The Braille Monitor May 2005
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White Canes and Gender Identity in America
by Catherine Kudlick
Cathy Kudlick, photo by Kevin Bryant
From the Editor: The following article is reprinted by permission from Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2005, vol. 30, no. 2©. It was first published by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Cathy Kudlick teaches history at the University of California at Davis. Dr. Kudlick brings the academic's reserve and objectivity to this discussion of her experience at an NFB adult training center. Her perspective may be helpful to those who are uneasy when confronted with unreserved enthusiasm about the NFB training centers' methods. Others will find some of her observations disturbing; they are certainly thought-provoking. CCB staff members consulted about this article said that they enthusiastically recipricate the affection and admiration Dr. Kudlick clearly feels for them. This is what she says:
Several years ago I completed a six-month residential rehabilitation program at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), just south of Denver in Littleton. As someone who is legally blind but with much usable vision, I wanted to learn a set of skills that would help me function better with the vision I have; at the same time I hoped to change my attitudes about blindness. Thus I picked--as far as I know--the most adventurous blindness rehabilitation program in the world, one that required me to be blindfolded all day in classes (wearing what we call "sleepshades"), where I learned such things as cane travel, Braille, and living skills, all the while engaging in confidence-builders such as going downhill skiing and participating in bizarre treasure hunts to the far reaches of Denver. The final graduation requirement consisted of being dropped alone somewhere unknown in the metropolitan area and having to make my way back to the CCB, being allowed to ask only one question.
Here I want to tell about one tiny aspect of my time at the Colorado Center: traveling through the streets of Denver using a long white cane. As a professor in the humanities, I am programmed to step back from my experiences and analyze them through the comfort of scholarly abstractions. For example, I might write of the program's particularly masculine reading of rugged individualism as part of mainstream American culture grafted awkwardly but firmly onto shifting gender identities transformed by blindness. Or I might cast everything in terms of "performativity" and "gender play," revealing how contested ideas of masculinity and femininity can be created even--and especially--for something as seemingly fixed as blindness. But first I would have to point out that terms such as "masculinity" and "femininity" are problematic, open as they are to interpretations contingent on social and cultural expectations that change over time. And who could resist describing the cane as a blind person's phallus? All of these observations have their place in this essay and may even be the abstract forces that ultimately shape it.
Still, my struggles in "blind boot camp" demanded that I come face to face with something much more visceral: my own deep-seated fears about blindness and how these anxieties related to being a woman in a program that called upon me to "take it like a man." Such gender tensions constantly played themselves out in the choices I made between being safe and embracing the risks that make life worth living. These decisions shape the way all human beings confront difference, as we read the actions or inactions of others through the internal lens of our dread. For a low-vision person like me, blindness represented the consummate defeat and blind people the embodiment of my failure. The blind of my imagination begged with tin cups in the street or groped in the dark, their heads raised and their arms stretched out in desperation. Above all, they stayed home, angry and bitter, passively accepting what fate had handed them. My blind were so emasculated that femininity did not have a safe dwelling place.
Six months at the Colorado Center blew away all my assumptions. The adventure put an end to my lifelong self-image as the pathetic little blind girl, at the same time destroying any illusions I might have had of one day discovering a conventional feminine self. Through their unbridled audaciousness my fellow students and teachers--all of them blind--rescued blindness from the depths of pity and helped turn it into simply another way of being in the world. At the same time I had to change the way I thought about myself as a woman in order to triumph over adversity in this particular way. Yes, part of me wanted to kill off the helpless blind girl. But did this mean I would have to renounce femininity altogether? Would I have to come up with something completely new? And when all was said and done, who would take the little girl's place?
Public responses to the white cane as the ultimate symbol of helplessness and powerlessness only increased my dread of being associated with blind people. When I first started to use a cane, I was dumbfounded by the dramatic change in the way most in the sighted world treated me just because I held a long thin piece of carbon fiber in my hand. It might be the flip side of what young powerless street kids must feel when they enter a room pointing a gun. One minute I stood there, an innocuous, competent, responsible adult, and the next my stickmata brought the wrath of human condescension raining down upon me as people's voices grew artificially soft and solicitous. Most sighted people assumed I could do very little for myself and treated me like a dependent child or a delicate porcelain doll.
Being female, I found these responses troubling enough. But the men around me at the Colorado Center--from my young biker buddies who proclaimed themselves my Guardian Hell's Angels to my closest friend and confidant, a gay psychologist in his late fifties from the East Coast--all complained bitterly about how the sighted world's treatment of them as helpless dependents was robbing them of their masculinity.
