WE DON'T HAVE NORTH HERE

by Barbara Pierce

People tend to be curious about blindness. Perhaps the single item which arouses the most curiosity is how a person can, without seeing where he or she is going, move about without assistance both inside and out. Despite appearances there's no magic involved. Barbara Pierce addresses the subject in the story that follows. Here is what she has to say:

Blindness is both frightening and puzzling to most people. It's frightening because most people depend completely on their eyes to tell them about the world, so the idea of moving and working and playing without that information is more than unnerving. It's puzzling because people have no notion how anybody could gather enough information using a cane to travel safely.

Some years ago the five-year-old daughter of an acquaintance began talking to her mother about the magic lady who passed their house every day. My friend could not imagine what the child meant until the day she called her mother to the window to see me walking past on my way to the hospital where I served as chaplain. I was moving my long white cane in an arc in front of me, and the little girl triumphantly explained that I had to be magic since I was there, and the leash was there, but the dog I was walking was invisible.

Even without believing in invisible dogs, many people tend to behave as though some sort of magic were associated with the use of the white cane. It doesn't seem possible to them that a person could move safely and confidently by moving a cane, listening to traffic noise and the echoes made by the cane tip, noting wind and sun direction, and feeling the contours of the ground.

In reality blind people depend on finding objects with a light tap of the cane and then avoiding them. The long white cane is very good at identifying cars parked across sidewalks, holes in the street, and parking meters.

It is hard for sighted people to believe that blind people really do know where they are and where they are bound. I have a blind friend who entered the elevator in her office building one morning to find that the only other passenger was a gentleman. As she stepped in, he inquired, "Do you know what floor you want?" She smiled and pushed the correct button, but she wondered what he thought she was planning to do in the elevator if she didn't know where she was going.

As a blind traveler I always appreciate receiving accurate information in an unfamiliar area. In my work I travel a good deal, so I frequently find myself in unfamiliar airports. I was once walking toward the ground transportation area of an airport new to me when I became aware that a man was following me down the almost deserted concourse.

My cane touched a sign post, and I detoured around it and continued toward the exit. The man said, "I don't understand how you walk so straight." I commented that I had obviously not been walking quite straight or I would not have touched the sign. He replied, "I have been watching you for a hundred yards, and I know what you've done. I explained that the public address speakers in the ceiling, the periodic metal strips running across the concourse, and the conversation of other people all helped me walk along the proper path.

As we came to the terminal, I asked him for directions to the escalator. Without a pause he said, "Thirty feet ahead at two o'clock." I thanked him and commented that he must be a pilot. He was surprised that I had guessed his occupation, but pilots, too, have to know where they are and how to talk about it. Many people find it hard to give good directions to a blind person, and sometimes the stress of giving directions is just too much. I will never forget a conversation I had with a member of the staff of a hotel in which I was staying for a week. On the first morning of my visit I was standing in the lobby with my secretary, asking her questions about the floor plan of the area. We were having a hard time communicating without using the points of the compass for reference. So I stopped an employee to ask which way north was. The woman paused a moment and then announced, "We don't have north here."

I assured her that even though the river flowing through the city meant that the streets did not run exactly north-south and east-west, compasses still indicated north in that part of the world, but she couldn't tell me which way it was. In the end I had to put my question to someone else.

In short, there is nothing magical about using a long white cane. It takes practice, common sense, and good information. You can help.