As a child, one of my biggest fears was of going blind. My parents are both legally blind and my parents had high hopes for me to be fully sighted, as both of my older brothers had perfect vision. However, when I was a few months old the doctors told my parents that I could only see very large objects and light and I would need to learn Braille as I got older. My vision did improve slightly by the time I was one, but I have always been very nearsighted.
As a very nearsighted child, I would try to imagine what it was like to be fully blind, by walking around my house with eyes closed and assessing how long I could manage– but I never lasted very long. And that always increased my panic: What if I really did become blind, how would I manage?
My fear continued into adulthood. Living in Gush Etzion, there are plenty of blackouts in the middle of the night. The only thing that keeps me calm is having to stay calm for my children, but my inner self is terrified. Several years ago that intense fear was lessened when I really felt blind for a short while ( at the Blackout restaurant in Yaffo as well as the blind exhibit in the Holon museum–both highly recommended to become more sensitive to what someone who is blind experiences daily). Having sight, albeit limited, cannot be compared to someone with much less sight or none at all.
I cannot drive and cannot see my friends across the street. I have a hard time finding an address and reading street signs. Yet I don’t feel disabled. I can read almost any size print– I just may hold the book up to my face. I am able to take public transportation and my friends announce who they are when they see me. I cannot read lips –but my hearing is a little better than average.
Recently I was asked how my mikvah experiences are affected by my poor eyesight. At first I thought it’s not. But as I went through the step by step routine I have of preparing and going to the mikveh, I found there are things that are challenging. With some small accomodations, the mikveh can be more welcoming for those with visual impairments– severe or minor.
I am very familiar with my local mikveh, however when I have had to go to a mikveh somewhere else, just finding the mikveh can be frustrating. It’s dark, the sign is usually small or doesn’t exist (as far as I can see), the lighting is poor, the entrance is usually in the back, the path not well lit or rocky or with steps. While I understand the desire for privacy, the conflicting need for accessibility may be more important.
When I physically prepare my body for the mikveh, seeing my feet is the most challenging part for me! Cutting my nails and making sure there is no dirt around the nails is difficult. Sometimes when I’m more organized I will get a pedicure (without nail polish) before going to the mikveh. When I don’t (most of the time), I use my hands to feel for sharp edges, or just to clean well. In terms of checking the rest of my body, removing makeup or checking my back, for myself and probably for all women, having a mirror on the wall (or a handheld mirror) is easier than looking in the mirror over a sink. A magnifying glass is also an easy addition to the mikveh’s stock to help women.
Finding the bell to call the balanit when I am ready can take a few minutes in a new mikveh. A simple colorful sticker on it would save a few minutes and if the attendant noticed my impairment, casually pointing out the correct call button would be a good alternative. If there would be a call system where she could (audibly) let me know that she got my request, that would also set me at ease.
Bright signs in the hallway to the mikveh and at the top of the steps to the actual mikveh would help someone with limited sight, as would a tactile bar – a small strip that I could feel as I made my way down the hall or into the water. A handrail of course would make the entrance feel safer. And definitely having the bracha and tefillah written on a laminated card in larger print and/or braille could make one’s experience more positive.
It’s the little things that sometimes jump out to make me realize that I don’t see quite as well as others. A few times I have asked the mikveh lady why they don’t have the bracha printed on the wall, and laughed when she said, “it’s right there on the wall.” I know that etched glass and silver with white are “in,” but in all honesty, I can’t see them. And while I laugh, printing the words a contrasting color would make it so much easier for me, and I’m sure many others. The less I need to ask for help, for me the better.
Having sight, albeit limited, cannot be compared to someone with much less sight or none at all. I thank God for the sight I have and hope we can make the mikveh accessible for women of all visionary levels.