Become Your Own O&M Instructor Article
You don’t always need a professional mobility instructor to conquer a new route. Your key to becoming more independent is to simply think out of the box. Read my long article to learn how.
Become Your Own O&M Instructor
I successfully negotiated the curving path that lead to the cafe in the middle of a beautifully landscaped courtyard. I was standing in the line when the lady behind me said “Honey, you do so well on your own, but don’t you think you’d be better off with a guide dog.”
As a guide dog user for three decades I was tempted to explain that my current one had just retired and I was on a waiting list for a new dog. But all through high school and college, I’d used a cane and resented strangers telling me what I needed. Instead of explaining the situation, I instead answered her by asking if this was indeed the coffee line and commenting that even a dog wouldn’t necessarily know where the coffee line was.
Sitting outside with my iced mocha I considered why her comments had irked me so. I realized that none of us appreciates unsolicited advice, and as individuals, only we truly determine what works best for us, especially in terms of mobility.
So as I discuss with you techniques for becoming more independent, I urge you to take them in the spirit I intend. I’m not the lady behind you who thinks she has all the solutions. I’m not the athletic blind superstar who can do everything on my own unaided, and I’m not the helpless shut-in who hides at home, dreaming of a future that will never occur. I am instead an ordinary blind traveler with tips and adventures to share.
I am in my middle fifties, have never seen and started learning cane travel in the late 1960s. I’ve outlived four guide dogs and am currently on a waiting list for my sixth. But I’ve also spent many years not using a dog, and traveled around Europe as a teenager with a cane and not too much maturity!
I also have recovered from several knee injuries, am overweight and have worked an enormous variety of jobs. I’ve been both very independent and also quite dependent when traveling, and I have thought a great deal about what independence really means. In this article I share failures, successes and experiences of myself and my friends.
I’ve concluded there are three important themes in the universe of independent travel. First, you must know yourself. Second you must make decisions. And third, you must think out of the box.
Knowing yourself is a cliche of self-help gurus. But what does it mean? I know blind people who can be shown a rout and immediately memorize it. I know others who can repeatedly practice a route and still never remember whether to turn left or right. Come to think of it, I know sighted people who can’t find their way out of a paper bag either and other sighted friends who drive unerringly to a destination only rarely becoming lost. Orienting yourself in space is a talent, just like playing the piano. Blindness has less to do with it than you think. For me, I’m somewhere between the well-oriented and the hopelessly clueless. I don’t have perfect pitch when it comes to being oriented, but I can carry a tune. My spatial talents are around average.
There are other things about yourself you should know. Are you extroverted or shy? Do you like asking for help or find it embarrassing? What about exploring new areas? Do you find that thrilling or frightening? How do you respond to technology; is it fun to play with or a hassle to learn? And what is your learning style; do you prefer to read or listen to instructions? Are you good or abysmal at following steps? Do you use your memory or prefer to take notes?The more you know yourself, the better you are at working with techniques that assist you best.
Take the example of a visually impaired lady who is embarrassed to ask for help, feels shy in new situations and doesn’t like to explore. This is not a person who is going to travel on vacation to an unfamiliar destination in Florida alone. But suppose a similar woman still felt nervous in new situations, was not particularly well-oriented, but wasn’t shy either. This gal might well take a vacation alone and readily ask strangers for help.
Now take a blind guy who is embarrassed to ask for directions. Let’s say he easily learns routes and does not need much orienting. Of course he’s going to be able to handle that business trip to Florida fine. But let’s say much of his route involves walking along dusty roads without sidewalks, and let’s further suppose that he’s very good with technology. He probably has the latest GPS for the blind and due to his youth and regular workouts, he’s able to hike several miles to the convention center where his meetings are located. But let’s further suppose that on the trip he gets spattered with mud, and he’s hot and sweaty and looks completely ridiculous in his rumpled suit, arriving at the convention center as dirty as a homeless guy. Is our fictional business tycoon truly more independent than our female tourist, clinging to the arm of a stranger?
