Trepidation and Triumph at CSUNATC2018

When an exceedingly kind friend offered to be my full-time sighted guide for 2018’s CSUNATC conference, I recognized that I was being offered a unique opportunity that could not, under any circumstances, be passed up. I’d spend a few days in idyllic San Diego, learning about accessible technology and basking in the company of a long-time friend whose social and tech savvy can’t be overstated. She promised to help me navigate the conference, escort me to presentations, and provide networking opportunities I’d struggle to obtain on my own. I was elated. I was grateful. I was excited!
I was also terrified.
You see, dear readers, the word “introvert” was coined specifically for me. While I enjoy a rich social circle and do well when representing employers at special events, high-energy occasions like conferences are about as frightening to me as a nest of angry wasps. In fact, if I have to attend a networking event outside of an employment context, I think I’d rather take the wasps, and that’s saying something. Excessive noise, bustling crowds, and unfamiliar environments combine to create a horrifying mix, and nothing but my relentless quest for self-improvement could make me brave it. (Meeting one of my best online friends helped sweeten the deal, but only slightly.)
I knew how fortunate I was to be attending CSUNATC2018, and I felt the appropriate level of eagerness, but part of me was sure I’d need several barrels of courage to manage. For if there is one thing that makes me more uncomfortable and cagey than large-scale, international networking events, it’s being around large numbers of blind people.
Yes, readers: I am afraid of blind people, especially when they get together, and attending CSUN would demand that I not only confront that fear head-on, but that I ask myself, finally, why the fear exists at all.
The gist is this: I went to CSUN to learn about tech. I learned a little, and certainly enjoyed the presentations, but most of the education had less to do with the accessibility world, and more to do with deeply-rooted insecurities so entrenched that I’d forgotten what it was like to question or even acknowledge them.
If you’re interested in my journey of self-discovery, stay with me. If you hoped to read all about promising new tech, I’m sure there are many excellent write-ups by people much better-versed on the subject. Either way, enjoy!

“Let’s play ‘count the blind people!’”

As we weave somewhat drunkenly through the airport, dragging unwieldy luggage and trying not to trample anyone, my sighted guide chatters blithely about how many blind people she sees going by.
“There’s another one! I think that’s the seventh I’ve seen already.”
“Oh God.”
“I’m legitimately afraid of blind people. I mean, they’re okay in small groups, and I love them as individuals, but when we all get together, it’s … I just don’t like it.”
My friend is too gracious to pursue the matter, but it becomes obvious soon enough that my mobility demons, which I’d warned her of previously, are out in full force.
My cane grip must be all wrong. My posture, surely, couldn’t be close to proper. I’m leading with my right shoulder, which is a problem I’ve never been able to correct. Do I ride escalators in a weird way? Am I the only one who doesn’t know print numerals well enough to operate an elevator without brailled numbers? Does it show that I’ve received so little orientation and mobility training I’m not even sure if my rudimentary indoor travel technique is right? Is everyone judging me? Am I a fraud of a blind person?
Oh God, everyone’s definitely judging me.
I want to go home now.

“Let’s get oriented!”

I attend a small orientation tour to learn the hotel’s basic layout, reasoning that I’ll pick the information up more quickly if there aren’t too many people around me. But, as we meander along, passing various significant locations, I lapse into a fog of panic. There is no way one cursory jaunt around this massive hotel will tell me everything I need to know. The only orientation training I’ve ever received was highly specific and route-based, meaning it did not teach me how to master new environments through discovery. I have never wandered in my life—at least, not willingly. Getting lost for fun, exploring, taking a look around … these aren’t my style. Meanwhile, every blind person around me seems to have a mystical sixth sense or, if they are as lost as I am, it doesn’t trouble them. The atmosphere is effervescent, and I feel like an intrusive rain cloud that has accidentally splattered into an unsuspecting sun puddle.
What the hell am I doing here? Who do I think I’m kidding? This was not made for people like me.
I really want to go home.

“You’re not alone. Also, have a tissue.”

