When Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette was 13, and before the visual world slipped through his fingers, his troubles started with a baseball.
“I kept missing the ball in strange places,” said Hedtler-Gaudette, who is now 27. “I’d be seeing the ball and then all of a sudden I wouldn’t.”
A degenerative condition called type-2 Usher syndrome has since eliminated much of his peripheral vision, save for a tunnel-like portion in his field of view. Eventually, Hedtler-Gaudette could be totally blind.
“I used to do things in a way that would allow the least number of people to know I’m blind.” Now, he said, “I don’t care about … what it looks like when I’m out there with the cane.”
Inside his Park Avenue apartment, it is difficult to tell Hedtler-Gaudette has lost most of his sight. The University of Southern Maine senior moves with uncanny precision around furniture and through doorways, knowing by heart the layout of his life.
On a recent Wednesday, Hedtler-Gaudette spends his morning perusing emails and responding to a few text messages that are announced on his phone with a digital voice. Instead of lowering his eyes to a lit screen, he tilts his ear closer to the darkened phone, listening as the message is read out loud.
“I can’t imagine having been blind even just 20 years ago,” Hedtler-Gaudette said.
Hedtler-Gaudette does not know how to read braille, instead relying on a bevy of gadgets that help him close the gap between the sighted and the blind.
Computerized voices whiz through emails, reading them aloud at a brisk clip. A special screen and camera converts hard-copy text into digital words that are read by the computer.
Even getting dressed in the morning requires some technological assistance. Holding a remote-control-sized device against his shirt, a tiny mechanical voice announces its color.
From the tray of compartments near the front door where he keeps his wallet, keys and chewing gum, to the particular shelf inside his refrigerator that is always occupied by almond milk, the simple aspects of home life are ironed into uniformity. His patterns of organization help draw a clear, bright line between what he can control and everything else.
Outside his apartment, in an environment he can’t control, Hedtler-Gaudette relies on a positive outlook and a strong measure of fearlessness.
“Most of us blind folks recognize it’s a sighted world, made for and by the sighted,” he said. “More or less, that’s how it should be. It’s not as though … I expect the whole world is going to conform to my particular needs. But there is a middle ground somewhere there, too, which is providing common-sense accommodations and adaptations. They don’t have to mess up the world around us for everyone else, just to accommodate the blind, but they should make it such that the blind can sort of navigate and function.”
That balancing act is on prominent display along Portland’s streets. Almost every day, Hedtler-Gaudette walks nearly a mile to the USM campus, a route he knows well.
Along the way, he finds the best and the worst about life in the city, his cane tip-tapping to the beat of his footsteps. At the end of his cane’s collapsible shaft, which is made of graphite and is no thicker than a nickel, a plastic bulb bounces along as he sweeps left and right.
Each strike with the cane is a chance for Hedtler-Gaudette to feel the terrain ahead of him, to detect where he is in relation to the sidewalk’s edge, and most importantly, to avoid obstacles and dangers.
To the sighted, pavement is pavement, but Hedtler-Gaudette reads the slope and texture of the ground like a caddy reading a green. Crosswalks are announced by a gentle swale that leads to the asphalt road surface. Grass and dirt is softer than asphalt, concrete or pavers.
“The constant imposition of bricks and cobblestone is like the bane of my existence when it comes to my cane,” he said.
At the corner of Park and Deering avenues, Hedtler-Gaudette presses a button to cross.
“Wait,” a computerized voice intones. The traffic light changes, and a new, chirping tone guides him across the busy intersection. There are far too few of these audio crossing aids in the city, he said.
Still, his fierce sense of independence has become a deep point of pride.
“Nothing is completely foolproof,” he said. “You have to sort of take some chance and some risk. Just be that blind guy. I try to harness it, rather than let it harness me.”
As a home for a blind person, Portland has its strengths and weaknesses, he said.
Because of its compact size, the city is largely accessible on foot. Hedtler-Gaudette walks everywhere he can, including to the school’s gym, where he works out almost daily. Like a second home, he navigates the equipment with expert precision, his fingers running across the steel of the machines until he finds the plate or bar he needs.
But there are still impediments that remain out of his control. Snow and ice are constant risks. Even more basic, and unfortunately unchangeable, is the configuration and naming of city streets. In cities such as New York or Philadelphia, blocks are arranged on a grid and adhere to predictable numbering systems.
No so in Portland and Boston, Hedtler-Gaudette said.
“As charming and quaint as the old Colonial-era port cities are, they make no sense in terms of their layout,” he said.
In less than a month, Hedtler-Gaudette will graduate from the University of Southern Maine and head to Northeastern School of Law in Boston, where he will have to learn how to navigate a new college campus, in an unfamiliar city.
In typical style, Hedtler-Gaudette said he’s eager to step off into the unknown, hoping to find a way to fight for human rights around the world and help people, including the blind and visually impaired.
“There will always be hiccups and obstacles and hindrances here and there, because (equal access) is still not the reflexive response,” he said. “The follow-through in terms of policy rarely matches what we like to say, the rhetoric. And we need people with training in the law and with the dedication to make sure that follow-through happens.”
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