Before you can make decisions about how to travel, and how much help you want, you need to truly know yourself. If you think you might wish to step out of your comfort zone, you have to know what your comfort zone is. For our business tycoon, stepping out of his zone would have meant overcoming his thriftiness or shyness and taking a taxi or asking a buddy for a lift. Just because he had the latest GPS, didn’t mean it was always wise to use it. Being independent does not always mean accomplishing every task unaided. Independence means you give yourself the freedom to choose.
At the college where I work, we have a blind student who always uses the same bathroom because she’s afraid of trying to find another one on her own. I’d been criticizing her in the privacy of my own head when I was moved to a new building and found myself practicing the same behavior. One morning, determined not to be so silly, I set off with my cane on a mission to locate three bathrooms nearby before I actually needed them. I was stepping out of my comfort zone, because even though I’m generally considered more independent than this student, whose sight loss is new, I still get stuck in a rut sometimes. Because I’d taken the time to know myself, I realized my problem was that I felt foolish asking the college students where the bathroom was, when I as an older person was supposed to be seen as a sort of authority. That insight helped me laugh at the rut I’d gotten myself stuck in. I walked to each of the three buildings near mine and in turn asked a random teenager where the bathroom was. In about twenty minutes, I’d accomplished my mission; I knew the approximate location of three nearby bathrooms and didn’t have to wait for the nearest one to be free next time one was needed. Because I don’t memorize routes on the first try, I’ll need to practice finding them a few more times before I can go there when I actually need to get to them quick.
Returning to my office, I felt that wonderful sense of accomplishment we often do when stepping out of our comfort zone. But stepping out of that zone is a decision, and when you make it, you should do so because you have consciously decided.
You can also consciously decide not to step out of that zone. Let’s suppose you know that you have trouble memorizing routes. Forcing yourself to travel a route you don’t know well won’t help, and might not be safe. You can make the decision to ask a friend to accompany you. You can make the decision not to go. You can decide to take paratransit. You can decide to pester your local training center to get an O&M instructor to repeat that route with you. You can decide to master a digital recorder, and take notes about every route you are shown. You may not have the ability to learn routes quickly but you do have the ability to make plans and stick with your decisions.
When my knee is hurting, I do not try to get across busy streets without help. I explain to a stranger that I have a bad knee and would appreciate some assistance. I do not move as quickly and safely as I once did, and I know my limitations. Another blind friend might conclude I was lazy but I am in charge here; I prefer to practice my balance in the gym and not in the middle of a busy street!I would also ask for help if I had trouble walking in a straight line, or if I couldn’t read the traffic. The important thing is that I do know how to read traffic, and am capable of crossing unaided when necessary.
For me, knowing myself has also shown that I have trouble paying attention. I get lost in my own thoughts and often miss important cues. Now I deliberately attend to the external environment by asking myself questions. Do I know if this bus is at a near or a far side stop? Is traffic on my right or left? Do I hear the power doors from Walmart ahead or are those the doors for Office Depot?
I also love to sit and play the game of identifying as much about the environment as I can. I listen for the clink of glasses at a nearby cafe. I listen for the distant call of a mockingbird up high, telling me that tall trees are in the vicinity. I can hear from the traffic how far the street is and how wide the parking lot might be. I can hear nearby familiar doors opening and closing; each has a distinct sound. Inside buildings, the noises of typing, paper rustling, clothing sliding on racks, cash registers, printers whirring, photocopying and phones ringing can all clue me in to the locations of store departments, desks and people.
As a child I used to amaze my sister by knowing which kind of sandwich my dad made for lunch. After we kids were put to bed, he’d assemble his lunchbox in the kitchen and I’d whisper “He’s making tuna” or “Oh, it’s peanut butter and jelly.” She’d sneak out to peek and couldn’t fathom how I’d know. But there is a distinctive sound when the peanut butter and jelly jars are unscrewed, and another sound when the tuna can is opened or the mayonnaise top is popped. And I never missed that distinctive squishy sound of Dad squeezing mustard or the plop of catsup sliding out of the bottle. I could never miss the sound of dad chopping celery or the squeak of the cupboard where the sandwich bags were kept. I liked food, so I always knew.
