By Rikki Chaplin

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I’m sure I’m not alone in having had a fear of staying in places which are totally unfamiliar to me. I wonder sometimes whether it’s one of those taboo topics for people who are blind or vision impaired. We are so often told that we should be fearless; that we can accomplish anything, and we need to educate the community about our level of competence.

While it’s certainly true that we can achieve anything we set our minds to, the implication that navigating these unfamiliar places and situations isn’t and shouldn’t be stressful is unfair to us all. Even those in our community whom we regard as most competent and accomplished face these moments of stress and anxiety. It is not that we should never feel such anxiety, or feel guilty when we do. Rather, it is how we manage that anxiety, and whether or not we allow it to stand in our way when we try new things or have to cope with unforeseen circumstances. After a recent travel mishap which I managed to survive reasonably well, I thought I should write about the experience of coping with it on my own as a person who is totally blind.

I regularly fly on my own to the US. This time, on my return journey, I was delayed for 24 hours in Dallas, Texas, due to my previous flight being late and my flight to Sydney having been closed by the time I arrived. I was taken to the QANTAS counter, where eventually the very helpful clerk booked me into a hotel room. It was this development which provoked my anxiety.

Many people who are totally blind stay in unfamiliar places all the time, but strangely, I have rarely had to do this. I’ve always had someone with me, or at least a colleague staying in another room close by. So navigating the hotel and getting what I needed has not been an issue. My anxiety was exacerbated by my hearing loss, which I’ve mentioned in previous articles. Dallas is a place where English is not the primary language of many people. Accented English is therefore common. I often have to ask people to repeat what they are saying. This gets wearing for both parties.

Add to this my concern that the telecoils on my hearing aids mightn’t work with the phone in the hotel room. These days, they usually do, but the uncertainty was weighing on my mind. Thankfully, I found that the phone was loud enough for me to hear via telecoils, so I was able to order room service.

In this instance, the staff who assisted me were excellent. As I had a considerable time to wait, I asked to stay in the room for a few extra hours past checkout time, as I had nowhere else to go. Still, I was questioned by staff who were unaware of this arrangement, about why I was still in the room after checkout time, and whether I was staying another night. Thankfully, they believed me.

The same person who assisted me to my room picked me up, as arranged, at 6 PM the following day, and took me to a restaurant for dinner, where again, the staff were very helpful. The clerk on the QANTAS counter called me to check that I would make it to the airport on time. She said she would watch out for me. Now that’s service! The hotel arranged a private car to take me there, and I was assisted to the counter, arriving with time to spare.

The worst part of that experience was being on the fifth floor of a hotel in a room for hours on end, and thinking: “I could die in here and nobody would know”. In reality, there were people who knew where I was. I could also use my mobile to call and text, though I had to borrow a charger from the hotel as all my leads were packed in my suitcase.

So how did I manage the anxiety? The key strategy for me was to take things minute by minute when necessary, to allow myself to feel that I could cope and not become overwhelmed. I reminded myself of the resources I did have with me. I had Aira if necessary, my mobile once I got hold of a charger, and my computers. I had to tell myself that I was not cut off from the outside world, even though it felt like it. My partner was in Louisiana, just a call or text away. So although physically I was alone, I was able to talk to someone about what steps to take next.

Some of us are naturally more adventurous than others, and that’s OK. But it’s important to understand that if you are confronted with an unexpected situation, even one you’ve feared in the past, you will have the ability to deal with it, so long as you don’t allow anxiety to take over. Recognise the anxiety, and put it in its place by coping minute to minute. It is you who is in control, not the anxiety.

This experience has allowed me to feel that I can indeed stay in an unfamiliar hotel if I need to, and cope with getting my needs met. I no longer fear it as I once did. But the biggest practical lesson, and one which I hope we can all benefit from, is that anxiety is manageable and we should not feel guilty for having it. We should simply acknowledge it, and manage it appropriately, by thinking slowly and methodically, and breaking the situation down into its smallest parts.

Editor’s Note

If you liked or learned from Rikki’s advice, there’ll be more on offer at our National Convention. One of the panels will feature tips on “taking the stress out of travelling alone”. We’re sure this will be an enlightening and encouraging session for anyone planning an independent trip, be it locally or internationally.

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