Sight Unseen

Though I’ve produced quite a few videos over the years, I feel like I’m still new to the medium. Before my advanced video class this fall, I had always approached video as just an extension of my stills—which is probably why I always hated my videos.

I decided during the class to get rid of that approach. And it helped quite a bit. I’ll always be a still photographer in my heart and mind, but at least I feel I can do a somewhat serviceable video every now and then.

Here’s the video and story I produced about two visually impaired students at the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center in Austin. (Apologies for the funky video window formatting. I highly suggest you click on the pop-out button to view in a larger screen.)

I learned a lot in the process of producing the video. Definitely lots of improvement to be made, but I’ve got to start somewhere.

Romiro Aranda is losing his vision.

Holding a support cane in his left hand and white cane in his right, Aranda carefully walks down the sidewalk along Guadalupe Street in Austin, trying to find his way to 21st Street on a blustery cold day in November. With a blindfold covering his eyes, Aranda tilts his head to the left and listens closely to the sounds of rush hour traffic.

The 37-year-old former truck driver is training in his orientation and mobility class offered through the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center in Austin.

The rehabilitation center, one of the only institutions of its kind in Texas, offers practical daily living classes for the visually impaired. The institution has helped thousands of visually impaired students since they partnered with the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services in 1929. Located on North Lamar Boulevard, the center enrolls up to 75 students at a time. The center offers classes in industrial arts, computer skills, home organization and cooking, among others. The entire program takes anywhere from six to nine months to finish.

Aranda’s mobility class is one of the first classes required to complete the program. Its goal is to teach students how to navigate city sidewalks and busy intersections. For students with limited vision, like Aranda, they require the student to wear a blindfold. This ensures they are completely dependent on their other senses during the mobility class.

* * *

Back on the sidewalk, Aranda is struggling. He pauses near a group of high school teens huddled beneath the Varsity marquee.

“Is this the crosswalk here?” Aranda asks his instructor, Helena Roberts.

“What do you think?” She responds.

Aranda’s training has taught him to pay attention to where groups of people flock together, especially near intersections. Where they stop usually indicates the location of the crosswalk. But in this case, Aranda forgot to incorporate other clues.

Roberts steps in to help.

“Think of where you are in relation to the bus stop,” Roberts says. “You just got off the bus…think of where the crosswalk is, distance-wise.”

The students stare at him and awkwardly move away as Aranda continues widely sweeping his white cane left to right. He navigates another block before slowly veering to the left and running into a bike rack. He blames his left-leaning habit on his neuropathy that causes a loss of feeling in his hands and feet, a side-effect of his diabetes. He uses the support cane to aid his left side.

Aranda’s face shows frustration. He still remembers this stretch of Guadalupe visually after years of driving his truck on deliveries through town. He doesn’t remember a bike rack being there. He still hasn’t found the crosswalk.

“You’re doing better than last week,” Roberts encourages. “But we’re still going to have to work on moving in that straight trajectory.”

* * *

Aranda describes his vision as a dimly lit tunnel full of fog, where only objects that are inches from his face are recognizable. A father of teenage daughters, he now only sees them as faceless silhouettes at a distance, unable to make out their expressions.

“I can be standing about a foot in front of you, and you could be smiling, making a face at me, and I couldn’t tell the difference,” Aranda said.

The sudden transition into blindness affected his relationship with his family. When he first started losing his vision about a year ago, he noticed family members were less likely to go places with him.

“They’re used to you finding your own way around,” Aranda said. “They tend to forget that you don’t have sight anymore. And they tend to just forget about you.”

“They go places and leave you behind,” he said.

He spent most of the first six months after his initial vision loss living life as he did before. He didn’t use a white cane. He didn’t wear dark sunglasses. Nothing in his appearance signified his visual impairment. And this created more problems.

“I kissed a lot of poles,” Aranda laughed.

* * *

Aranda was living in San Antonio just over a year ago when he began to notice loss of vision in his left eye. A few months later, he noticed the same loss in his right eye. His doctor told him his loss of eyesight was from his diabetes, which also affects Aranda’s feeling in his hands and feet.