By forcing myself to listen, smell and analyze I stay in tune with the environment to keep myself as oriented as I can. I probably can’t hear catsup exiting a bottle today, but I try to remember to pay attention to what I can hear.
I also try to build a mental map of a location. I listen for the distinctive click of high heels on concrete, and it can often tell me where a path is. I listen for the echoes that clue me in to large openings and the cavernous sound of a covered corridor. If I listen carefully, I can hear the high heels following the path, climbing a few steps, passing under a covered arch and exiting on the far side. This has helped me find a path I never knew about before many times. I pay attention to the direction of the sun, the smell of the tire store nearby and the scent of freshly mown grass. I have learned to ask when I hear a new sound what is nearby so later on I can relate it to the area. Flags flapping on flagpoles, the distinctive pattern of sprinklers or the whine of an air compressor can all clue you in to your whereabouts. Too often we rush from here to there, but taking the time to listen can make us much more aware of the clues we can depend on in the future.
There were two paths I regularly confused once, and I kept taking the wrong one. I finally realized that the correct path sloped down ever so slightly. After that I started to pay more attention to the slope and texture of areas. I felt like Sherlock Holmes, alert to all the clues.
I am not always good at this. Sometimes I wander around in a fog, becoming literally lost because I forgot to pay attention. About 25 years ago, I had a customer named Judy. My job was to train her how to use WordPerfect. I’d taken a break to relieve my dog, and because this was San Francisco, plentiful with sidewalks and pedestrians, I charged off confidently with the furry express , found a park, and took care of his business. Then I suddenly remembered I’d forgotten to ask Judy where she actually lived. I’d been driven there, and due to my inattentiveness, I had no idea how to return to her home. This was many years before cellphones and I had to wander around until I encountered enough landmarks and remembered enough about where she lived that I eventually found my way back. I might have been a competent computer user then but I
sure was incompetent when it came to thinking ahead. However, having a few failures under my belt taught me more than all the O&M instruction ever could have.
I’ve also learned that moving slowly is fine, and stopping often to think about where I am, where I came from and where I’m headed is perfectly OK as well. Passers by might ask if I need help, and I can choose to accept or explain that I’m just standing in one place thinking about something. I can also choose what kind of help I might need. I might ask to be escorted to my destination. I might simply ask the name of the street I am on or the name of the building I’m approaching. I might just ask if the passer by sees any signs in the vicinity and would they mind reading them to me. Sometimes if the passing pedestrian tells me “Oh this is the science building” I will ask how they know; what it is that they see that clues them in to which building we are approaching. Yesterday, I pointed at a fountain and simply asked which one it was; our campus has several fountains and I wasn’t positive I was where I thought I might be. I am in charge of whether I ask for help and what kind of help I ask for. I can make a multitude of decisions here and I don’t always have to respond the same way.
When I got my last guide dog, they kept giving us new routes to follow and most of us found it all way too confusing. Several of the older women were in tears over it. We had a few young men who seemed to always master the routes after one trip, and their bragging made the rest of us feel inept. Realizing that only I could choose how I felt, I put fresh batteries in my digital recorder and got the confident guys to explain the route and all its turns on to the machine. Then, I made some Braille notes, and stopped trying to keep all the routes straight. I was able to concentrate on learning to use my dog, and whenever I got to a turn, I simply consulted my notes. I realized I didn’t have to prove to anyone that I was oriented, but I had to spend this time learning to use my dog effectively. It kept me from feeling stressed, and it was again an example of making a conscious and personal decision to cope.
The campus where I work is 112 acres of mostly concrete plazas. Nothing is on a straight line or in a grid pattern and there is perpetual construction. It’s a challenging environment and when I need to be on time to a meeting, I take the shuttle for the physically disabled. But if I do have time, I make myself travel around using my cane. I try to ask for help in different ways, and sometimes I refuse all help. Other times I accept all the assistance I can get. I do not want to get stuck in any rut. For myself, this is the conscious decision I have made about my travel.