To counter this image, the Colorado Center consciously sought to make the cane not just a symbol of independence but a means of achieving it. In operation for nearly a decade, the CCB was founded by members of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), the country's largest organization run by and for blind people. The organization has a seductive philosophy that speaks to men and women alike at the same time that it sets the tone for a particular kind of masculine assertiveness. The real problem for blind people is not the lack of eyesight, the NFB philosophy claims, but rather social attitudes; given opportunity and proper training in alternative techniques, blindness can be reduced to a mere physical nuisance, and blind people can compete on terms of equality with their sighted peers doing just about anything.(1)
People in the blindness field, as well as the blind man or woman on the street, tend to have strong feelings about the organization, either as enthusiastic defenders or as fierce critics decrying Federationists as unthinking fanatics. The NFB constantly infuriates people because it takes unpopular and uncompromising stands, some of them seemingly at odds with the needs of the blind. In the early 1990's, for example, the organization generated huge controversy when it lobbied passionately against installing tactile warning strips along train platforms. Federationists saw such measures as special treatment, more ammunition for the sighted world to see blind people as different; the more practical and less expensive solution, they argued, was good cane technique. But disagreement over who is qualified to teach this technique and how the requisite mobility skills should be taught has created another major rift within the blindness field.
Behind the dispute lurks a deep philosophical question that divides the world of rehabilitation training unmistakably along gender lines. On my first day at the center my travel instructor, Dirk, who had been totally blind for ten years after the sudden onset of diabetes, leaned back in his squeaky chair and bellowed: "Okay, Doc. Let me guess. If you learned to use a cane from someone at the state department of rehab, she was a very well-meaning middle-aged sighted lady who drove you to a quiet parking lot somewhere and made sure you didn't get lost."2 My jaw dropped because it seemed he had been following me before he even knew who I was.
The majority opinion holds that sighted people are better equipped to teach someone mobility because they can see obstacles and have a better perspective on the big picture, which will help a blind traveler figure out certain complicated situations. For example, a blind instructor might not be able to know that one cannot enter a raised train platform without using a stairway located way down the block or might not be able to tell when a pedestrian crossing is only on one side of a busy intersection whizzing with cars. The bottom line of this argument rests on safety issues: a sighted instructor is in a better position to keep a new blind traveler out of danger. And as long as travel stays within the confines of predictable challenges, it's women's work.(2)
The NFB-inspired centers such as the one I attended have shaken up the rehab world because they exclusively employ low-vision or blind travel instructors. During my time at the CCB all of them happened to be men, though over the years several women have taught travel as well. Those who favor the blind-leading-the-blind approach argue that a blind person is in a better position to train and instill confidence in other blind people than a sighted person, however competent and enlightened that sighted person might be. If you do not have faith in a blind teacher, the reasoning goes, how can you possibly convince new travelers to believe in themselves? Anyone who has taken a gym class and watched the coach sip soda while students puffed their way around the track will appreciate the way I thought about the well-meaning sighted professional who gave me my first cane.
As for the argument that sighted people can offer help that a blind person cannot, the NFB points out that you will not always have a kind rehab lady to act as your guardian angel, so you had better learn how to puzzle out complex situations on your own. It is an appealing notion, one that too often seemed better in theory, such as the countless times we wandered around some godforsaken corner of Denver with a blind instructor, lost in the snow. On the other hand, we learned that it was okay to be lost, that people eventually find their way. Not just an extreme example of the masculine compulsion to avoid asking directions at any cost, this approach also underscored the search for self-sufficiency in a sighted world that often denies such independence to blind people, be they men or women.
Perhaps not surprisingly in our post-Freudian times, the NFB tries to reclaim masculinity for blindness via cane length. This makes it possible to discern a person's blindness politics based on the type she or he might use. Most favor the red-bottomed cane offered by agencies that do not adhere to the NFB philosophy. These canes reach the middle of the chest and collapse by folding into sections, much like tent poles. At the top they have a black rubberized grip like that of a golf club, while for the bottom one can choose from a variety of nylon tip shapes and sizes described as marshmallows, cylinders, mushrooms, and balls, some of which roll and therefore require constant contact with the sidewalk while others remain stationary to facilitate tapping back and forth. For something that folds, they feel quite solid.
Many travelers--both men and women--find these canes the best compromise between strength and portability. You can stuff them into your back pocket or lay them discreetly on a chair next to you in a restaurant. And if you don't feel like drawing attention to your blindness for every minute of your public life, these folding models offer an option. I have friends who passionately try to convince me that they are easier to use and transmit information more effectively, not to mention that they are about 30 percent cheaper ($33 vs. $40) than the NFB canes. [Fiberglas straight and tellescoping canes are actually $25; their carbon fiber counterparts are $35; both have $3 handling charges for one cane.]. Alas, I found the folding canes heavy and tiring to use for any length of time. And, I should confess, they didn't seem as cool to me--I tended to think of them as akin to orthopedic shoes or thick glasses in the days before optometry became chic.
