A full and active life, lived in total darkness

Colin uses echolocation to navigate London's streets Photo: Ryan Li

Colin has been totally blind since he was born 57 years ago. He works as an information resource officer and lives in Lewisham with his wife. Colin has asked us not to use his surname. Here, he describes his life to Clare Finney:

I’m totally blind. I’ve been blind from birth. If someone describes a sky that would mean very little to me; I don’t know about colours or what fashions there are. But what I do get out of walking in London is something quite different. An orchestra of smells, the feel of the breeze on your skin, the sun shining, the sound of the river… the buzz of the city. I get that. Even though I don’t see it.

Yesterday, me and my wife went walking round the Greenwich. We went to the pub a couple of times, walked along the river, went to the market and and bought a few bits – and I thought: this is London at its best.

There was the chorizo sausage the guy was frying on the Spanish stall, there was all the different perfumes, the sun oil, the people. And then there’s all the sounds of course. Only yesterday I was thinking – even when English is spoken it is spoken in all sorts of different ways. It’s in all the accents of the world, young voices and old voices, old language, modern language. Even without all the sights, there’s still enough there for me.

I would never go on a walk on my own though. It would have little meaning to me. The village where I live is described as the Hampstead of  south London – if I’m being snobby I say I live in Blackheath, and if want to be one of the boys I say I live in Lewisham – but I love it there because its so cosmopolitan. When I go on a walk around I am experiencing it through the people I’m with. Not that people are very good at describing – they tend to get sidetracked, because the visual swamps everything – but what people say and how they say it is very important to me. My world enters through their eyes.

It’s the sociability that keeps me here really – that and the food. If you lived in Bognor there’d probably be one curry house, a couple of Chinese, one Thai restaurant if you’re lucky – and they wouldn’t be that good at that. But London? I’ve got Top Table, I can go on the websites, I can go down and put my nose through the door. I went to Dans Le Noir [the totally dark restaurant where the waiters are blind] recently, and that was interesting. The first thing that people said to me was, every restaurant is in the dark for you – why do you go? But of course, what I got out of it was watching what they got out of it.

In some ways I suppose it would be easier living in the country; but I’ve never once thought it would be better than London. I’ve lived here all my life, and I’m used to the city, warts and all. It’s improved so much since I was little of course – the disability discrimination act has made helping us part of people’s jobs, not just a favour – but I can’t really think of many ways it could be better now. I love the talking buses. I love the voice on the tubes. Some might think them really irritating, but it makes all the difference for people like me.

In fact, I find streets really easy to get around, far more so than large indoor shopping centres like Westfield. Departments stores are so vast; it’s difficult to know what part of the floor you’re on or where the shops are at the best of times, and I can’t read the plans. On the street I can learn the order of the doorways and I can hear them using something called ‘echo location’ – hearing the sound shadow of objects. I can hear that wall there for example; I can hear corners and hallways. If you could tune into them you could probably hear them too, but its something blind people learn to master at a young age.

I suppose it’s our way of compensating. I used to run around as a child – in the way of children I don’t think I understood I was different, so when other children ran I did too – I just learnt to listen out for the walls. Equally, when I wanted to show a toy to someone I’d thrust it at someone and insist that they touch it, whilst all the while saying, ‘look at this’  because I didn’t understand what looking was.

These days I’m often  I’m glad I can’t see all the stuff there is to have. I’d probably eat a lot more than I do. In this café, now, there are probably loads of chocolate bars and muffins stacked up – but I don’t know they’re there. I’m not tempted by looking; I don’t get tempted by stuff. I can’t exactly go shopping. With clothes I’m normally at the mercy of the woman I’m going out with at the time; and if it’s a girl with good taste I’ll be better dressed than if she doesn’t. I’m married now, thank goodness, but clothes are still so meaningless to me.

Most of the time I don’t really know what I miss; it’s difficult when you have nothing to build on. You probably see a hundred people each day, not to mention all the posters and magazines. We only know what we know through hearsay, and sound. It’s little wonder blind people’s appearance can go amiss sometimes – because unless they go shopping with a good honest friend, how can they tell? Before I was married, the way I was dressed was entirely dependant on the girl I was going out with at the time – for better or for worse. It’s not like you can rely on the shop assistant. They’re thinking about Friday night and 5 o clock – not whether you look decent or not.

That said, I think I do think Londoners are incredible. You hear about the big bad city – but I’m 57 years old, totally blind and I’ve never been mugged and I’ve never been threatened. If I got lost in the middle of the country I’d be buggered; if I got lost outside here, within a minute I’d have some kind of help. I raise my glass to Londoners. I know people are short of time here. I try not to make them go out their way. But the funny thing is, they always do.

This feature first appeared in HUM magazine

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