Too many of us, and I am certainly guilty as well, fail to decide how to cope with a situation, and that inaction is the most dependent thing we can do. Sometimes we just let life happen to us rather than taking an active part.
I worked once in a business park with a deli I really liked. But every time I set out to get to the deli I got lost. I’d engage in this negative internal dialog about how unfair it all was. There were no sidewalks, and I had to walk around two buildings, walk past a third but on its right side, cut through a fourth parking lot and I’d be there. But the whole place was set up for drivers, and it was just a series of interconnected parking lots with no path to follow. Once hopelessly disoriented I had more trouble finding my way back. So I’d get very frustrated, wasting my whole lunch hour trying to find the place. My anger blocked me from thinking rationally. I wasn’t coping; I was just struggling, and I might have felt independent slogging around those miles of parking lots in the blazing noontime sun, but I wasn’t being independent at all. I’d asked friends to show me the way. They had numerous times and I still was lost. I charted all the reasons why I was lost: how I couldn’t tell if I was circumnavigating a building because shrubbery around it kept me from walking close enough to know when I’d passed it. I was lost because walking around cars in the parking lots got me pointed the wrong way. I was lost because the place was empty and there was nobody to ask for help. I was lost because I was an idiot and couldn’t learn the route. Oh I was good at beating myself up over it!I felt like a failure. But years later, I realized my real failure was not in getting lost but rather in not being flexible enough to design a new solution.
Sighted drivers do this all the time. Instead of consulting a map, they drive around in circles getting grumpier by the minute. They fret about getting stuck in traffic and being late instead of allowing enough time to cheerfully arrive at their destination. Blindness has no monopoly on disorientation and a lack of coping skills.
Years later, when the same problem occurred with a new building I’d been moved to, I kept a jar of dog treats in my office for just those occasions. When we’d safely arrive at my new building, my dog would get a treat. Pretty soon, my dog was happily dragging me there. Later as a cane user, when I had to find a new building again, on a campus without distinctive paths, my approach was to slow down and to concentrate on where I was at all times. I tried to think like Sherlock Holmes.
Perhaps I could have gotten that deli to deliver my order. Perhaps a friend could have picked up my order for me. Perhaps, had I allowed my emotions to take a back seat, another perfectly good solution would have appeared.
In my years of both success and failures, the one thing I’ve learned is that the more proactive you are about coping, the better you will cope. You may not cope the way your mother, teacher or best friend copes, but if you make the decisions, you control your destiny. Your friends, family and rehab people can give you ideas, but it is you who must live with the decisions you make. In my encounter with the deli, I chose to be a victim and it was a lesson that I’m glad I learned.
I once had a roommate named Al who was a paraplegic and used a power chair. His rehab therapists thought he should be pushing himself around in a manual chair. But in overdoing it, he realized he was starting to develop pain in his shoulders and so he made a conscious decision to use a power chair instead. I’ve seen the same thing happen to people who can use crutches, but choose the manual wheelchair for better stability and safety. The able-bodied public has somehow gotten the idea that it is better to balance precariously on crutches rather than safely sitting in a chair and that pushing yourself around is more independent than using an electric motor. But those who struggle to walk everywhere using crutches often develop back problems later in life. Modern-day therapists are now recommending the physically disabled take better care of their bodies. They’ve realized that overdoing it can disable you worse later on.
Al discovered that the power chair got him to appointments quicker and that he could carry more items. His shoulders stopped hurting. Some of the professionals tried to tell him he was “giving up” because he’d “given in” to an electric chair. But Al had the last laugh. Three times a week, he returned to his manual chair and pushed himself up several steep hills in the neighborhood. This kept him fit and strong so he was able to push himself to an important meeting the day his power chair broke. Had his shoulder given out, he might have been stuck in the power chair, and needed full-time assistance in his home. but he was wise enough to take unsolicited advice with a grain of salt. I admired him because he didn’t get stuck in a rut and he didn’t let bureaucrats run his life either.
Whether you decide to step out of your comfort zone, or stay with the familiar, make sure the decision is conscious and that you aren’t avoiding the problem. This is absolutely the most independent thing you can do. Take charge, even if that means asking for more help than others think you should.