About thirty years ago the NFB modified the style and use of the cane by coming up with a thin, rigid model made [first of fiberglas and now] of carbon fiber. These sleek, all-white canes with a metal tip at the bottom generally come to the bridge of one's nose. One CCB staff member, a woman from Nepal well under five feet tall, sported a cane that towered over her head. Users assert that the long canes enable you to walk more quickly because they give you more information sooner, like wearing a stronger pair of glasses that allows you to see farther away. As for the rigidity, the NFB philosophy seeks to make a point: you should not be ashamed of your blindness, and if a rigid cane is light and durable, why settle for anything less?
These canes have major drawbacks, however. Their length makes it more likely that a user will get tangled up with fellow pedestrians, sometimes tripping them, causing the rigid cane to snap and splinter. Also, imagine going through life (restaurants, concerts, airplane trips, car rides, to name but a few situations) with the equivalent of a fishing pole that you constantly need to find places to store, particularly when you already feel obtrusive enough as a blind person. The NFB's arguments about strength and lightness shaped the cane industry so that folding ones have improved enormously on both counts, yet Federationists still chide people for using them to hide their blindness. For the situations where rigid canes are impractical, the organization finally caved in to popular demand by making a very lightweight and compact telescoping cane, an elegant but (deliberately?) poorly designed object that collapses when you least expect it.
[Actually, when the telescoping cane is extended and twisted open section by section, it is nearly impossible to close again without great effort.] Students at the CCB were required to use the long, rigid canes, though several registered silent protests against the school and the NFB more generally by buying the shorter folding ones. The teachers, who could tell the difference between NFB and non-NFB canes by the sound of the metal tip, tried to tease people who used them in a friendly way ("What, you want to walk like an old lady?"), but usually the offenders ignored them. A few others, such as Jason, a tall guy whose sixty-nine-inch cane kept getting run over by buses, reverted to the folding models because they thought these canes held up better. Jason liked the length of the rigid NFB canes, though, so he had to mail-order extralong folding ones from a special place in Canada because the longest American ones were only sixty inches.
"I should think about getting me one of these folding canes," Dirk once admitted to me as we headed off to explore Littleton, causing me to stop dead in my tracks. A prospective student was visiting the center, and Dirk had traded canes in order to give him a sense of what the NFB ones were like. "The nylon tips are quiet, so I could use them when I want to follow some slacker," he explained. But usually Dirk just turned his rigid NFB cane upside down, using the plastic top as the tip as he followed behind at a discreet distance. "Of course the handle turns to crap pretty fast," he admitted, "but that's what duct tape is for." He rattled around in his snuff bag, spat, and added, "Never go anywhere without duct tape, one of the little-known miracles of the blind guy's tool kit. I've pasted up one or two canes with the silver stuff, enough to get me home and even add a couple hundred miles on 'em before they really give out."
The NFB's sense of rugged independence also translated into its philosophy and policies that discouraged using dog guides. Because numerous schools across the country specialize in working with dogs, a rehab center like the CCB could reasonably argue that it should specialize in teaching cane travel. Besides, people should first have good cane mobility skills, lest they find themselves without their dog for some reason. But I think something else was also at work: the NFB seemed to be engaging with the sighted world's long-held belief that dogs served the more needy--and therefore less competent, more feminized--blind, that the dog leads the person rather than the person controlling the dog like any other tool. Rightly or wrongly, we internalized the message that using a dog was tantamount to copping out and creating unnecessary barriers with the sighted world because animals are intrusive.
Still the center didn't rule out dogs altogether. Among the students the ex-Hell's Angel Gavin had a dog, an unpleasant, high-strung German shepherd that wore a bandanna. Keyla had to spend most of her days curled up under one of the tables in the meeting room while her owner learned to travel with a long, rigid cane outside. I never understood why Gavin had Keyla in the first place, especially since he was clearly such a talented cane traveler; I could only figure that her surly growls helped maintain his tough-guy biker persona in a way a white cane never could. More often our travel teachers gave certain students, including Harriet and Don, who had both experienced serious hearing loss, their blessing for getting dogs after they graduated. But the general message was clear: canes were about independence, confidence, assertiveness, and full social integration, while dogs were not.
Such a macho cane environment spawned an interesting culture that ran counter to everything most sighted Americans have thought about blind people and blindness. In public the long, rigid canes clearly managed to surprise sighted people because the circumstances in which we used them confounded expectations of helpless blind people flailing alone in the world. Sometimes, for example, the whole center would go on chaotic outings that brought some twenty-five or thirty of us with our long canes fanning out through an unsuspecting Denver. Sighted culture never quite knows what to do when more than one blind person shows up, particularly if unaccompanied by sighted help.
Sometimes I got the impression that we terrified people on the street, that they drew only the thinnest of lines between fearing for our safety and fearing for their lives. I would hear concerned mothers hurrying their intrigued children away or groups of African-American teenage guys shouting to us: "Go brothers and sisters!" More often sighted people's anxiety manifested itself through bewildered and awkward questions about why the canes were so long. Unconsciously, anyway, they seem to have picked up on the NFB cane's more potent macho dimensions.
