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The Braille Monitor,  June 2001 EditionThis is a line.

Reflections on a White Cane Seminar

by Brenda Houlton‑Aikin

      From the Editor: I often remind members of the NFB Public Relations Committee that we are all engaged in public relations all of the time. The work we do may be positive or negative, but we can hardly walk down the street without teaching someone something about being blind.

       This is particularly the case when we come together in conventions. All sorts of people are watching, listening, and drawing conclusions as we gather to teach each other what we know and discuss what we have learned about living full and productive lives as blind people in the community.

       In 1991 the NFB of New Mexico conducted a cane travel seminar at its state convention. Brenda Houlton-Aikin was a sighted member of the organization who had come to the convention mostly because of her friendship with Karen (Arellano) Edwards, who was a 1984 NFB Scholarship winner and who is currently a member of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind.

       Brenda deeply respected Karen, so she came ready to learn and open to new experience. She was impressed generally by the convention, but she was particularly affected by a cane travel seminar conducted by Chris and Doug Boone. Brenda recently came across the piece she wrote following this experience. She thought that it might be of interest to Monitor readers. The seminar she took part in was a far cry from the trust walks many of us have observed with dismay. Most of those who took part needed to learn all they could about using a white cane. The people who worked with them were blind, and the instruction was positive and substantive. This is the way Brenda Houlton-Aikin describes the event:

       My experience at the Cane Travel Seminar during the 1991 New Mexico State NFB Convention surpassed every expectation I had prior to arriving. I was eagerly anticipating being included in the seminar taught by Doug and Christine Boone. I pictured myself being confident and smooth because, after all, I would have the advantage of having seen the surroundings on my way to the meeting room.

       Christine opened the seminar by explaining that a cane should be chosen depending on the speed of the person using it‑‑longer for faster walkers, slightly shorter for those whom move at a slower pace. The point is to allow the length of the cane to give ample warning time to enable the person using it to stop when necessary.

       Doug helped me select a cane, and I went back to my seat to prepare for the lesson. I listened with interest as Christine explained how to hold the cane and why she had chosen the particular grip she used, holding it somewhat like a golf club. She explained that it worked better for her than the other commonly used grips. She emphasized that no style of holding the cane is right or wrong. Whatever works best for each person is right.

      Christine explained that the cane should move in a low arc from side to side, and she taught us how to determine if the arc was large enough for walking by practicing in an open doorway, touching each door jamb as we made the arc. She showed us that an arc extending an equal distance left and right is important to maintain a straight course and prevent veering to one side or the other.

       I practiced at my seat, waving my cane in the air at about knee height. "This isn't as easy as she made it look," I found myself mentally commenting as I watched the tip of the cane flail about in midair. The length of the cane necessary for my stride made it heavier than I expected as my wrist strained to maintain control of the movements and bear the weight. I should add that a cane is not heavy, but it becomes a highly sensitive extension of the human/environment interface, and to be useful it needs to be of sufficient length to give advance warning of changes to expect when you're walking at a comfortable pace. The balance between controlling the cane and permitting it to move freely and fluidly is a delicate one to maintain with relatively open‑handed strength. My confidence began to waver a little.

       Christine attempted to detail the merits of using the compass points of north, south, east, and west for giving directions since they remain constant while "left, right, up, over, down," and other identifiers tend to be relational. She also gave us some interesting information about using other sources of information to determine the path like the open sounds of larger spaces, the warmth of the sun, and the direction sunlight or wind is coming from.

       Some discussion followed about the difference between nylon tips and the metal NFB tips at the end of the cane. A few pointers were offered about taking care of the cane, especially while getting into and out of a car to prevent damaging the cane by closing the door on it.

       Remarks were added about where or how to set the cane down so that it is out of the way of others without being too far out of reach when it is needed again. The students were paired up with blind volunteer instructors. Veronica Smith said, "I'll take Brenda."

