Future Reflections Convention 1992, Vol. 11 No. 5


by Gary Wunder

     From the Editor: Gary Wunder is an articulate man of greater than average sensitivity and insight into the human condition. He is also a father and husband; a member of the National Federation of the Blind National Board; president of the NFB of Missouri; and he has been blind since birth. With those characteristics and credentials, it is no surprise that Gary has often been asked to speak at our National Parents of Blind Children Seminar. This year, at the North Carolina 1992 seminar, he was one of two presenter's speaking on the topic of mobility. Priscilla Ferris, who is president of the NFB of Massachusetts, spoke first. Since she is a dog guide user, she talked largely of the myths and misunderstandings which surround the use of the dog; but she also urged parents to get their kids white canes and cane instruction early in life. Mr. Wunder then began his presentation. Even though the agenda title of the two-member panel was "Mobility and Integration," Mr. Wunder's speech clearly suggests another, perhaps even more appropriate, theme: "Mobility: Whose Responsibility is It?" Here is the edited speech of what Gary had to say about that question in relationship to his own childhood and current status as blind adult and father.

     Well, Priscilla said most of what I had to say. Are there any questions? (laughter)

     Priscilla was talking about people misunderstanding what dogs do. It strikes me that there is a theme in this which translates also to the cane user which is: Any time you--the blind person--are with somebody who is sighted, your mobility is necessarily the sighted person's responsibility. This poses a problem when you are, as I am, the blind parent of a sighted child. My daughter was four years old when we were out walking one day. Now, there have been times when my daughter knew that I knew everything and times when my daughter was sure I knew nothing. We were going through one of those "I don't think he knows very much" stages. Whether that happened because of something that somebody at preschool said to her about having a blind father, or because it just happens in the development of children, I don't know. So, we were out walking one day. I've always walked with a cane and I've always taken care of Missy--never had one accident whatsoever. But when we came up to the curb, she said, "Stop, Daddy, stop!"

     I was surprised and I said "Missy, I know to stop."

     "How do you know?" said Missy.

     "My cane falls off the curb," I said.

     "Oh, Yeah. Well, don't go Daddy, don't go."

     "Missy, I'm not going to go."

     "Well, you can't see the light!"

     "No, I can't see the light, but I can tell when to go by the traffic. Do you know what I mean?"

     "Huh, uh."

     "Well, when the traffic parallel to me is going, it's safe to go. When the traffic perpendicular is going, it's not safe. Do you know what I mean?"

     "No, what's perpendicular?"

     So I explained to her that parallel is that traffic moving on my right and perpendicular are those cars sitting out here in front of me. We waited a while, and Missy says, "Go, Daddy, go." I said, "Missy, the traffic in front of me is still going. It's not safe."

     She said, "I know. I just wanted to see did you know." (laughter) (applause)

     So we cross the street when the light (and the traffic) changes. And no sooner do we get across than this woman bends down and gives my daughter a hug, and she said "Oh, you do such a good job with him." (much laughter) So, again, it's the public misperception that it's the dog--or the child--with the blind person who knows everything, and it's the blind person who is necessarily dependent in travel; and that's wrong.

     I can't overemphasize the importance of independence when it comes to having a positive self-concept. Whether that independence is used to go down to the store to get a loaf of bread  or whether it's to do something that seems as trivial as being able to  get up and walk off in a huff when you're having an argument, the ability to be mobile is terribly important. The difficult thing for blind people is that you learn dependence at a very early age. The problem with this is that we don't grow out of it like other people. Children at a year and a half or two years old are all dependent whether they are blind or sighted. Parents hold their hand every place they go. The trouble is that at six and eight years of age, we're still doing that for many of our blind children. And while on the one hand blind children sort of resent that and wish for freedom, on the other hand they have come to think that this abnormal dependency is a pretty normal thing—for blind kids.

     When I was growing up you didn't get a cane when you were six or four or three years old. The cane was a thing that my parents put off for as long as they could, and they did it with support of educators. For them the cane was, in a sense, a symbol. The cane was the thing which transformed me from being their blind son--which was okay--to somebody who might grow up to be a blind man. That wasn't okay. So, I didn't see a cane until I was about eleven years old.

     When I was in elementary school I was taught that I could read and write efficiently, but my mobility was something else. I was one of the kids who formed a giant human train whenever we went anywhere. We all got into a big line, a line which was led by a sighted teacher. We all followed along. Because blind people were necessarily less mobile than everybody else, we got to go to lunch early. We were the first in the line; the first out to recess; and the first in from recess. We were always in the train.

