but it couldn’t last.
At the age of fourteen, I began to lose my eyesight to macular degeneration and it has declined ever since. It was hardly noticeable when I first got my driver’s license at sixteen. I was set to be a driver like my father before me.
Now my vision is worse than 20/400 in both eyes. It’s probably more like 20/600. Legally blind is defined as 20/200.
I am legally blind, but I can still see quite a lot. In fact, I see more than I can’t, only my central vision is gone. It is what is commonly known as “a blind spot.”
Take an old pair of sunglasses and tape a dime to the middle of each lens. Put them on and try walking around. I see more than that, but you will get the idea.
The problem is what I can't see - and that what I can’t see is critical to things like reading, identifying someone at a distance, or driving.
I have great peripheral vision, but when I look at something directly my eyes fail me completely. Not only that, they play tricks on me. In place of normal vision, my blind spots crackle with chaotic activity.
It’s a 24-hour Pink Floyd planetarium laser show right in front of me. It’s similar to the lightshow that you might experience at the beginning of a migraine headache, only very concentrated in the center. Vibrating, pulsing, purple, yellow, and blue lights swirl around each other like hundreds of fluorescent atoms..
No matter where I cast my eyes, it’s there. It never stops. It interferes with my intentions like a chaperone on prom night. I can’t fix it. I can’t get around it. A crucial part of me is gone forever.
So, I am a pedestrian. I didn’t choose this lifestyle, but I am beginning to think that it agrees with me after all. My love for the automobile has been fully severed. But I have seen and learned a great deal as a pedestrian.
Geography is important to pedestrians and they tend to gather in places where owning a car is not necessary. We like our neighborhoods compact, self-sufficient and connected to transit. Proximity is everything. We like living where the occasional emergency cab ride doesn’t cost a small fortune.
That I ended-up in Silver Spring is no accident. When my wife Kathleen and I started looking for somewhere to raise a family, this place met a lot of the criteria – good schools, representation in Congress, close to Metro, and cheap.
Silver Spring was the logical choice for a blind guy to find some independence. Here the population is actually more pedestrian than the national average. Surely, local government recognized this and took steps to accommodate pedestrians.
One might expect Silver Spring to have some of the best pedestrian infrastructure anywhere – but they would be dead wrong. I don’t have difficulty getting around because I am disabled – it is the terrible pedestrian infrastructure and non- enforcement of laws to protect us that get in my way.
Even though Silver Spring should be the perfect place for pedestrians, the infrastructure is lousy and the State and County approach to pedestrians is even worse.
My discontent started with a stroller back in 1995. I remember trying to get to the library from my apartment by walking up Colesville Road, AKA Route 29. By either name, this is a very busy thoroughfare.
A portable chain-link fence had been set-up around a construction site meaning that I had to push the stroller in the road for about fifty-feet to get by. I watched in horror as dozens of people walked on the road with traffic racing by only inches away. This was in my nascent pedestrian days; I would never do something like that now.
When I tried to call the local Silver Spring government and let someone know what was happening I got a sarcastic and indifferent response. As if to say, “You’re kidding, right?”
I have been pursuing satisfaction on this issue ever since. Once again, my fate is decided by my blindness and my battles have included fighting for decent sidewalks in particular and a new approach to pedestrianism in general. But what is wrong with the current approach? I’ll tell you; the current approach is car-centric, and built for drivers by drivers.
Racing around in a car all the time does something to the human brain. I am convinced that speed has a hypnotic effect, and turns people into insensitive, rude, gluttonous, frantic maniacs. We spill oil all over ourselves to keep this frenzied motorized orgy going full speed. Our children are obese and stare into screens all day playing Grand Theft Auto. Our roads are getting wider and we don’t feel safe sending our kids outside to play. More and more the world is built for vehicles, not people. SHA and DOT count cars, but they are still having trouble seeing pedestrians. Our culture has embraced the idea that we are our cars, and no one without a car deserves much consideration.
I too was in love with cars once, but those days are over. My hands often smelled like gasoline. I paid several thousand dollars each year to maintain one. I got tickets and had accidents, and a large part of my life revolved around my car.Now I am free. I guess I needed to lose my sight to see that I am not my car.