It’s been a long day, though for the most part a pleasant one. I’ve listened to enthusiastic Microsoft employees laying out a new and encouraging direction for Windows 10 and its associated accessibility features. I’ve attended a fascinating presentation on disability services departments in academic institutions. I’ve even discovered that the GPS app, Nearby Explorer, has innovative new features to facilitate indoor navigation. My friend gives me sighted guide when I need it, introducing me to what feels like half the world along the way. She makes me sound like someone worth knowing, and I try to keep my impostor syndrome on a short leash. To my shock and delight, people admit to reading my blog—and liking it!
(So, it’s not just my mom and five friends? Cool!)
But now I sit, curled on my bed, offering the less flattering bits of my life story to complete strangers. One of them is an endlessly patient blind O & M instructor. I’m afraid of O & M instructors. (Are you sensing a pattern yet?)
They listen to me ramble despairingly about the inadequate skills training I’ve received; how out of place I feel among more competent blind people; how I am convinced I’m the only one who has ever been this useless at my age; how I must be a uniquely embarrassing failure; and how I’m afraid I will never, ever be anything more than I am right at this moment. In my self-effacement, I remain oddly verbose.
My equally patient sighted friend quietly passes me another tissue, putting her arm around me. This only makes me cry harder.
Then, the two compassionate blind strangers in my hotel room explain that they, too, have struggled. The instructor tells me that I’m far from alone, that it is possible for me to achieve the skill level I desperately want, and that I need not be so willing to let “I’m afraid” be what stands between the life I want and the life I have. Besides, she points out, plenty of blind people are where I am; they just choose not to put a fine point on it. For other blind people out there, the activities I find easy may seem like insurmountable challenges, and vice versa.
“Most of the people who intimidate you by going on about how good their skills are probably have something to hide.”
“I guess that does make sense.”
I plumb deeper, describing all the gaps between the talented and competent professional I know myself to be, and the bumbling wreck my brain insists I am. I was never taught to cut a steak in a way that made sense to me. I hold utensils in an unconventional way because the “normal” way has always felt clumsy. Sometimes, I simply don’t leave the house because the anxiety of existing in my skin is too much.
And, to my genuine shock, I am not alone in any of these things.
“But … why isn’t anyone talking about this?”
“We’re all too busy impressing each other, of course.”
“But I thought I was, like … degenerate.”
“No! You can be better. You can go higher. But you’re by no means the only one.”
“But I’m scared.”
“So was I.”
I am telling strangers the most intimate, shameful pieces of my long-buried trauma. I am exposing, to myself and to people I barely know, why I am so terrified of other blind people. I am opening up to unknown quantities in a way I’ve never done, not even with my friends, my family, myself.
Least of all myself!
And I am not afraid.
I am embarrassed and bemused and a little curious about what it is about conferences that fills you with the insatiable need to connect …
But Good God, I am not afraid.

“Just trust yourself.”

My default state, especially when dealing with new experiences, is “What do I know?”
Several times throughout the four days I spend at CSUN, my friend and I take a wrong turn of some sort, and something in the back of my mind insists we’ve made a mistake, gone the wrong way, gotten mixed up somewhere. Each time, I ignore it.
Each time, I am right.
Each time, my friend grows more playfully exasperated.
“Meagan, you should really try trusting yourself. You know things!”
“I just usually assume I don’t. Like, what do I know about this place?”
“You have good instincts, though. You should listen to them.”
Slowly, tentatively, I begin cataloguing the many instances over the years when my gut has stirred itself to alert me of some poor decision or wrong turn. In every case, if someone I perceived to be more knowledgeable than me disagreed, I became silent at once. Now, after more than a decade of systematic suppression, I don’t even consider speaking up.
Of course other blind people know more than I do.
Of course sighted people know where they’re going.
Of course I’m unqualified. Inexpert. Silly.
I can’t control the fact that I’m clueless about most things.
Or is this a choice I’ve made, one I forgot to unmake?
Is anyone telling me I’m useless, or have I been doing that to myself all along?
Heavy thoughts for a languid California afternoon!
But then, this does seem to be the week for them.

“Yes, it’s scary; and yes, you’re going to do it.”

