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My story: deafblind street attack

by Liz Ball

17th December 2005

I'm in my late twenties, and I have a job. I am studying for a PhD, and I live and travel independently. I think of myself as quite an independent person, aware and able to deal with my environment. Without both vision and hearing, I have to rely almost exclusively on touch to know what's happening around me. But sometimes, things happen - like a recent walk from the tube station to my flat - which make me realise that there must be quite a lot happening that I am oblivious to.
This is the story of a recent Thursday, from my perspective.

On my way home from work, I walked out of a London tube station and very suddenly had my red and white cane and communication book snatched from my hand. Just like that. When I got my spare cane out, that too was taken. I was left with no mobility aid and no means of communicating with the public. I was stranded - unable to walk, or ask for assistance, safely.

With almost a mile to walk - including ten roads to cross and countless people, posts, walls and other hazards to avoid - attempting this journey alone without a cane hardly bore thinking about.

Fortunately, or so I thought, I had with me a Braille mobile phone. I stood there and texted everyone I knew asking them to come and guide me home. Forty-five minutes later, nobody had texted me back. The situation I was in further strengthens the calls from the deafblind community that an affordable Braille mobile textphone which enables realtime communication needs to be made and put on the market, in order to give us more independence and help in an emergency.

So there was nothing for it but to walk home alone and unaided.

I started off with my arm outstretched a little, covering my body, walking forward slowly in the direction I knew to be correct. When I thought I must be getting closer to a down-kerb or steps, I slid my feet along the pavement for clues at ground level. From time to time I trailed my hand along walls and, when looking for road crossing points, I followed the bending kerb around with one foot. I also used my Miniguide, a handheld sonic obstacle detector that vibrates if significant barriers are in front of its beam. It's not perfect, but it helped a little.
Liz Ball, with her red and white cane
At the first major road, it took me rather a long time to get assistance. I waited even longer trying to get help across the second. Eventually I gave up, retreated to the wall and checked my phone again. Still no responses. I waited and waited. Desperation and panic were beginning to set in. Thirty minutes or so later, when still nobody had replied, I tried again to get assistance to cross the road. Eventually I got it.

The rest of the walk went surprisingly well. I avoided any major collisions, and got away with just a number of minor bumps and scratches. I finally got home, and spent the evening crying my eyes out.

Half way home, my boss replied to my text message, simply saying "Text if you get this". I did text, but arrived home before I got another response from her. Her next text told me to check my email.

An email from my boss told me that the police had been there with me for much of the time. They had been worried about me walking without a cane. They'd found out from a passer-by where I worked and had phoned my boss to ask for my address. Thankfully, she had the sense not to give it to them. As she so rightly said, if the police could establish communication with me then I could tell them my address. If not, then I'd have beaten the hell out of them had they tried to take me there - "Who are these people attacking me and trying to force me into a car?!?!"

It seems that the police followed me all the way ... and I had no idea that any of this was going on. I knew there were people around - I'd bumped into several, after all - but I had no idea that anyone was attempting to interact with me, nor that some of these people were police. Nobody touched me in a way that suggested they wanted to communicate with me.

The following day, whilst out with an interpreter, I met some people who had witnessed what happened at two discrete points.

Firstly, someone going by on a bus had seen one of my canes being taken. She told me that the culprits were a group of young men who had been taunting me, had stolen my cane and then continued to dance around me with it. Again, I'd been oblivious to their teasing and prancing around.

Later, I spoke with a car driver who saw me with a number of police and an ambulance crew who were talking to me from a few feet away. The driver pulled up in her car, explained that she could use the deafblind manual alphabet, meaning that she could communicate with me, and offered to help. The police sent her away. Again, I had no clue that any of this had happened. I wasn't aware of people standing around me, nor of a car pulling up.

Still, my awareness of what was going on around me was infinitely higher than the deafblind awareness of the police and ambulance staff. Not only did they have no idea whatsoever about how to interact with me, but they even sent someone away who could have helped!

Am I asking too much for the police to be deafblind aware? They could have walked up to me, tapped my shoulder, taken my hand and used a deafblind manual to offer me help, which I would have gladly accepted. It only takes about half an hour to learn. There is also an A5-sized card with the basics printed on it, which they could carry with them as a reminder

Finally, regarding the people who stole my canes, what I have to say about them is unprintable.
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