In the hands of someone like my instructor Dirk, the cane became a Harley of sorts, with a whole vocabulary and series of rituals to match. For example, every couple of weeks people who use the NFB canes must change the metal tip that meets the sidewalk. Tough guys such as Dirk and my biker friends referred to the mundane fact of the tip wearing out as "blowing a tip" and had a whole classification system for describing what had caused it. If one blew out on Dirk just a few days after he had put it on, it was "sissy" or "wimpy"; I think I once even heard one of the guys use the word "pussy" in this context. If someone like me went through one too quickly, however, it was my fault and not the tip's. Novices, particularly women, seemed to "burn through" tips at an alarming rate, because, the guys claimed, we scraped them too much along the sidewalk. But a tip's significance could also lie in the eye of the beholder: a few years ago I met a guyno sissywho saved every one he ever changed as a sign of all the miles he'd traveled with a cane.
Then there was the whole issue of actually changing the tip. Novices heard that we should first lick the base where the old tip had been before attaching a new one, a disgusting thought if you imagine all the places a cane goes in a day. I must confess to wondering if this was really necessary, dismissing the advice as one of our rare boot-camp hazing moments. I later learned that some form of lubrication helped matters considerably, but, like most of my women friends at the center, I decided this was a man's work and cheerfully resorted to traditional flirtation rather than spit. Certain peoplemostly men but also a few womendeveloped a reputation for being good tip changers, so the rest of us would go to them for help. Women had tested various makeups, skin creams, Vaseline, and even K-Y Jelly, whereas men simply spat and hoped for the best as they muscled the spent, old tip off and a new one on.
The CCB offered a particularly macho environment in which to learn such basics. When I arrived for my training, the center had just relocated to a former YMCA, where the travel office had settled into the men's locker room, which still smelled distinctly of jock sweat. Moreover, the travel teachers and a few of the male students thought nothing of heading for the urinal well within earshot of our class. Several of us (both female and male) complained, but to little avail, since the guys didn't want to be bothered by having to troop upstairs only to wait in line. Within this bunker-like setting Dirk began with the essentials by giving informal lectures about urban planning; stoplights; traffic control; and, for anyone who cared to listen, how cement was mixed and poured. He taught us about parking lots and traffic patterns by guiding our hands to a collection of matchbox cars he kept on his desk, which he'd arrange to create various complex scenarios.
"The best class a blind traveler could ever take would be driver's ed.," he stated matter-of-factly one day. "I've been thinking about assigning the State of Colorado's driver's handbook to all you students and making you pass that sucker of a test. In fact, if I had time, I'd introduce a bill before the state legislature to require all blind kids to take it."
I bristled. Driver's education class had been a huge emotional nemesis for me as a legally blind teenager in high school. "What's the point of making a bunch of blind people do that," I blurted out, for once not being the well-behaved student.
"Well, Doc," he said, leaning back in his squeaky chair as he always did when he knew he was about to win, "it's a jungle out there, a goddamned jungle. But there are rules of the jungle. In theory, anyway. You, little speck of a blind person, are out there surrounded by wild beasts, wild two-ton metal beasts whose lives just happen to be explained in a book like this very one provided for free by the marvelous state of Colorado. I don't know about you, but before I go out there, I'd want a fighting chance, and the only way to have it is to know what rules govern the jungle."
After such lectures, Dirk would take two or three of us out to an intersection to make us listen for the logic of traffic patterns. One frosty morning I found myself heading out with him and Jason, a pleasant young man who had started his training shortly after I had. Blind from birth and sheltered by his overprotective family until he had finished college, he was smart and articulate. But this poor kid from Oregon knew surprisingly little of the world, so among other things the CCB was teaching him to travel alone for the first time in his life.
As we walked north on the Prince Street overpass and heard a train pulling out of the light-rail station slightly ahead and to the right, Dirk stopped abruptly. The sun felt warm on my right ear, but even though I wore the thickest gloves imaginable, I already feared my frostbitten fingers were going to have to be amputated. "Okay, my friends," he ordered, "turn to your left, and tell me where we are. Hint: you have to listen."
I had been around Dirk long enough by that point to know that the obvious answer was seldom correct, but having racked my brain, I couldn't come up with anything better: "At the light-rail station?" I ventured.
"Perhaps. Mr. Krug?"
"I'd have to agree," Jason said, also sensing that this wasn't what Dirk wanted.
"Listen more carefully. The train is gone. What do you hear now?"
We stood fixed to the spot, concentrating.
A car somewhere to our left had stopped and was idling. "You can cross!" the person I assumed to be its driver shouted at us. "It's okay to go!"