Let’s now move on to my third insight about thinking out of the box. If there is a place you want to go, a travel skill you want to master, or a situation that just gives you stress, try to imagine how others might approach it. How would you handle this situation if you were an athlete? What if you were old and frail? What if you’d been born without any vision at all? What if you had better cane skills? What if you were new to vision loss? Would you handle this differently if you were more or less extroverted? What if you were Spock from Star Trek? How would you cope if you had a talking GPS? Would Braille, large print, tape recorders or even your cell phone help you out? Does any of the advice you got from mom or your rehab counselor make good sense?
Imagine you are wearing another person’s shoes and brainstorm other ways to cope. Ask other people for suggestions. Collect ideas but know that most won’t work for you. Other people’s advice often doesn’t. If you feel trapped it often simply means you are still thinking inside that box.
Perhaps you can get a friend to drop you off at the store, but take the bus home. Perhaps you can try walking with your cane on part of the route, and take a taxi through the part that has no sidewalks. Perhaps you should first try that route during the time of day where the light, and your vision is best. Perhaps you need to ask three different people to explain the route, since the first explanation didn’t make sense. Perhaps you do qualify for O&M training; call some local agencies and let them earn their salary! Perhaps you can order an item online and don’t need to go there in person at all! Perhaps if you normally use a dog, you should slow it down and try learning this route first with a cane. Perhaps you are waiting for an O&M instructor to orient you when you can actually take charge, and by carefully crafting your questions, do the whole orientation thing yourself.
A few years ago, I realized I hated one street because my cane kept getting stuck in sidewalk cracks. I wondered if there were better canes out there. Sure enough, some research uncovered a plethora of new-fangled cane tips I never realized existed. There were huge golf-ball sized tips that rolled beautifully over cracks. There were sturdy straight canes I could get for free from the NFB, that echoed loudly when tapped. There were itty-bitty ID canes that slipped unobtrusively in to your pocket — great for finding that darned walk sign when you are out with a dog or have enough vision you don’t always need a cane. There was even a special cane tip for traveling in the wilderness! I wasted all those years putting up with sidewalk cracks instead of getting a better cane tip!
Maybe your problem is a phobia. Some people cope with immersion: crossing those train tracks even if it seems scary. Some cope with avoidance: going to a store that doesn’t involve crossing the tracks. Recognize that a phobia can be a real warning sign. Fear of tripping might be the first symptom of a weak ankle. Fear of trying something new might simply indicate you aren’t going as many new places as you used to. Maybe you need to start using a support cane or walking stick to help with your bad ankle, or go some unfamiliar, but less challenging places to gradually practice your travel skills again. Chat with friends or read support forums online to learn how others cope with fear.
Maybe your issue stems from not knowing how to do something. If you aren’t sure how other blind people shop independently, ask. If you aren’t sure your cane technique is correct, stand near a wall and practice your arc until you just touch that wall. Not sure you walk in a straight line, practice using a garden hose as a guide. Not sure where the bus stop is? Practice getting there when you aren’t in a hurry, or pay the neighbor kid to assist. He’ll find helping you is a lot more fun than watering lawns.
So if you feel uncomfortable reading traffic, take yourself to a nearby intersection you don’t need to cross and practice. It’s perfectly safe to practice reading traffic without actually crossing and if pedestrians happen by you can ask if the light is actually green. A phobia for crossing streets may be a warning signal alerting you that your traffic reading skills are rusty. Don’t let phobias shame you.
If you have been blind a while, you may have learned your mobility long before the world became so complex. Intersections are far more difficult than before, with islands, angled crossings and lights that aren’t timed for pedestrians. We now have silent hybrid cars, few sidewalks in many urban areas and roundabouts that are tremendously confusing and dangerous.
In my county, the lightrail platforms are mostly in the middle of the street. You must cross to the center of the intersection, then staying oriented, travel down the middle of the street with traffic on both sides, as you walk up a ramp on to the platform. The average blind traveler is best advised to feel a little phobic when first attempting this maneuver.