       Christine gave a gentle warning to those of us who were sighted and would be wearing sleepshades. "The hour you spend in this hands‑on seminar using sleepshades and a cane may be a frightening experience and will not be a true reflection of how it feels to be blind. Don't expect too much from this brief encounter in that respect."

      I was slightly perplexed at this cautious warning and began to suspect that I might not be able to fathom the many components of vision impairment or the impact it would have on a person's life. It didn't even occur to me that the exercise I was about to embark on would be sufficiently mind‑boggling and so fast‑paced as to require my entire capacity to process the information. I wasn't yet aware that I could not allow confusion or panic to thwart my concentration and my openness or receptiveness to the remarkable opportunity to learn about the cane and its use. I think that was the reason behind Christine's kind admonition. I was still so excited and, now, slightly apprehensive since my understanding of my skills and my preconceived notions were being tested.

      Doug provided a set of sleepshades, and Veronica and I attempted to round each other up. Not surprisingly, she found me first. Initially I put the sleepshades on, felt around with my cane, and lifted the sleepshades. "This will be easier if I get into a clear area before I begin," I reasoned.

       Veronica brought my thoughts back to the reality of the task at hand when she asked, "Are we ready?"

       I gulped, pulling down the sleepshades slowly, adjusting them carefully, and replied, "I guess so." I was a little disoriented at first and ran back through my early physiology lessons to confirm that equilibrium was associated with the ears, not the eyes, but I quickly adjusted well enough to my new state.

       Feeling off balance and disoriented had been one of my primary concerns, but anticipating Veronica's voice giving instructions and then tuning in to the feedback the cane was giving me distilled my concentration to the point that I seemed to forget my anxiety.

       We found our way out of the door; down two steps; turned west; and made our way through the crowd of other students, instructors, onlookers, bystanders, and passersby.

      "Gee," I thought, "just how many people showed up for this event?" My senses were definitely working overtime, and I shared my second discovery with Veronica. "I think sighted people believe that, when people lose their sight, they lose all of their perception." This seems to conflict with the concept that a person's other senses become more acute when vision declines, but it may actually clear up the apparent mystery of the supposed improvement of the other senses. The sighted population readily uses the information gained visually and ignores, disregards, or dismisses all the other sources of information that are present once the initial piece of visual data is processed by the brain. The general devastation regarding the loss indicates a heavy reliance on vision as the primary or even single source of information, and most people would not want to contemplate coping without it. But the other sources are there, and we do take the information in. It's only when the primary source of information is reduced that the other sources become more valuable and the skills capitalizing on them are honed.

      I realized I was caught up in my thoughts. I was analyzing way too much, and the task at hand demanded my full attention since I was receiving a lot of information and all of it was coming so fast I couldn't process or interpret it in the time it took to move down the corridor. I was truly astounded and amazed to feel how every tap of the cane resonated with such clarity. Not only could I hear the tap, but I could feel it as well. It gave such incredible clues to where we were and the general environment around us.

       Veronica began offering additional instructions. "The cane should arc left to right, and when it's on the right, your left foot should be extended. When it's on the left, your right foot should be extended. Kind of imagine you are kicking it back and forth in front of you kind of like a can on a string."

      "Oh no, this could be my undoing," I groaned, recalling my comical reputation for lack of grace. By this time we were almost to the elevator, and I couldn't give up now. I can hardly follow left, right, left without one foot being disastrously attracted to the other while using my vision. In any group activity where hands and feet are expected to follow instructions like "left foot up, right arm down," I'm the one in the crowd who appears to be following the beat of a very different drum.

       "Well, just keep up and try to work on it," I coached myself. I suggested that we make our way down to the parking lot and drop off my rather large purse. I described where my truck was on the west side of the building, about three cars down from the near end of the lot.

       Veronica was all for it. We encountered every pillar in the vicinity but made it there and back with relative ease. I began to realize that, in my eagerness and concentration on left and right, I had completely forgotten to worry about the claustrophobia I thought would also concern me.

