The Braille Monitor                                                                                               January, 2004

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The Cane and I

by Judy Sanders

Judy Sanders
Judy Sanders

From the Editor: Judy Sanders is a longtime leader of the National Federation of the Blind. She now lives in Minneapolis. The following article appeared in the summer 2003 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Minnesota. Her story is similar to those of many of us who grew up before parents knew to get canes into the hands of their young blind children. Luckily, mastering the long cane is not like Braille literacy, much more easily done when started early. True, children who begin using the cane as toddlers may well learn its value easily and naturally, but with determination and the inspiration of good role models, anyone can learn to use the long white cane at any point in his or her pedestrian life. Here is Judy's story:

It all began when I was ten. It should have started a lot earlier, but that's easy to say now. When my parents discovered that their baby twins were blind, they were devastated. What kind of future could they envision for their children? To find out, they began looking for blind adults from whom they could learn. They found two sources: a sheltered workshop that gave blind adults very limited employment opportunities, and a blind bowling league. They volunteered to drive people to the bowling alley. Unfortunately, they did not learn much from these contacts about what the future could hold.

My parents were practical people; they realized the importance of allowing us to explore our environment. The first thing to go was the playpen. We were encouraged to move around the floor and see what we could find. I am told that I never crawled; I scooted everywhere.

Later they began investigating our choices for a good education. In the 1950's most blind children were educated at schools for the blind. We were given a good foundation in reading and writing Braille and in other academics; however, no attention was given to teaching us how to travel from place to place safely and independently--that is, until I was ten.

We learned about inside safety. Trailing the walls and holding our hands in front of our faces for protection from overhead objects was the first lesson. We all felt ridiculous hiding our faces, so we never used this technique except during lessons, when we had no choice. To this day I have never met a blind person who travels this way.

My first cane was a short, crook-handled aluminum cane. It was heavy, and I never relaxed while using it. For one thing, I used it only during lessons; no one made me use it at other times, and I was not motivated to do it on my own. In fact, I felt very self-conscious when traveling with this cane. I knew people were staring at me. I knew that some blind people made a living by begging on the streets, and I had heard that they carried tin cups with a picture of a white cane on them. I did not want to be one of those people.

Though adults assured me that it was not necessary for me to use my cane when traveling with sighted people, I was also told I was amazing for what I could accomplish with the cane. My instructor was invited to speak to various civic groups, and I remember being asked to demonstrate the cane. I walked from my chair to the edge of the stage and the audience gasped because I stopped just in time to keep from falling into their laps.

Throughout high school and college I used a folding cane and carried a purse big enough to hide it. My college friends would meet me and take me from place to place. I now know that my social life would have been much more satisfying if I had asserted my independence. I would then have been equal to my peers.

Upon graduating from college, I was introduced to the National Federation of the Blind. People were talking about going to a national convention in Houston, Texas, and I considered joining them. I weighed the pros and cons of this journey.

Pro: I wanted a teaching career, and I knew I would have the chance to meet other blind educators. Con: I would not know where to go upon arrival. Pro: I knew several people who were going, and I could stick with them--at least I would not be alone when getting lost.

The pro list won the day, and I had the time of my life. I cannot say that I magically transformed myself into an avid cane user, but I began thinking. I noticed how little effort it took for blind people to get around the huge hotel. They even left the hotel to explore the city. Why wasn't I doing these things?

In the next few years I came to know all that the Federation had to offer. My Federation friends have given me far more than I can ever give back. With respect to the cane, I have come to value my freedom to come and go as I please. I can take pride in saying to my sighted friends and colleagues that I will meet them somewhere. I now travel thousands of miles each year alone and don't think twice about it.

Times have changed. Not only do we have an organization for parents of blind children, but because of the National Federation of the Blind we now have adjustment-to-blindness training centers operated by blind people to teach the use of the cane and make the students proud. Blind people are equal partners in today's society, and the cane is one reason why.

I now travel with a lightweight, fiberglass cane and it stands straight and tall. I no longer need a purse in which to hide my cane, and I can smile at the people who stare at me.

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