Sometimes it is not your life in danger, but merely the problem of not being able to get there from here. I remember a bus stop in the middle of a parking lot I had trouble finding. After asking many people about it, one person mentioned that there was a flight of stairs fifty feet away and directly across from it. I realized those stairs lead to a sidewalk I knew well. After that, I could take a detour to get to that sidewalk, descend the stairs and travel straight ahead fifty feet to get to that stop. This was useful because during the middle of the day, when I typically took that bus, there was nobody around to ask.
From this experience, I learned the shortest route is often not the best. Friends who help will often want to show you the straightest or shortest route. I learned to ask questions about nearby landmarks and paths, that to the sighted are not straight as the crow flies, but will provide more orientation cues to help me stay on the route.
Don’t like asking for help? Then plan ahead and master a new route on your own. Don’t know how to fend off the overly helpful? Role-play situations until you have confident responses, for example “Thanks but I have to learn this myself because you won’t always be able to assist.”
For me, one thing I had to role-play was the situation where I just wanted to explore to feel more confident with an area. I practiced saying to my dog, “No, I’m not going anywhere in particular. I just want to feel confident I know where things are at.” After a while when someone grabbed me and said worriedly “Honey, where do you want to go,” I could recite my reply from memory.
I also found I felt more confident exploring a new area if I explained to the overhelpful that I was “just out for exercise.” Then they would offer important information, such as the street ahead, or even, once that I was actually striding down the middle of the street. The art of fending off but nevertheless benefiting from the overly helpful is something it pays to master.
Are your family members holding you back? Are they afraid to let go and have you try new things? Sometimes a counselor can help you learn how to communicate with them; sometimes asking others how they coped with over-protective family can be useful. People with completely different disabilities can often be a great resource. I also enjoy listening to local high school students at Starbucks give each other advice on how to deal with over-protective parents. “Tell your mom you won’t drive on the highway,” one girl advised her friend, “And then wait until she has to drive your brother somewhere and offer to do it after she’s seen that you kept your promise. Be sure and wait to offer to drive him when she’s really tired and stressed out.” It’s easy to change this advice for a newly-blinded adult: tell your spouse you’ll only walk around the block and offer to go to the store for him one day when he’s tired.
But suppose your problem is that you feel like you are the last pedestrian in America. Adrift in the asphalt desert of a parking lot you have no idea where the shopping center went. Your solution will need to be yours. but for me, I came up with the strategy of going to the same parking lot when the weather was cool and Christmas shoppers were everywhere. I latched on to some helpful old lady and had her tow me across the parking lot to the store. After repeating this a multitude of times and days during the busy Christmas season, I found I could cope with the parking lot when it became deserted in January.
Another time, I discovered a free talking GPS program for my phone and used it to get around an area without pedestrians. Another time, I kept asking friends until someone told me about a back way that lead to the rear of the store from a sidewalk. I could bypass the parking lot altogether! I had to traipse through the entire store, but it was airconditioned and full of shoppers which beat wandering through a mile of parking lot any day. And paratransit is an option I am not too proud to also use.
When I ride a bus, if someone talkative latches on to me and I start to get bored, I steer the conversation in a direction that will at least inform me. I ask what street we are approaching, what the chatterbox sees out of the window, and whether we are passing a shopping center I remember being in the vicinity. I admit to being a bit of an introvert, but knowing this about myself has helped me turn conversations with strangers in to something useful and informative. Now instead of listening to a monologue from my seatmate about his drinking problem or his blind grandpa I get information about what the bus is passing; useful if I need to run errands later. Instead of sermons from strangers how god loves me, I know that god helps those who help themselves and I take advantage of their generosity to get information about my environment.
You can also try asking the bus driver to let you off somewhere that isn’t a normal stop. In our county the driver is supposed to do this as long as your request is on the bus route and safe. To avoid a confusing intersection, if you know the bus passes a building you need, you might try advocating to be let off directly there.
On the other hand, don’t be afraid of a little exercise. If you are fit or trying to be fitter, going several blocks out of your way in order to prevent confusion can kill two birds with one stone. Think of all those sighted drivers who try to find the best parking spot in the gym to avoid walking those extra yards when their plan is to spend the next hour on a treadmill!