     Your blind children don't have to do that today because more and more people are accepting the fact that if you give a blind child a cane he or she can learn to get around on his own. I thought it was a big deal when I invented a technique that would let me walk around the block. It was called "slide one foot along the curb." I understand now that I am not the first person who invented it, but at the time I thought about marketing it to other blind people. It seemed like a really good idea to me. It was a lot more fun than being hooked up to somebody all the time.

     I remember in high school playing lots of gimmicks and tricks because I didn't have mobility skills. I remember being told that if you had to use a cane at all, you used it only when you were outside. If you used it inside, you'd trip your classmates. That would be a terrible thing to do. It was irresponsible. Besides, who wanted to look any blinder than they had to? That was the line I got. So I remember in high school figuring out how long each period was and trying to arrange it such that I would strike up a conversation with a fellow student just before the bell would ring--especially if the student with whom I struck up the conversation happened to be going to the same class as I. Now, it's fine to have interesting, stimulating conversations with fellow students, but it's not fine to believe that that's what you have to do to get from one class to the next. Again, the reason I did it was that it wasn't considered acceptable to use a cane inside. A cane was an outside thing.

     I think at first I carried the cane with a certain growl; believing--like most people around me--that my mobility was really someone else's responsibility. I could hang on to somebody. The cane was only there when I couldn't force that responsibility off onto somebody else. I got lots of support for this attitude.

     As I said earlier, for a long time my family resisted letting me get and use the cane. They always guided me from one place to another. It wasn't easy to change this when I got to be eleven and was finally introduced to a cane. My brothers and sisters just assumed that somebody in the family ought to have a hold on me--if not one of them, then my mother or my father was supposed to hold onto me. I think we were taught that mobility was a very complex and highly scientific thing that had to be taught by the mobility professionals. If there were no mobility professionals around, well of course you had to hang on to somebody.

     What's worse is that we were taught that the only thing you could really be taught as a blind person in terms of independent travel was how to "route" travel. That is, how to go from point A to point B. If ever you were to introduce points C and D into that route, you needed to call your mobility specialist at least two or three weeks before you needed to know this "new" route. It didn't sound too exciting to me.

     I learned many things about mobility when I started meeting blind people who were independent travelers. I learned some of my best mobility from a blind guy who asked me at midnight if I knew how to get from building A to building B on the college campus. I said, no I didn't, and the mobility instructor wasn't coming until next Thursday. My blind friend said that he thought he could teach me how to get there now, and so we went out and learned it. He showed me how to use things like trash cans and telephone poles as landmarks. (The mobility professionals had always taught me to avoid those things). What amazed me most, however, about this experience was that I was being taught by someone who was blind. And he--my blind friend--was teaching me that it wasn't so important to learn this slick routine to get from A to B, but that I learn general skills that would let me travel safely.

     There's a tremendous difference between route travel and truly independent travel. It's strange that it took somebody who was blind to teach me that. But, I'm glad, too, because I knew that the guy who was blind didn't have professional certification. He was just a blind man who was looking for something to do at midnight and figured he could help out another guy. That was wonderful because at that time in my life, I didn't think that blind people could teach other blind people. Again, I thought mobility was a highly technical skill--and it isn't.

     I remember when I went for my first job interview. I wanted a summer job, so I went to the Kansas City Association for the Blind, which is a sheltered workshop. That summer I put together pins and put washers on bolts and did all kinds of things that made me a good little stash of money for a college student. My parents had never seen me travel without the benefit of a travel instructor, so my mother decided she was going to have me followed (just like one of the parents out in the audience.) She figured that I would catch her if she did it, (I'm not sure how she thought this) so she asked my cousin to follow me. My cousin at the time was probably about eighteen years old and rather scatterbrained. She was a nice enough kid but couldn't keep on task (that's the term we use for it now). So I got on the city bus and rode from South Kansas City to Downtown Kansas City, and while she wasn't looking, I got up and got off the bus. It wasn't until two or three blocks later that she realized I wasn't there anymore. She got off the bus and—not knowing where I was traveling to, only that it had something to do with the blind--went to a phone book. The first thing she saw was the Bureau for the Blind. She went over to the Bureau for the Blind where she and a counselor discussed what a wonderful kid I was while I continued on my way--unaccompanied--to the Kansas City Association for the Blind. So, it didn't do my folks a lot of good to have me followed; but they tried.