I felt something long and thin brush my kneecaps. "No need to go anywhere just yet, Doc," Dirk said, gently pushing me back with his cane. "In fact, we won't cross anything today." I hadn't even realized that I had inched into the street. "Rule number one: don't listen to drivers. Like all our sighted friends they mean well, but you need to understand your environment first. Rule number two: when you get to an intersection, stop and figure it out. What is your line of traffic, where are the cars headed? How fast are they going? When do they stop? Where? How long? Take as long as you need. Don't let anyone push you into going before you're absolutely sure where you are, where you want to go, and how you'll get there. Now what can you tell me about this intersection? First of all, what kind of intersection is it?"
"Busy," I joked, more out of fear than wit.
Jason chuckled in nervous agreement.
"That's right on the mark," Dirk said without sarcasm. "That's your first important piece of information. Now what kind of busy is it? Listen."
I thought hard about all the details of the environment, but truth be told, all I could hear were big, roaring cars that sounded chaotic and dangerously close to where we stood. I figured just as long as I remained a little behind Dirk, I would be okay. Things grew quiet, and I actually thought I heard the wind rustling in the trees across the street. Then one or two cars honked as they drove by, followed by a driver who shouted, "You folks need any help? I can pull up to that parking lot and walk you across."
"No thank you, sir," Dirk replied in his deadpan way. "We're just three blind people out for a nice walk in the country." Then turning to us, "Don't mind them. Your job is to listen to the flow of cars. Are they going all the time or are they stopping?"
As I concentrated, the reality of the intersection began to take shape. When Dirk asked if I thought it had a traffic light, a stop sign, or nothing at all, I could tell instantly that it was a light because the cars clearly streamed through in batches. When the vehicles going perpendicular to where we stood came to a stop, those facing us would come toward us. I felt immensely pleased with myself for figuring this out.
"What if I told you that's only part of the story?" Dirk inquired. I sighed. "Good, it's a light," he allowed, perhaps sensing how defeated I felt; then, "But what kind of light? What kind of intersection is this? Is there anything special about it?"
The cars fell completely silent so that once again I noticed the strange mechanical clanging of the light-rail bell behind us and heard the hum of a train as it glided into the station. I stiffened with excitement as I collected the pieces of a puzzle and began snapping them into place: one set of cars passed back and forth in front of us, and when these stopped, another batch came straight toward us but turned either right or left rather than going through; they couldn't go through because Church Street dead-ended into Prince Street at the light-rail station tracks!
Ever the eager student, I blurted out my answer, half expecting it to be wrong.
"Excellent," Dirk said in the flat way he reserved for his highest praise. I felt I had been awarded a medal. "This is what is known as a ‘T-intersection,'" he explained. "It's named after the print letter ‘T.'" Then turning to Jason, he asked, "You ever seen the print letter ‘T,' Mr. Krug?"
Jason seemed a little embarrassed. Blind from birth, he knew Braille better than most of the rest of us, but he had never written with pen and ink. Consequently he had never had reason to learn the print alphabet. "No, I'm afraid not," he admitted.
"Here, my friend," Dirk said gently, "give me your back so I can draw it for you." I heard Jason step toward Dirk, who traced the letter first for Jason then for me on my own back. "Like this," he said to each of us as he ran his glove over the fabric, first down and then across at the top. "That's the print letter ‘T.' Now imagine it being upside down like this." This time he drew the vertical line first, then put the horizontal one at the bottom, pushing harder where the two lines met to indicate where we stood. His touch was quick and direct, delicate and informative all at once.
"This is heady, important stuff," he growled, as we stood giddy with terror at the prospect of actually having to apply this knowledge. "But it's worthless crap if you don't put your cane out there to let them know you're intending to cross. As a blind guy, I could hold a line of twenty-five cars back all day long if I wanted just by putting my cane out there and showing with body posture that I want to cross. Your cane is your key to roam the road, to make the road yours. It's the simplest and most elegant tool, so you'd damn well better use it."
"But, Dirk," I protested, "it's easy for you to put your body on the line; guys are encouraged to do that beginning with when you're first starting to walk! We girls never learned to ‘just put ourselves out there.' If anything, I'm hardwired to ‘just keep my body in there,' thank you very much." I tried to make it light and funny, but I didn't like this kind of vulnerability one bit.
"Ah come on, Doc!" Dirk shouted over all the traffic. "For someone who's supposed to be so smart, you don't use that brain of yours very much; or maybe you use it too damn much. I'm not asking you to put your body on the line; I'm just saying use your goddamned cane!" At that moment, I smelled his habitual snuff, heard the distinct sound of expectoration, and cringed as I wondered where his spit had gone. "Blind people can't afford to be sissy-wimps if they want to be free in this world," he announced. "The way I see it, you can either put yourself out there, or you can sit at home and wait for some well-meaning sighted person to come and rescue the damsel in distress. It's your choice, Doc."
