The afternoon was hot and muggy, and rush hour in Los Angeles was at full boil when Millicent Collinsworth, 39, started home to Hollywood earlier this month with her guide dog, Eeyore. She boarded a city bus, sat down a few feet behind the driver and settled the black Labrador retriever between her feet. With each stop the overcrowded bus became more stifling; passengers shoved and cursed. Suddenly, a man went beserk. “I’ve got to breathe!” he yelled, groping wildly toward the door.
In his panic he struck Collinsworth in the face. “He hit me so hard that he knocked off my dark glasses and split open my lip,” she recalls. Worse, the shoving crowd was trampling Eeyore’s harness, and she could hear the dog choking as the leash tightened around his throat. When Collinsworth bent over to free the dog, she was knocked to the floor. No one came to her aid.
Hastily the driver stopped the bus to let the claustrophobic man off. Though still 15 blocks from home, Collinsworth wanted out, too, and had to push and elbow her way to the door. “Nobody helped,” she says. Shaken and crying, she began to stumble home, trusting Eeyore to lead the way. Collinsworth felt a wetness on her face, hands and clothes, and assumed it was her own tears. No one on the busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard stopped to ask if she needed assistance.
Only as she fumbled with the lock of her apartment did Collinsworth realize that her hands were slippery with blood, not tears. She rushed to the phone and called her boyfriend of six months, Gary Williams, 31, as neighbors, alarmed by the bloody streaks on her door, began to gather outside. One of them, Dan Schwab, “thought that someone was dead in there, and he got the manager,” Collinsworth recalls. Paramedics were summoned to take her to the hospital, where she received four stitches on her lip.
The cut will heal. The wound to Collinsworth’s self-confidence may not. Her injury was a minor one, but the dozens of people who saw her on the street, covered with blood, had no way of knowing that, because none of them bothered to ask. It’s that cold indifference that has left Collinsworth afraid to move around the city alone—a victim less of a crazed commuter than of society’s shocking blind spot when it comes to the handicapped. ‘It was like a nightmare where you scream and no sound comes out,” she says of her walk home. “To be in the dark and hurt and not have anyone help is the most terrifying thing of all.” In the eight years since she lost her sight, Collinsworth has learned that for the old or infirm, such terror is all too common.
It was not the first time Collinsworth had been assaulted. Last year, she says, a man jumped her from behind as she was leaving the Braille Institute. “He grabbed for my purse and ripped open my blouse,” she says. “I screamed. Some people came around a corner and the man fled, though he got my purse.” A few months later another mugger snatched a bag of groceries out of her arms. “It becomes a way of life with the handicapped,” she says. “You get to know that the world knows you’re vulnerable.”
That bitter lesson may seem particularly cruel to one who loses her sight suddenly, as Collinsworth did, in the midst of a thriving career. In 1979 the Arkansas native, once married and divorced, was an energetic, high-profile executive, traveling the country as a public relations director for W.R. Grace & Co. She also dabbled in acting and ran a children’s theater near her home in Irvine, Calif. It was there, in June of 1979, that Collinsworth came to the aid of a workman teetering on his ladder and was hit between the eyes by a falling hammer. Within five years despite nine operations, she was totally blind.
“I’d always been a go-getter, and then my script was destroyed,” says Collinsworth, who describes herself as emotionally devastated by the accident. The $1,500-a-month annuity she won from the construction company, along with a payment of $25,000 every five years, doesn’t begin to compensate for the destruction of the life she had enjoyed before blindness. Prior to the accident, she says, “It never occurred to me not to go anywhere whenever I wanted. I prided myself on my independence.” After being struck blind, Collinsworth admits, she briefly contemplated suicide.
Instead, with the help of family, friends, sympathetic doctors and her religious faith, Collinsworth gradually reclaimed her life. One friend helped her buy clothes and arrange them systematically in her closet so that she doesn’t mix stripes with polka-dots; another helped her memorize the layout of the local grocery store. The first time she shopped alone, “I got all my groceries and I got to the check-out stand, and the whole store burst into applause,” she says. She hadn’t realized that concerned clerks and puzzled patrons were watching her every move.
Collinsworth, who has never returned to work, did take up acting again late last year, joining a workshop called HAPPI—Handicapped Artists, Performers and Partners Inc. That’s where she met Williams, one of several nonhandicapped actors in the group. Last October she got Eeyore. “I can’t tell you the feeling I had when I first grabbed Eeyore’s harness—the feeling of dignity restored in independence,” she says.
Now she must fight to get that feeling back. “I’m a lousy loser,” says Collinsworth. “To be honest, the only way I could accept blindness was to try to be the best blind lady around.” Discovering, as she puts it, that “the world itself has become emotionally blind” is a grave setback. “But I have my whole life ahead of me. If I give up now, I’ll have an awful lot of time to sit alone in the dark.”