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Nicola McDowell’s Blog (8)

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

Running the Gauntlet

No matter how big a high school is, or how many different ways there are to get to different classrooms, there is always one thoroughfare that seems to be the most popular route when travelling between classes. And because the majority of students do not want to be late for class, these well-travelled paths can become crowded, noisy and completely overwhelming for anyone struggling with a sensory disability. However, because I hadn't actually made the mental adjustment to being "disabled", by the time I started back at school, I did not foresee any difficulty in joining the heaving masses like I always had.

In hindsight, I should have realised that only seeing people coming towards me from my left visual field could potentially be problematic. But as we all know, hindsight is a wonderful thing and I didn't for one second think that travelling the very familiar paths between classes could be so difficult. I therefore, did not consider using any strategies that would make travelling with a right hemianopia easier, such as sticking to the right side of the path or having someone that I trusted walking on my right-hand side to protect me from any unseen hazards or people in the environment. Although, of course, these strategies would have only helped me on the days that I remembered that the world even had a right side. But in actual fact, I didn't even know such strategies even existed, as I had not received any rehabilitation instruction around travelling with a newly acquired hemianopia before starting back at school.

But even if I had received rehabilitation services, they wouldn't have been able to help prepare me for dealing with my undiagnosed visual difficulties that no one was aware of or understood. It all comes back to that faulty GPS system in my brain (from blog 2), that was inaccurately mapping the scene around me. Although my eyes were seeing the visual scene in front of me perfectly well, my injured brain was not turning this into a correct 3D map (as described in Gordon Dutton's blog 5). So, where I was perceiving my fellow students to be, was not actually where they were. Added to this, because we were all moving, it complicated things even further. My brain just simply could not process where I was in space, in relation to where someone else was in space and the end result was of course numerous collisions.

However, that wasn't the only trick my brain was playing on me. Without even realising it, I was also only actually focusing my visual attention on one element (or person) at a time. So, while I was focusing briefly on one person, the rest of the visual scene just didn't exist. This meant, that in a situation where I was walking in an area with fifty or so other students, I was firstly only seeing the ones on the left-hand side and I was then only briefly focusing on one of them at a time and not relating them to where the other students were.

Although this seems complicated enough, when you add stroppy teenagers to the mix, who don't always walk in straight lines, never stick to one side and sometimes even walk backwards, it was a recipe for disaster. And because to start with, I was still fighting desperately to hang onto the person I used to be, I didn't shy away from the challenge either. However, it didn't take long for me to realise, that simply being stubborn and holding my ground so that I could continue my line of travel, using my strong swimming shoulders to barge my way through and trying to talk to my friends at the same time in an attempt to be 'normal', was not actually a very effective strategy.

So as everyone has probably already worked out, the end result was that this simple, every day, school activity of walking from one class to another, quickly became an incredibly stressful activity that threatened to overwhelm me completely. In my mind, it became an ongoing battlefield that required guerrilla warfare tactics and military precision planning, in order for me to successfully cross from one side of the school to the other. This may seem overly dramatic, but it wasn't simply my pride at stake here. If I didn't concentrate solely on moving safely beside these rebellious teens, I would most certainly be the one losing the fight. Human bodies are soft and forgiving (as long as the owner of the body wasn't too bothered) hazards to bump into. Metal poles, rubbish bins, building walls, half opened doors, steps and ground covered in concrete are not as forgiving surfaces to walk into or land on.

Although I recognised that this was an exhausting way to move around and a very inefficient use of my depleted energy stocks, I had no idea how to make it easier. This was because I didn't actually know what was causing it to be so difficult in the first place. All I knew was that I needed to arrive at class ready to learn, not so fatigued by the act of getting there, that I couldn't concentrate on what was being taught.

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

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