Thump. Whir. Thump. Whir. Thump.
“What the hell is that?”
“That’s a door.”
“I don’t think we have these where I’m from…”
As it turns out, automatic revolving doors are much more frightening than they sound. Revolving doors are irritating enough; having once been stuck in one, I feel personally qualified to judge. The automated feature brings a whole new level of nightmare fuel, though, especially when you don’t have a clear understanding of how it works. All I can hear is an ominous thumping sound as the door thwacks repeatedly into something as it goes round and round at what I consider an alarming speed.
I am open to trying it out, particularly since I’m filled with new resolve and I have an O & M instructor with me once again. However, as she describes the procedure, which involves me “sticking [my] hand in there so the door can hit it,” I balk a wee bit.
By “balk,” I mean I stand there for what must be 10 minutes, coming up with all the reasons I definitely cannot—will not—attempt this.
Finally, I gather all my courage and approach the door, only to have it hit me squarely in the face.
A little shell-shocked, hiding treacherous tears, I retreat and try to regroup. Meanwhile, the O & M instructor, her blind friend, and my sighted friend stand by just as patiently as before, acting as cheerleaders and accountability officers in equal measure. Surrounded by all the (positive) pressure, I finally go for it.
As I lean heavily on the door and follow it in a dizzying circle, one of my blind companions runs along behind me, shouting jubilant encouragement. It is rather like going on your first water slide, with your proud elder sibling shooting along behind you, utterly thrilled on your behalf.
Such a small thing, really, going through a door. Ridiculous, even. I’m twenty-three, for heaven’s sake. I’m an employed, educated, mostly-functional adult.
But on this day, that damn door is everything.

“One more time before you go?”

On the day I was due to leave for home, I tried to cram as much as I could into a few too-short hours. I visited the exhibit hall, demoing a Braille tablet and expressing horror at how loud those new displays are getting. (I compared the scrolling sound to a very angry spider.) I met more people, flexed my extrovert muscles, and even handed out a resume to an accessibility company that was hiring overseas. Just to cap off the quintessential California experience, I drank a hellishly expensive juice blend and caught a few more rays of sun.
Feeling brave, I attempted to travel a little more independently, and promised a handful of new acquaintances I’d connect with them so I could share my writing and social media knowledge. This was a huge step forward, since I find it almost impossible to speak highly of myself outside of job interviews and cover letters.
Just as we were poised to leave the hotel, my sighted friend suggested I truly conquer that automatic revolving door, just to prove to myself I could.
It was tricky, and I grew progressively more nervous as concerned sighted people crowded around, hindering more than helping.
But, dear readers, I did it.
As I came through the door the second time, more joyful than I felt was socially acceptable, my friend literally jumped up and down with sheer happiness, celebrating so loudly I could hear her through the door.
Most people might not understand why this tiny feat was important to me, and few people would appreciate the symbolism of it.
But she got it.
And, for the umpteenth time that week, I remembered: whatever I reveal, whatever I admit to, however I might struggle, I am not alone.
I never was.
And you know what?
Neither are you.


13 thoughts on “Trepidation and Triumph at CSUNATC2018

  1. Meagan, can I just reiterate what you, hopefully, already know now, in that you are most definitely not alone.
    “Sometimes I simply don’t leave the house because the anxiety of existing in my skin is too much”. I hear you so loud and so clear with this. This line was like a punch to the gut it resinated with me so much. But I’ve also learned that it’s true that by laughing and crying together we get through.
    Be kind to yourself x
    P.S. If you think you’re clumsy with your cutlery, you should see me trying to navigate anything more complicated than a sandwich. I assure you, it is disastrous!

    • Thanks so much, both for reading and for your kind comment. It took a lot of courage to write this, and I thought it might be stupid to put myself out there to such a degree, but I’ve received nothing so far but affirmation and empathy and solidarity. Thank you for your part in that.
      P.S. If all food was finger food, I’d be a happier woman.