     It took me a long time to come to see my cane as a symbol of independence. I regarded it as something that I used only when I couldn't foist my mobility off onto somebody else. I want to tell you the story about how I got broke of that attitude. I started dating hot and heavy when I went to college. I enjoyed dating immensely. One night I went out to dinner with a woman. Because my date was sighted, I left my cane at home and went sighted guide. (I thought this was the way that the world worked if you were blind.) We had liver and onions that night and as I was cutting my liver and engaging this woman in conversation (I was showing her how witty I was), the plate moved closer and closer to the edge of the table and suddenly plopped off into my lap. Well, I was in something of a bind, and I was terribly embarrassed. When this woman asked if I wanted her to walk me home so I could change my clothes, I felt bad enough without also accepting the humiliation of having somebody--my date!--walk me home, so I said "No, I'll be fine." I had to walk six blocks home without a cane. There were several four-lane, lighted street crossings, and I didn't like that very much.

     After this experience, it seemed to me that carrying a cane was probably a very good thing. (I also learned to be a little more careful in cutting my liver.) For the first time I realized that I was responsible for my own mobility. I don't know why that was such a hard concept to understand. I guess after years of being taken care of by people--parents, sisters, brothers, friends, teachers, etc.--who had assumed that my mobility was their responsibility, I had come to consider that approach just normal.

     Priscilla talked a lot about guide dogs and canes. I used a guide dog for a time when I went to college. I enjoyed using my guide dog, so I don't have a thing to say against using guide dogs. However, I want to give you a couple of precautions which I think Priscilla would go along with. When I got my guide dog I got it because I had some trouble with orientation. I thought, somewhere deep down inside, that I would be able to give a dog a command that said I wanted 3402 West 52nd Street, and the dog would figure out for me how many blocks south and how many blocks west I wanted to go. This didn't happen. In fact, I would say that sometimes a dog aggravated my problems with orientation because I couldn't look for the landmarks which were so obvious to me with a cane. I had to know in my head where we were. The dog didn't let me get close to the trash cans or the telephone poles because he knew that was the surest way to get leash correction, but with a cane I could use these landmarks. With a dog I had to know, in some respects, more about my surroundings in order to get around.

     The second thing I thought the dog would solve for me was a certain tension I felt when traveling with a cane. It used to bother me when I would be clipping along with my cane and the cane would hit something. I would have only half a step to react. Well, if you have only half a step to react, you better travel tense; you have to be on your guard and quick to react.

     It wasn't until I came to an NFB meeting and somebody said, "Your cane is a couple of feet too short," that I realized that I didn't have to react in half a step; that I didn't have to walk with my elbow locked and my arm stuck our straight like—try holding your arm like this straight out in front of you for very long! This is what the specialists teach because they say that in order to be a courteous blind person you have to have a short cane that only comes up to your breast bone. Nonsense. Now I have a cane that comes up to my shoulder. Sometimes I have a cane that comes up to the tip of my nose. The length of a cane has nothing to do with courtesy. It has to do with good use. I like traveling with a cane much better now that I get a little over a step's (maybe two) worth of warning. I don't find travel to be the ordeal that I did before. With proper advice, I shouldn't have had to go through any of that.

     I don't know that I have a lot more to say except that I think there are a number of mobility techniques that people can use from time to time that are appropriate. Sometimes people tend to frame mobility issues in terms of "I'm fer it and I'm agin it." Do you use sighted guide or don't you use sighted guide? Do you use diagonal cane technique or don't you? Do you use the pencil grip or don't you? Is it good or bad? Do you use a collapsible cane or straight rigid cane? There are times and places for all of those things. I think the issue is to figure out when you're using a technique because it truly is the most convenient and appropriate for what you are trying to do, and when you're using it as a cop-out. If I want to have a conversation with one of you, and we are cutting through this convention crowd, it may be that I take your arm or you take my arm--whether you're sighted or blind. We'll do that because it is convenient and appropriate for what we want to do--have a conversation and stay together in a crowd. So, sometimes, yes, that may mean that with a sighted person I am going to go sighted guide. But do I give them responsibility for my mobility? Not anymore!

     Anyway, that's about all I have to say. I'd be glad to answer any questions that you have.