Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Don't trust yourself

White male with blond hair blowing in the wind wearing dark glasses, holding white cane smiling in front of marina standing on stone and sand pathway.
Justin standing on stone and sand path in front of a marina

“No te confíes,” my friend Omar’s mother urges me as we approach a particularly bumpy section of the sidewalk, returning home from the local deportivo, a sort of open park space for locals to play basketball, jog, stretch, and do exercises. “Don’t trust yourself.” In another instance, she pulls me to the side to avoid dog poop. What would she say if she found out that I have already stepped in dog poop twice walking the streets on my own?

My adoptive Mexican mother’s exhortation to not trust myself highlights the actions and passing statements from Omar’s co-workers, family, and church members during the week-long visit. If 22 year old Lupita wants to go to the independence day celebration downtown, her mother will have to take her. We have to take a taxi home because there is construction at the bus stop and it’s not safe for us. Michelle, you need to help Justin cross the Madero, because it’s dangerous.

I have had a lot of experience getting around with my 60 inch straight cane that extends up to my chin, and the training that I received during and after high school. For six months, from 8 AM to 4 PM each day, I completed a sort of blind boot camp in which I wore a learning shade while I traveled various routes around the Denver metro area. My orientation and mobility classes were simple. They gave me an address and told me to return with a business card and tidings of what business could be found there. When a student expressed anxiety about traveling in the snow, a totally blind staff dismissively responded “it does that (snow)”. As part of my graduation requirement, they dropped me off in a random parking lot across the city, and I had to sort my way through snow, ice, buses, and trains to return back to the training center. “How could they do that to you?” exclaims Omar’s friend Minerva. They did it because they believed that the skills they were teaching could enable a totally blind person to negotiate their way around an unfamiliar location, even when the landmarks do not always line up.

None of what I’m encountering in Morelia is above my ability to handle. Nevertheless, despite my background, it’s hard to not absorb the message: be afraid, be very afraid. I wonder what it would be like to have that message shape me from a young age, the way that it has shaped those around me.

That’s not to say that Mexican streets are exactly the same as they are in the United States. In the U.S., city planning personnel rarely if ever get creative when deciding on the width of a sidewalk, or the incline of a wheelchair ramp, or whether to install a wheelchair ramp. Instead, they take their guidance from hundreds of pages of structural guidelines, which American construction firms must follow. The result is a relatively high level of consistency in the layout of American streets.

Not so in the case of Mexico, where, it seems to this writer, individuals have quite a bit more latitude to decide what they want to put in a public space. Want to add a perpendicular ramp across the sidewalk into your garage? No problem. Want to block the sidewalk with a food cart? Adelante! Want to have a line of stairs up this hill? Para servirle. Wouldn’t it be padre to have a random metal cable extending from a wooden pole to the ground? Por supuesto! The result is a highly textured and somewhat unpredictable pedestrian experience. And, of course, there is the poop from the dogs that belong to no one.

One would not expect it, but these features not only make the community more interesting, they make it easier to navigate. The characteristic hammer of chef knives against cutting boards with carne asada hissing on grills, and the unusual step up and step downs are auditory and tactile landmarks that alert me to where I am at.

I do not want to be cooped up in the house while the traffic rages, the food carts hammer and sizzle, and the stray dogs roam. For me, the most interesting part of travel, apart from spending time with people, is the way that I absorb the sounds and smells, while threading together different public transit routes and keeping track of different streets on the way to a given destination. What happens after I arrive might not be quite as interesting as what has happened on the way, unless there’s tacos of course.

Visiting Mexico reminds me of the fact that sometimes living a full life as a blind person is a choice that one must make alone while others urge you not to. There are risks. You could knock your head against an overhang. You could step in dog poop. It is a parable of life, where every risk necessarily involves the possibility of failure, and where stepping outside necessitates leaving your shoes on the patio before entering your house.

Mexico also reminds me that effort matters, and that what others think is not necessarily a reflection of who I am. I have always really enjoyed the study of Spanish, and it is clear this week that I have come a long way since I started learning it 20 years ago. I can now listen to other peoples’ conversations and interject to ask about new words, which I am now able to repeat back to them in a way that is intelligible. On the way to the airport I reflected in my conversation with the driver that I received my worst grades in college from the Spanish immersion program I took in Mexico. I almost failed literature. As I prepare to study accounting, another language, it reminds me that the grades we receive in classes are sometimes more a reflection of the professors rather than our own aptitude.

Mexico motivates me to keep going outside into the world. The alternative is staying at home and missing out on the exercise, the fresh air, and the observations and epiphanies that remind me that achieving my goals may sometimes involve going it alone and stepping in dog poop. That’s why I will continue to trust myself.

Author: Justin H

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