My roomate Al was thinking out of the box when he chose a power chair as transportation, but also chose to keep himself fit by continuing to use the manual chair as a workout tool. Sometimes thinking out of the box is simply realizing that you are not making a “this vs that” choice. Instead of agonizing over what is often called an either or decision, you can fold both choices in to one.
Ten years ago I was looking for work when all the dot coms had tanked. As a computer professional in Silicon Valley, I was one of the thousands of unemployed, and my sighted friends had stopped going to job fairs altogether. A job developer from Project hired, a local agency that assists disabled job-seekers had offered to guide me around a job fair which was something I’d done many times before. I found all the chaos and crowds very daunting and even in the best of situations do not like dealing with people that much. My job developer was a little over-involved and I dreaded being dragged around by her like a puppy on a leash.
But I decided I wasn’t going to have much fun doing this, and because it was something I’d have to endure no matter how I approached it, I planned to experiment by tackling the job fair another way.
I’d tried going to job fairs independently before as well and it had been a disaster. I’d wandered around with no clue where I was. I couldn’t read the sign boards and had no idea where the lines were and whether I was even in the right line for the company that my resume was pitched for.
I wondered therefor if traveling independently didn’t work, and if being guided didn’t work, if a hybrid approach might. Online, I checked the job fair site, making a listing of all the companies I wanted to visit and all the jobs they had posted on their company sites that I was qualified for. Then, I went to each company’s site to check their listings and take notes about the company and their needs and opportunities. Then I made several different resumes, slanting my skills to meet several types of work, marking them in Braille so I’d have the correct resume for each company. I also brailled a list of all the booth numbers for the companies there.
I dressed nicely, but defied the job developer by wearing birkenstocks. They would not be visible under the skirted tables where the recruiters sat and would keep my feet comfortable, even if they didn’t exactly match my dressy outfit. I took a taxi to the job fair so that I would look fresh, and as I stood in the registration line I executed the next step of my plan. Turning to the person behind me, I asked him which company he was going to visit first and where it was. He wasn’t sure, so I asked if he’d mind showing me the lowest numbered table, and leaving me in the line there. The lowest number was not a company I was interested in, but it was a popular company and would have a nice long line.
When we arrived at that table, the line was indeed amazing, and I asked the person ahead of me to read the sign board with the job listings and because she was so friendly, I next asked her which tables were to the right and the left of this. She read the sign boards on those tables too, and there were several positions that were perfect for me. Continuing with this strategy, I moved through the enormous arena from one numbered booth to the next. At each, I asked someone in line to read me the job listings and I asked again about the geography of the room. Very quickly I had a good mental map of the booths’ layout and I began visiting the companies I’d come to see.
Though I was constantly asking for help, I was actually navigating the room independently. At each table, I asked who was to the right, left ahead and behind. This kept me oriented to where I was located in the sea of booths. Each person helped me for only a minute or so, and I was working with my own agenda about who I wanted to contact and what I wanted to show and tell about my skills. Later that day as the room emptied out, there were no lines of people left to ask, so I had to ask the recruiters for directions. several recruiters commented on how confidend I appeared. Watching me navigate the fair, one of them even said he was wishing he could hire me even though I didn’t qualify for any of his open positions! He liked the balance I had developed between needing help and not taking advantage of any particular person.
I did not get a job offer that day, but I had not expected to. What I did get was a strong sense of accomplishment; a can-do approach to my job search that imbued me with a confidence that I took to every successive interview. During a break that day, when I ran across my job developer at a cafe next door, and she chided me for wearing birkenstocks I had to secretly laugh to myself. This was the same lady who would have guided me around for hours and made me appear even more dependent to the recruiters I was courting. I had approached each of them confidently standing in line like the rest of the unemployed. I had demonstrated how little assistance I would need in a real job. My cheerful attitude persisted throughout the day because my feet were comfortable and I was in control. I’d made decisions about myself that were conscious and well-planned. I had independently made the decision about which parts of my image really counted. I had thought myself out of a box.