Braille Monitor December 1986
by Christine Roberts-Boone
(Christine Roberts-Boone is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. She is also an instructor at the Nebraska State Agency. Her account of the visit which she and her husband made to England last December appears in the Spring, 1986, issue of News from Blind Nebraskans, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. It underscores the progress we are making and demonstrates the fact that certain parts of the more conservative American establishment are being left behind in progressive thinking.)
As many of you know, in December of 1985, Doug and I traveled to England to participate in a seminar on the feasibility of blind persons' acting as cane travel instructors (or "mobility officers" as they are called in that country.) The invitation came about because of the interest and determination of a man named Allan Dodds, a senior Research Fellow in the Blind Mobility Research Unit at the University of Nottingham.
In September, 1984, Dr. Dodds had paid a visit to our Nebraska agency to learn how it is that blind people here can teach cane travel. At that time I had the pleasure of meeting him and he spent a few days observing my travel classes and learning about NFB philosophy as it relates to the teaching of travel. Upon his return to the United Kingdom Dr. Dodds prepared a paper describing his experiences in Nebraska. It was then decided that a seminar should be held so that the issue could be thoroughly discussed. Dr. Dodds was able to convince the Royal National Institute for the Blind that it would be most helpful to have a practicing blind travel instructor present at this seminar, and I was lucky enough to be asked to attend.
We arrived in London on Sunday, December 8th, and had time for sightseeing before traveling to Nottingham on Tuesday where we spent a wonderful day with Dr. Dodds and his family. We took a tour of the University's Research Unit which was followed by a magnificent evening of entertainment in the historic heart of Nottingham.
Early next morning we caught a train back to London and proceeded to the RNIB headquarters. Upon our arrival we met David Mann, immediate past President of the NFB of the United Kingdom. David was kind enough to invite us to dinner later in the week, and we enjoyed a delightful evening with him and his wife, Kate, in their London flat.
Meanwhile, back at the RNIB, David showed us the canes which are used by blind travelers in Britain. There are three kinds of canes available, and the individual chooses one, depending upon the amount of vision he/she has.
The "symbol cane" comes only as high as the person's waist and is used merely to identify oneself as "a person who cannot see very well." The "guide cane " comes midway between the waist and the sternum and is mainly used for identification as well. However, this cane is long enough to be used to find curbs and steps if that is necessary. The "long cane" reaches as high as the breastbone and it is used as a travel aid. People must hold this cane at arm's length in order to get any environmental information. Consequently, one looks a little odd walking down the street, arm stretched out ahead, cane wildly swinging. You see, these canes are still so short that they often do not touch the ground when they are in use. According to Kate Mann, many people do not want to use long canes, though they need them, because they feel so conspicuous when using them in the customary manner.
Following our meeting with David the seminar began. It started with a coffee hour which afforded us an excellent opportunity to meet and get to know many of the people in attendance. Most of these people were "mobility officers " or "rehabilitation officers" from various locations throughout England. Nearly all of them were very open-minded with respect to blind people working as cane travel instructors. They were all amazed at the length of my cane and several times during the day I was approached with questions about how it was that I was able to travel about so freely. Even the best of the blind at this meeting spent much of their time going sighted guide. I must emphasize that this is not because they do not want independence or because they think it is recalcitrant to travel alone. Rather, they have never seen a blind person with little or no residual vision who was able to travel alone with any degree of success or grace.
The seminar began with Dr. Dodds presenting his findings and asking some questions which had not been answered during his visit to Nebraska. He was followed by a man named Walter Thorton, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Mobility Center. Mr. Thornton is a blind man who received his travel training at the hands of Stan Suterko of the infamous University of Western Michigan. Mr. Thornton does not believe that it is good or safe for blind people to teach travel; however,his comments were far less damaging than we had feared they would be after reading some of his letters in the New Beacon magazine. I was given a chance to speak after Walter Thornton had finished, and during the buffet luncheon which followed Doug, and I fielded many more questions.
In the afternoon there was time for public comment which was almost entirely supportive. In fact, there was only one woman who thought we were crazy even to consider such an idea; the audience was quick to express its displeasure with her position. Finally, Dr. Dodds, Walter Thornton, and I gave our final speeches and it was time to make a decision on what action, if any, was to be taken on the matter. At length, it was agreed upon that a blind travel instructor would be hired to work at the orientation center in the southern part of the country. This individual would, of course, be employed on a trial basis, but what a victory it was for the blind people of Britain!
Much of the credit here must go to the people who came to our seminar with such open minds and with a genuine desire to learn and to share their ideas with us. Credit, thanks, and commendation also go to Allan Dodds, who truly shares our philosophy and our dream of independence for blind people. He has risked not a little in his continuing struggle to convince the English establishment that it is neither unreasonable nor impossible for a qualified and skilled blind person to work successfully as a mobility officer.
Yes, this is only a beginning, but what a beginning it is--for all of us!