Now, if I can just get others to see that, too. Especially those responsible for education, engineering,and enforcement on our rights-of-way. If this is you, perhaps you should try living without a car for a while.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Lure of a Promise

My wife and I moved to Blair Plaza Apartments from our Dupont Circle English basement in 1994. Our daughter Rachel was just 20 days old, and our son Will was 10 months old.
We loved living in D.C., but we couldn’t afford the room we needed for two kids. We took a two-bedroom, eighth-floor apartment that looked out over Blair Mill Road and the D.C. line. In winter, we could see the National Cathedral in the distance. In spring, when the windows were open we could hear Metro trains as they clattered by.
Our apartment was in a building right next to the Giant. There were playgrounds nearby, and the public library was just up the road. We thought we had found a great place to raise a family without a car.
My wife and I both worked in Downtown DC and took Metro. Two incomes, two bedrooms, a graceful Ethiopian nanny, living in proximity to all our needs. It seemed dreams were becoming realty.
Not for long.
My eyesight was worsening and I was struggling to figure out how to use visual aids at work. My boss was a jerk and made things even more difficult. Within a year the economy hiccupped and I was promptly laid off.
In turn, we laid-off our nanny and I stayed home with the kids while I looked for work. Things on the job front were bleak. Unemployment insurance paid half of what I was making; we were treading water financially and I had 26 weeks to find a source of income.
I am a Southerner — raised to be self-reliant and invulnerable. I had determined a few years before that I was going to make it on my own for as long as I could. Even though I had received some help from the state of North Carolina to pay for college, I was hesitant to apply for Social Security Disability Insurance.
Then I discovered that I could not apply for help from the Maryland Vocational Rehabilitation Services unless I qualified for SSDI first. It takes six months to qualify for SSDI, so I applied immediately. SSDI paid about half of what I was making, too, so I decided to try and stay home with the kids full time.
I had to get used to the idea of going with the infamous “Plan B.”
If I could manage the bureaucratic nightmare, maybe Vocational Rehab would find me a job later. Then we could get back on track. In the meantime, I busied myself with bottles and diapers.
It took a while to become somewhat comfortable with the moniker “Stay-at-Home Dad,” but I tried to make it work. All it takes is some humility, right?
I knew all along that dealing with macular degeneration and raising two young kids would be tough. Just imagine wrangling toddlers while wearing sunglasses with dimes taped to the center of the lens. Over time I was surprised to find that it also had positive effects on my life. My disability has caused me to make a lot of choices I never would have made otherwise. Some of these choices were good ones.
Moving to the D.C. area is an example, but it goes much deeper back in time.
My blindness took me away from my car in South Carolina and landed me on a sofa in Maryland next to the woman I would eventually fall in love with and marry. Call it fate, but for that reason alone, maybe this blind thing isn’t all bad.
Unfortunately, it took a while to figure that out.
I spent way too much time feeling sorry for myself. Depression is one of the major symptoms of this disease. The frustration of feeling unable to fulfill the destiny that exists in your own mind can be devastating. The feelings of inadequacy that come from not being able to live up to the expectations set by the culture in which I was raised was stifling some days.

I felt dread at going out in public, because someone might see me doing something “blind.” I was afraid to stick my face into an ATM screen or offer an over-enthusiastic greeting to someone I didn’t recognize as a complete stranger.
Asking a stranger for help was humiliating for someone like me. People were supposed to ask me for help. Asking for help is a sign of weakness, and I would not be pitied by anyone. Silver Spring seemed like the kind of place where I could live without having to ask for help all the time.
There is a promise in places like Silver Spring that all kinds of people will have equal access to the many wonderful amenities here. If you believe the press releases, Montgomery County is building a New Urban Paradise in Silver Spring.
In a lot of ways this is true — but not for everyone. Walk a few blocks on these sidewalks, and you will see reality looks much different. From this side of the street, it’s clear this promise is not being kept.
In 1997, we settled into our present house. The kids are almost grown, and we have built a comfortable life for ourselves.

Sometimes I wonder how we got this far.
Then I remember that it was caring, love and patience that made all the difference. Love and caring I have down; it’s my lack of patience that still trips me up.
Being a parent and blind has made me a bit more patient than I used to be. I have learned to step over or around most of the obstacles in my life so far. Thousands of other pedestrians are doing the same every day. We love living in Silver Spring, but the promise of equal access as a pedestrian that brought us here remains unfulfilled.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010

View Montgomery Sideways in a larger map

This photo of the same location was taken in 2007 and was featured on the Montgomery Sideways website. The ramp at the corner has been renovated, but the approach only a few feet away remains the same.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010