A few days later Dirk wanted me to accompany him and a more advanced student to downtown Littleton so we could "visit the damn birds," Dirk's expression for audible pedestrian signals. Like Gavin, Finn was a tattoo-covered ex-biker, a large man in his early thirties who, like Dirk, had become blind suddenly from diabetes. We had bonded on my first day at boot camp when Finn had given me a tour of the center. Even though he was a decade younger, he always called me "little sister," while still managing to treat me with genuine gallantry and respect.
"Rule number one," Dirk barked as we approached the chirping at the corner of Prince and Alamo, "ignore those things. They're put in by poor, clueless sighted people and their lazy blind friends." The chirps and cuckoos have been a big bone of contention in the blindness community, making the NFB once again seem like it has taken a ridiculous stand against the better interests of blind people. After all, who in their right minds would attack a street signal that--at least in theory--allows a blind person standing at an intersection to hear exactly when the light changes? Once you learn that cuckoo means cross north-south and chirp-chirp east-west (or is it that chirp-chirp means north-south and cuckoo means east-west?), all you have to do is arrive at the corner and wait patiently for the signal.
"My point exactly." I heard Dirk's voice ringing in my ear as he instinctively understood my confusion. "Plus, most audible signals are designed with vision in mind. They want you to know what drivers are seeing, when what you really need to know is what you should be doing. And no two of these suckers are ever alike. One might be way up top of a pole, and another practically on the frickin' ground or far away from the intersection. Some ping, some chirp, some do one thing one minute and another thing the next, and sometimes you have to push a button to activate them. And where's the button?" We laughed as Dirk noisily banged his cane into various poles and other nearby obstacles, including an innocent bystander who shouted "Hey!" when Dirk hit her. "Thank you for helping me make my point, ma'am," Dirk said by way of apology, turning back to us.
"I suppose if cities really wanted to help, they'd raise crosswalks just slightly so your cane could lead you in the right direction, but it wouldn't matter that much once you learned how to use your cane." He claimed that the NFB metal tip's sensitivity allowed one to distinguish the paint of a crosswalk, a lesson I would master by the end of my training, though I wasn't completely confident. Dirk admitted that audible signals might be useful at irregular intersections or in the growing number of situations where traffic lights are geared toward maximizing traffic flow at the expense of pedestrians. "But if we have to have them, then they've got to be consistent, and everybody plays by the same rules. And the bottom line is having good cane technique."
Dirk took me to the corner, spun me in a circle, told me an off-color joke, walked me to a store entrance, spun me around again, then plunked me at the corner. "Okay, Doc. Wait for the birdie, then tell me where you think you should go." By that point I was disoriented, not to mention that I remained preoccupied with simply finding the actual line that separated the sidewalk from the street. I felt around with my cane in a panic as the cuckoo started up, but I still couldn't get oriented. "Here, Doc," Dirk said, taking me by the shoulders. "Now you're pointed in the right direction. Now what?" I stood through several cuckoo/chirp cycles, but even though I had a pretty good idea of what I thought must be north, the sun wasn't out that day, and the more I listened for the signal the less certain I was about my line of direction.
"Finn, my man, I'm going to step over here for a bit of snuff," Dirk announced and then headed off, fishing in his pocket. "Show our friend the doctor how it's done."
I could hear Finn's cane exploring to my right. "Here's the curb," he reported in his raspy voice, "give me your cane," whereupon he put his enormous hand on top of mine and ran the cane back and forth over a small indentation. "Here's the lip," he explained as my cane skipped over a small ridge and then down. "It's one of those blended curbs that my boys dig so much for skateboarding, so it's really hard to find, but here's the low point." I remembered one of Dirk's mini-lectures where he had described how city streets had been constructed to facilitate drainage. Just beyond the curb was a smooth area that gradually headed upward, then got rough. "Feel the difference between cement and asphalt?" Finn asked, guiding my cane first to one, then the other. The cement was definitely smoother, while the asphalt not only felt rough but grated more on my cane tip. I had the strange sensation of not knowing whether I was getting this information through sound or touch.
"Now here's the thing, little sister," Finn said as we stood there, "I know you're probably scared to death, but don't worry. I'll be right with you all the way, and I'll stand between you and the traffic." I felt much better, but my heart still pounded. When the cars started up after sitting at a light, they roared like a pack of lions that I knew was preparing to charge at me. We stood through several cycles, this time listening to the traffic patterns rather than the signals. We waved off the usual well-meaning drivers and occasional pedestrians. I was beginning to have a sense of the intersection now, realizing that Prince Street went two directions while Alamo went one way.
"Okay, sis, you say when we should go." My cane hand shook and my feet felt like blocks. The cars coming toward us started to roll, so I stepped into the street with all the enthusiasm of heading for my own execution. "You're doing great," Finn said. "Just keep those cars and me on your right, and you'll be fine." Dirk had come up on my left, so that both men kept me in line with their canes when I strayed a little to the right or the left as we crossed. I felt this incredible sense of warmth and protection just from the occasional gentle tap of their canes against my shins. When we arrived at the other side, I heaved a huge sigh of relief.
