Braille Monitor                                                                 December 2006


What A Relief!

by Denice F. Brown

From the Editor: Denice Brown is president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania. She has developed a healthy attitude toward the gradual vision loss frequently associated with retinitis pigmentosa. In the following article she describes the process of her evolution. This is what she says:

Denice Brown

Have you ever sat down to think about all of the reasons why you don't use a white cane? What excuses did you give? What tricks did you use to try to conceal the fact that you couldn't really see where you were going? How many times have you nearly harmed yourself--or someone else?
I have been thinking about these questions recently. I am a proud long white cane user now, but in the past it really took some soul-searching to get me to this point. It also took some eye-opening experiences to make me realize that I would be more independent and secure if I always used my cane.

What is it that really holds us back? I have asked many of my friends this question, especially if they are still not using a cane all of the time. Here are some of my thoughts.

My vision has slowly diminished over the years because of retinitis pigmentosa. This disease is a slow-moving degeneration of the retina. My central vision stayed intact for years, even though I had a great loss of peripheral vision and no night vision. I graduated from the public schools of Philadelphia, and I received bachelor's and master's degrees from Temple University. I was able to read all of my materials without any assistance or accommodations. The hardest thing I had to do visually was to find the subway steps when I was going to and from my home. I kept a fold-up cane in my briefcase, but I would always slide my foot forward in order to find the top step before going down a flight of stairs. A few times I missed that top step and tripped down the steps. I never tumbled or actually fell. I would always stumble down at an uncontrolled run and land on my feet. I understood how dangerous this could have been, but I still kept that cane hidden.

Riding public transportation can be challenging if you cannot see and are not confident enough to use your cane. Many times I was unable to see where the empty seats were. If someone said, "There's a seat, Miss," I would just ignore the advice or say, "I would rather stand." Sometimes, even though I was exhausted, I stood in order to avoid the embarrassment.

In navigating the city streets, I walked into walls, construction sites, signs, trash cans, traffic lights, people, information desks, doors, cars, and other things too numerous to mention. It is a wonder that I was never seriously injured. Despite all these warnings, I still never gave a thought to pulling out my cane.

In the spring of 1995 I encountered something that made me stop and think. One Saturday I was briskly walking in familiar surroundings in downtown Philadelphia. I was walking east and turned the corner to go north, trying to turn the corner widely enough so that I wouldn't clip the corner of the building with my shoulder. I proceeded north, and it suddenly seemed to me that I was somehow walking above the pavement. I was clearly stepping on something, but I didn't know what it was. I continued to walk forward, and all of a sudden I was walking on the ground again. For a moment I wondered what I had done. "Did I step into some kind of construction? Have I walked along a barrier? Was that a manhole cover?"

It seemed as though I stood there asking myself questions for quite a time, but it was only a few seconds. I turned around to try to see what I had stepped on. To my surprise I saw a homeless man lying on the ground. He was looking up, trying to figure out what had happened to him. He did not know what had happened, but I did. I had walked across his body. I had started at his ankles, and I came off at his shoulders. I did not step on his head because it was tucked into his chest. Yes, I had walked across him like a gymnast walks across a balance beam. I could have given myself a ten.

As the homeless man turned around, I thought, "What do you say when you have walked across a person? What is the proper etiquette?" Today I would ask myself, "What would Miss Whozit say?"

For the first time in my life I thought, "If I had used my cane, I would have felt that person. I might not have known what it was, but I would have known that I had to walk around it." I am grateful that that man did not know what had happened and also that he was not violent. That experience really made me think. I recognized that I would not change overnight, but I knew that I had to start thinking more positively about using a cane.

That was only part of my problem. I used to worry about what people were thinking about me. What would they think and say about my using a cane? Would people look at my big brown eyes and think that I was trying to deceive them? People often commented that I didn't look as if I couldn't see. Yet neighbors waved at me, and I did not wave back because I never saw them. I was confused. I did not want to be misunderstood, but I couldn't think of any way to make people I did not know well or know at all understand my situation. I felt a great weight of responsibility, and I wanted to lift it.

When I look back on those days, my worries seem foolish. Why should I have worried about what others thought? Why wasn't I thinking about my own safety and independence? Didn't I realize that the long white cane would take me to new heights? Didn't I understand that it was necessary that others know that I was blind?

It seems so simple now. If you want to be able to convince society that you are a first-class citizen, you have to show people how secure you are within yourself. Gaining security enables you to stand equal with other people.

So dust off those canes sitting in briefcases, behind doors, and under beds, some of which have never been taken out of their original packaging. Don't think about others first. Think about yourself. Think how much better off you would be if you used your cane. It will take you safely where you need to go. It will help you find obstacles with ease. Walk proudly into that job interview. Show the world that you are a force to be reckoned with. If you can do this, you too will be a role model for other members of the National Federation of the Blind.