  2. Honestly, thank you so, so much for this wonderful, honest post! I cannot believe how much of this resonated with me. I also tend to feel like I’m a disaster when it comes to O&M, and even though I manage just fine in my everyday life, I hear of other blind people who are off exploring the world on their own and who don’t seem to be stressed out about that one tiny bit, and I immediately feel like a failure of a blind person. Also the part about listening to your instincts hit me really hard. That line, “In every case, if someone I perceived to be more knowledgeable than me disagreed, I became silent at once. Now, after more than a decade of systematic suppression, I don’t even consider speaking up.” This. I am trying so hard to undo this habit every day, but it’s still so, so difficult at times! So thank you once again for writing this and putting yourself out there, reading this has left me feeling pretty emotional, but also like there are people out there who understand.
    PS: Revolving doors are terrifying, and it’s super awesome that you defeated one! 😉 At my last internship, the most difficult part was entering the building in the morning through their incredibly fast revolving door – that led to some pretty embarrassing moments 🙂

    • Hi, Lisa! Thanks for reading, and for this lovely comment. I think the thing to remember is that there are a lot of sighted people who would find travelling around the world stressful, and would admire anyone, sighted or blind, who managed it gracefully. We mustn’t fall into the insidious trap of holding ourselves to higher and more arbitrary standards than everyone else. Sighted people do this enough as it is without us contributing to the problem. You do you, and as long as you manage that well enough, I figure you’re still on top.

      • That’s so true, completely agree with you there. And as you wrote in your post, it’s important to remember that we all have our unique skillsets, so things we might find easy could be extremely difficult for others, and vice versa. Thanks, right back at you – keep doing you, and I’m sure you’ll find yourself on the right track, you seem like such a competent, thoughtful, kind person.

  3. We live our lives overcoming our fears.
    I’ve only been officially on my sightloss journey for 19 months (that’s when it’s cause and the fact it was irreversible was diagnosed) and can honestly say in the 678 months I’ve lived I’ve never known the fear that I feel when I’m crossing a road blind (how I wish there were strategic safe crossing places on all roads). I’d much rather cross the busy road where there is an official crossing whether it’s a traffic light controlled crossing, a zebra crossing or an “island” (in the UK some crossings have an area of pavement so you can cross each half individually) than the quieter side roads especially when parked cars are blocking my very limited view so I have no chance of seeing the car sneaking up on me with it’s stealth engine.
    I feel my cane skills could have been taught better by my trainer but our series of hour long sessions were actually more like one hour long session, and the remainder (I was told a minimum of 12 would be required but only received 4) were all cut short. I’ve basically therefore had to go it alone….. maybe I seemed too confident.
    But we can both do this, I can recognise the fear and anxiety as no different to when I could see, just the focus is different.
    So from this nana I say go for it we can do more than we think we can. Even without being trained I can now do escalators. Lifts I avoid where possible as I haven’t learnt Braille, can’t see the numbers and have never liked them after getting trapped in one many years ago.
    Lynne Nicholson UK

    • Hi, Lynne! Thank you so much for reading.
      I empathize completely with the anxiety you’re feeling, but it sounds like you’re handling it just fine. Good luck on your journey, and I hope you stick around. I’m sure we can learn from each other. 🙂

  4. Hi Meagan,
    I am able to relate to what you went through at CSUN. I attended CSUN twice & I was on my own during presentations. There were friends after the presentations & they helped me in navigating the hotel, taking me to lunch/dinner & other places. I am an introvert too & go through anxiety all the time. I cannot with stand loud noises & crowds but I kept a brave face & passed through. Sometimes all we need is bit of faith in ourselves & little luck…And yes we need to fake it until we make it…

  5. People who now you are in aweof what you achieve and overcome everyday.Don’t suffer in silence,you have a medium to express your feelings#respect

  6. I love your blog and am so happy I found it! Keep writing about your experiences. I know you’re connecting with the wider world and that so many of your reflections on life are resonating with readers. My new mission is to share your blog with everyone I can. Keep writing and sharing!!

    • Thank you so much for reading, sharing, and leaving such a lovely comment! I love meeting new readers, and I hope you’ll continue enjoying the blog. I have no plans to stop writing, so share away!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.