About a month into my training, Dirk announced that the time had come for me to cross a busy intersection on my own. This put me into a panic far worse than anything I'd ever felt about setting foot in a formidable research library for the first time, walking into my Ph.D. qualifying exams, or going on my first job interview. This was, after all, literally about life and death. "Doc, you've got what it takes," Dirk reassured me. "But I'll let you off easy this time. You just cross that intersection at Prince and Alamo--the one you did already with Finn here--continue up one more block, and we'll meet you after you've reached the next corner. You leave now; we'll follow in ten." Somehow, knowing that my mauled body would be found reassured me enough that I set off.
I realize blind people travel busy intersections all the time without holding a press conference. But I freely admit that I burst into tears when I made it to the right spot, determined when to go, and walked a straight line to the other side, all this without being run over. I'm not talking figure of speech here: there was a lump in my throat, and soon the outer foam covering of my sleepshades was soggy. Few peacocks have displayed more pride than I did walking to the next corner, where Dirk and Finn came up from behind to congratulate me, slapping my back and giving me high fives.
Then a terrifying thing happened. Just after Dirk asked me to analyze the traffic pattern of the new intersection, I felt something heavy collapse against my legs. Even before regaining my balance and tearing off my sleepshades, I realized that it was a human body. Finn, my biker buddy and protector, a large man of considerable bulk and a serious diabetic, was having some kind of seizure. He had slid down onto the pavement, where he lay motionless at my feet. Dirk reached into his pocket for a handful of sugar candies that he always carried for his own emergencies and tried to feed them to Finn, who seemed barely able to chew, let alone swallow, and who was definitely not lucid. I pulled out my cell phone, ready to call 911, but Dirk dictated a number, which I immediately dialed, assuming it was some diabetic hotline. But it turned out to be the number of the CCB. "Doc, just hold the line," Dirk commanded in a calm, authoritative voice. "When someone picks up, have them send one of the sighted employees with a car to the corner of Prince and Main. Our friend here just needs to get his blood sugar up; that's all."
Meanwhile, cars were driving up and asking if we needed help--we must have looked pretty needy at that point, three blind people at a street corner, one of them horizontal among the hardened chunks of dirty snow. Dirk waved them off, saying that we had the situation under control. I didn't feel so sure, but he was my teacher and seemed knowledgeable about diabetic crises.
I felt torn in many directions as I found myself in voice-mail hell waiting for a live human to answer. Sure, I had never experienced this kind of thing before, but here was a guy on the sidewalk, someone who I heard had just been in the hospital for a minor heart attack. Were we carrying this macho independence thing too far: blind people can do anything, so why ask for help in the face of death? To my relief, I heard a siren--apparently a passing motorist had called 911 anyway--and within seconds paramedics had pulled up. They loaded Finn into the van, sped off to the hospital, and that was the last I saw of him.
Until later that afternoon, when my big brother strolled into the center bitching about them cutting off his Harley shirt so they could give him injections. "Shit, man," he said in his gravelly voice, "that was my favorite shirt. But hey, I needed the shots. Oh well, gave up the bike and now the shirt. Fair trades for my life, I guess."
Not surprisingly, the experience with Finn prompted some soul searching on my part. Would I have felt the same way if a sighted person had been there all along? Was I unable to trust someone's judgment merely because he was blind, and did this tap into my own lack of confidence, which I'd felt since childhood, the very thing that had brought me to the Colorado Center for the Blind in the first place? Or could my biker friend have been the victim of Dirk's NFB machismo, his need to prove that blind people could survive on their own? If this was so, then blindness could have killed Finn--not because it made him pathetic and powerless but rather because someone had selfishly sought to prove that blindness was not these things. Could I trust Dirk not to make me a martyr to the Cause by leaving me in a similar circumstance if I really needed help? Suppose the ambulance had not arrived when it did.
As much as I wanted to vilify him, I had tremendous respect for Dirk, who, it turned out, had been completely on target regarding Finn's situation. In fact he had been on target about everything, just as he had been thorough, serious, and measured as a teacher. And ultimately I knew I had agreed to take certain risks by participating in the program to begin with; if I truly wanted to confront my worst fears about blindness, this was not the time to walk away.
With a strange combination of caution and renewed resolve, I threw myself back into my training. Once I could get a little distance, the experience taught me that the desire to be safe and the drive toward taking risks conflict with each other at the same time that they operate in tandem, not unlike our "masculine" and "feminine" sides. We humans must feel safe enough to take the risks that make life worth living. But at times we must also put ourselves in difficult, unfamiliar situations to find the safety we crave. Blindness--and perhaps other disabilities--puts this dynamic into a new perspective, forcing us to see how complex something like safety really is.