Aranda underwent several surgeries but his vision never improved. He had to quit his job as a truck driver and search for a new career.

Growing up, Aranda always had a fascination with “big rigs.”

“It was my dream to drive a truck,” he said.

For ten years, he realized his dream. He made deliveries for grocery stores and slowly built up relationships in his role as a distributor. He spent long hours on the road and memorized the layouts of cities as he made deliveries in San Antonio and Austin.

Unable to continue living his dream after he quit his job, he searched elsewhere.

“I wanted to return to the workforce,” Aranda said. “I can’t just sit around and do nothing, collecting money from the government.”

When he looked for other jobs, he noticed his visual impairment was holding him back, especially when working with technology.

His opthamologist suggested Criss Cole and Aranda set up a tour of the facilities.

Pushed by his need to find a job and continue his relationship with his family, he enrolled in the program.

* * *

“When Romiro first came here, he didn’t have confidence in himself yet,” Yolanda Garcia, vocational rehabilitation counselor at the center, said. “He’s slowly gaining that back now, and on the right track to becoming more confident.”

Aranda attributes his increased confidence to the social environment at the rehabilitation center. Surrounded by people faced with similar circumstances, or worse, Aranda found strength in numbers.

“It makes it a lot easier knowing you’re not the only person going through this,” Aranda said.

Early on in his program he befriended Israel Cazares, another student in the program.

Cazares, 27, from Houston, came to the rehabilitation center under very different circumstances.

Blind at five-years-old and with several other family members who are also blind, Cazares had already fine-tuned his other senses to compensate for his lack of sight.

Also unlike Aranda, Cazares had advanced traveling skills from years of using a white cane.

“I’m not the best cane traveler, but I’m pretty damn good,” Cazares said. “I can get from point A to point B whenever I want to.”

Referring to themselves as the White Cane Gang, Aranda, Cazares and a handful of other friends frequently go out to bars and enjoy Austin’s nightlife. Forced to travel with others who were visually impaired, Aranda started improving his traveling skills and building confidence.

“Because we’re all together in an environment where everybody’s ability is different, we do pick up things from each other,” Cazares said.

Cazares’ experienced background made him a natural leader for the group.

“I have a lot of respect for Israel,” Aranda said. “He’s got everything in order. I wish I had everything in order when I was his age.”

Cazares encouraged the others to try new things, go new places and interact with the people around them as they traveled.

“One of the things that pissed me off about being a teenager and being blind, is having keys in my hand, a car full of gas outside, and not being able to go anywhere,” Cazares said. “So instead of being the guy that’s all pissed off at home with the keys in his hand, I’m out and about.”

* * *

Aranda gropes the curb with his white cane along 21st and Guadalupe. He is near the end of his training session. The numbing cold wind doesn’t affect his bare fingers—his neuropathy causes a constant numbness in his fingers, making it even more difficult for him to feel for slight textural feedback from his cane.

Bicyclists whir past in the bike lane just inches to his left. A woman slightly stumbles over his cane. Aranda apologizes.

To complete the session he must cross over 21st where Roberts parked her car to drive him back to the rehabilitation center where he lives during the program.

Aranda hesitates for two walk-signal cycles. Roberts only reminds him to listen.

The third burst of short beeps signals Aranda to walk, once again. Instead of hesitating, he crosses.

A broad smile reaches his face as he approaches Roberts’ car to end the session.

* * *

Back at the rehabilitation center, Aranda debriefs his latest training. When asked how he thought he did, he responds: “Not bad,” and laughs. “I didn’t fall.”

With his blood sugar levels under control and regularly visiting his doctor, Aranda hopes to slow the gradual process of losing sight.

He knows that eventually he won’t even see the vague silhouettes he does now or the smiling faces of his daughters when he leans in extra close. His foggy tunnel vision will progressively narrow into darkness.

“I do have a fear of losing my vision completely,” Aranda says. “But I’m going to be prepared for that day. That’s why I’m glad I came here.”

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