       Veronica recommended we continue exploring the layout of the building. We went south, then west, then south, then east, then south, or was it north? "Could we be in another county by now?" I mused to myself. I found Veronica's bearings entirely more dependable than my own. We found ourselves in a strange corridor, split in half with a ramp on the left and stairs on the right. The temptation to raise my sleepshades was too great to resist, so I peeked around and found little or no assistance visually. The hallway appeared to go nowhere in both directions, and the ramp and stairs seemed to have no purpose.

       Veronica and I decided this was an acceptable halfway point in our excursion and now was a good time to make our way back. How we returned or, for that matter, from where, I haven't a clue. I've even been back to this same hotel and have never been able to locate where we had been.

       Veronica mentioned that I might stay on course a little better using a technique called shorelining, in which I tapped the cane against the wall consistently as I walked beside it. I'm certain this helpful pointer was prompted by the fact that Veronica was at the mercy of my elbows and cane as we walked side by side.

       We found the main entry of the building and attempted to pass the fountain and flora that we had been warned of by the distinct aroma of chlorine we had detected yards before we could hear the trickle of water. The pool and planters didn't have a raised edge or border of any kind, so ending up in them was a precarious possibility.

       As we made our final approach down the hall back to the meeting room, Veronica was describing the light, airy, open spaces. She asked if I could feel the warmth of the sun and whether I recognized where we were. I did for that brief moment, but, as we passed another warm, open spot, I realized that I didn't remember more than one window area. So much for my powers of visual observation that I had thought would be so helpful.

       Later I found I had seen the numerous windows in the area without making a point to commit them to memory as separate and individual objects, each with its own distinct impact on the environment.

       As we entered the meeting room, I felt both exhilarated and exhausted. As with any new exercise, this one had drained my energy both mentally and physically. We concluded the seminar with a discussion of our experiences from both the students' and instructors' perspectives. I felt I had done fairly well for my first time out, and on a scale of one to ten, one being "never again" and ten being "Lets go!" I would say this was easily a nine. I needed time to sort out all I had learned and get my energy back, but I felt undeniably changed and triumphant.

       When I attempted to describe my experience to my family and friends, I found they were mainly concerned with the sleepshades and the fear of claustrophobia just as I had been. I discovered that for me the sleepshades had blocked out a great deal of unnecessary information that flows to the brain visually. For someone with failing eyesight or only a bit of residual vision, the sleepshades would block out a lot of misinformation that makes walking more difficult or even dangerous and promote using the cane more fully.

      Correct information can mean the difference between stepping down off one level safely and a misstep that ends with a twisted or broken ankle. The sleepshades seemed to make it easier for me to tune in to the messages from other sources: the cane, sounds, air flow, aromas, textures, gradual inclines or descents, temperature, and many others. The sleepshades disrupted my normal habit of seeking automatic visual confirmation and dismissing the other information as unnecessary.

      I've gained more sensitivity and appreciation for all the information available and now try continually to tune in to my world more each day. More important, I believe I've gained more than exposure to a technique; I've gained insight into the habits that play a role in attitudes toward people.

       You can create a gift annuity by transferring money or property to the National Federation of the Blind. In turn, the NFB contracts to pay you income for life or your spouse or loved ones after your death. How much you and your heirs receive as income depends on the amount of the gift and your age when payments begin. You will receive a tax deduction for the full amount of your contribution, less the value of the income the NFB pays to you or your heirs.

       You would be wise to consult an attorney or accountant when making such arrangements so that he or she can assist you to calculate current IRS regulations and the earning potential of your funds. The following example illustrates how a charitable gift annuity can work to your advantage.

       Mary Jones, age sixty-five decides to set up a charitable gift annuity by transferring $10,000 to the NFB. In return the NFB agrees to pay Mary a lifetime annuity of $750 per year, of which $299 is tax-free. Mary is also allowed to claim a tax deduction of $4,044 in the year the NFB receives the $10,000 contribution.

       For more information about charitable gift annuities, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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