This is why, a few days later, when Dirk barked, "Okay, Doc, show us the way home!" I eagerly turned to lead him, Gavin, and Finn back to the center in time for lunch. I wanted to push past my fears of collapsing and struggling alone. I wanted to prove that I didn't have to be the helpless little blind girl who preferred to follow just to be sure I would be safe.
But simple resolve is never enough, as I learned all too quickly, for in my distraction and need to appear confident, I missed some irregularity on the sidewalk and pitched forward, falling flat on my face. Thanks to the protection of the thick, foamy sleepshades, I had only a few minor cuts on my chin, lips, and hands, and a mouth full of gravel that I tried to remove with little delicate flicks of my tongue. "Just spit, Doc," Dirk said, almost tenderly. I hesitated. Good girls don't spit, especially not good little blind ones who have no way of knowing where it might go. "Well, Doc, what are you waiting for, the Red Sox to win the World Series?" Clearly now I had no choice but to gather up the full contents in my mouth and let it fly. "Hell, woman!" he exclaimed, "I believe you just spat on my cane!"
Later in our travels Dirk's cane, which he said with pride had been held together with his infamous duct tape, finally split in two. "I've put hundreds of miles on this baby, all kinds of weather, all kinds of streets," he said with what could only have been nostalgia. "Now the old duct tape won't even hold her." He guided each of our hands to the damaged portion so we could see how well it had held up until the bitter end. When I asked Dirk if he would miss that particular cane, he said, "Nah, I'll just get a new one and call it ‘Widow-Maker,' the same thing as the one before and the one before that."
Heading home to the center, Gavin announced, "Hey, you've got some pretty powerful spit there, Cathy K."
"Positively toxic," Finn chipped in. "Took Dirk's cane clean apart!"
Dirk spat what I imagined to be a wad of well-chewed snuff into the street. "Not bad for a girl," he laughed, patting my shoulder, "not bad at all."
It all did come down to spit. Dirk, a sensitive guy who had experienced firsthand the fall from mainstream society's masculine grace, showed both men and women how to cast off our feminine selves to counter the stereotypes of helplessness triggered by the sight of a white cane. Even though I suspect that my teacher's macho approach to travel covered over real fears, I gladly took up his invitation to march across the gender line. But of course I could never be a man. Instead, if I wanted to emerge from the nongendered hinterlands to which the double stigma of femininity and blindness had banished me, I would have to make my way to some new place where I could consider different ideas for my feminine self. Holding my cane, I wondered what a woman could possibly do with one in public to make it her own in a way analogous to Dirk's Harley. There was always fashion. But even if a long, elegant cane seemed more chic than a short, stubby one that folded into pieces, I still wanted to strut and spit and fix my fragility with duct tape.
Okay, so maybe it is about the phallus.
But it's also about acting in the world. Each time I trudged through Denver's ice and snow, faced packs of roaring cars, and picked myself up from a spectacular fall, I confronted the fact that I choreographed my gendered role to ensure my survival. So if Dirk had taught me to perform a new part as a blind woman, who was my audience? And would this be a onetime show or a lifelong run?
Years later, as I wait at a corner with my white cane, I realize that as much as my CCB show was for the entire world, a poor little blind girl still sits in the front row. Pathetic, but wanting to be bold, she is the ghost I could finally embrace after completing blind boot camp. And she is not about blindness; she is the little girl that every woman carries within, as all of us--blind or sighted--face the same choice: when and how do we take risks to strike that delicate balance between living safely and being a prisoner of an abstract place known as "home"? Dirk helped me understand that because blindness exaggerates so many expectations and fears, the blind-girl-turned-woman who wants to live a normal life has to push especially hard, perhaps even playing with gender now and then. So with my teacher's voice ringing in my ears, I step into the street. And with the grace of an elegant diva, I flaunt my long white cane, knowing I can spit like the best of the bikers.
Special thanks to Emily Abel, Tony Candela, Sumi Colligan, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Sandra Harding, Georgina Kleege, Kim Neilsen, Kate Norberg, the participants of the Cross-Cultural Group in Women's History at the University of California, Davis, and the organizers of the session at the American Anthropological Association Meeting in 2001, where I first presented this work. Above all, I thank the students and staff of the CCB, especially "Dirk," to whom I dedicate this essay. All names and some identifying details in this essay have been changed.
1 This is a compilation of statements from various NFB pamphlets available at <http://www.nfb.org/>. For the CCB's take go to <http://www.cocenter.org/>.
2 Statistical data from the organizations that represent those who teach blind people to travel support my firsthand impressions. The current directory of the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (available at http://www.acvrep.org/directory.aspx) lists 1,977 orientation and mobility instructors, approximately 1,504 of whom are women (418 are men, and thirty-five are of indeterminate gender based on first names), while the National Federation of the Blind's National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) lists thirty-nine certificate holders, eleven women and twenty-eight men (e-mail correspondence with Ronald Ferguson, Chair, NOMC Examination Committee, May 25, 2004).
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