NO CANE, NO DOG!

by Bill J. Isaacs

Today Bill Isaacs is a college professor and one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. Now he helps others understand that it is respectable to be blind. But it wasn't always like that. Here he tells of experiences he had before he began carrying a white cane to let others know that he had very limited sight. Bill now uses a guide dog.

I grew up with tunnel vision due to a congenital disease known as choroidoremia. The females are the carriers, while their male offspring are apt to become blind. I had a visual field of about three to five degrees (twenty degrees or less is classified as legally blind). I could see color; I could read a little, although I could see perhaps only four or five letters at a time. On the farm I milked the cows; I worked in the garden; I hoed in the fields; I set tomatoes behind a planter; I even drove a Ford tractor with the wide front wheels, with which I plowed and cultivated.

Then, after graduating from high school, I went off to the big city, where I attended a business college for twelve months. Following the completion of my work at this college, I worked in a private warehouse office for a couple of years before taking a Civil Service exam, which led to a job in the U.S. Treasury Department, where I served as a claims examiner for corrections on income tax returns.

I was in my early twenties before I was even aware that I was legally blind. It's one thing to know that you are legally blind, but it's quite another thing to come to terms with it. I knew I had poor vision and saw virtually nothing after dark. I grew up in a small, quiet, rural community amidst a family of sixteen children, where nearly everybody in the county knew some member of the family. I never felt blind. I was usually with some member of the family, for everybody else around understood my situation better than I did myself.

Later, however, things were different. I faced new situations in the big city, where people didn't know me and I did not understand my own limitations. Later still, seven years after having graduated from high school, I enrolled in an out-of-state college to prepare to become a history teacher. That is when the bombshell really hit me.

I found myself surrounded by numerous strangers and a new environment which I did not know. It was not too difficult at first since my younger brother came to college and shared my dorm room, but after about six weeks because of both homesickness and lovesickness, he returned home and got a job and was soon married.

Mind you, I never used a cane, wore dark glasses, or even dreamed of using a guide dog. I told no one that I was blind. I got myself into awkward positions in crowded stairways and hallways. My limited vision did not adjust well from a bright, sunny day to the darkness of a building interior. I could not read room numbers identifying classrooms. I found it embarrassing and difficult to participate in activities after dusk. Games involving motion (such as football or playing tag) were out for me. The real shocker came one day when a veteran student, who had suffered torture in a Chinese prison camp during the Korean War, rather bluntly made the following remarks to me: "Bill, why do you come walking into the classroom each day as if you were the king of the walk? You never greet anyone. You march to the front of the room and across the front to the window side without acknowledging anyone."

I had to stop and analyze that comment a bit. I had to admit that what he said was true. I nearly always sat in the front row by the window side to get the maximum amount of light so I could see to take notes. When my body is in motion, such as walking, I have to concentrate all my powers on the small little patch that I see for mobility purposes.

Consequently, I did not see anyone—or if I did, it was only a small portion of their body, which was an obstacle to be bypassed. I think you can begin to see the picture here. The white cane would have been a silent answer to many questions. Out of my frustrations I went to my English professor, with whom I had developed friendly relations.

She encouraged me to talk about my problem as part of my speech requirement in that class. I did that toward the end of my first semester. Immediately thereafter, as news spread by word of mouth to other students and faculty members, my isolation and feeling of blindness evaporated.

Whether I was at the college, on a bus, or at a terminal, students and faculty alike understood my situation and often offered their services to help when they thought I needed them. Of course, that sort of thing can be overdone at times, but it can also be rather comforting to know that they know you are blind.

As I look back I realize how much easier it would have been if I had carried a white cane to let people know I was blind. I think particularly of an incident when I was working at the U.S. Treasury Department. In this job I rode in a car pool, where I was picked up at a busy downtown intersection. One Friday night when I thought everybody else was staying in town, a car pulled up and parked, and I opened the door to enter. Just before getting into the car, I heard a lady running up behind me towards the car, so I let her get in first. Then I got in.

After driving two or three blocks, the driver said, "Are you going to go to the bank with us?" As soon as he spoke, I knew he was not my driver. The lady thought I was with the driver, the driver thought I was with his wife, and I had embarrassingly to get out of the car at another busy intersection and get back to my place in a hurry—and with considerable difficulty. The white cane would have been the answer.

I finally started using the white cane about twenty years after I should have started with it, and now I wonder why I was so foolish or so ill-informed about it. If one has restricted vision, the general sighted public considers you blind whether you are or not. The white cane is not only a silent "answering symbol" that goes straight to the point, but it is a very useful piece of equipment. It does, as it were, extend your fingers all the way to the ground. It picks up many messages and relays them back to you better than the shuffling of your feet or the trailing of your fingers.

Of course, you will have some embarrassment when you first attempt to use a cane, but after two or three weeks of continual use, picking up the cane becomes as routine as brushing your teeth or putting on your glasses.