Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1
Walking with the Cane, Rule One
My first travel teacher taught us Rule One: "When the body is in motion, the cane is in rhythm." That means: tap the cane from side to side, one tap per step, about two inches beyond the width of your shoulders. Keep the tip low, but not constantly dragging on the ground.
The idea of Rule One is to clear an area, and step into it. Clear the next area, and step into it. You can do it faster than you can say it. As you step left, tap right; as you step right, tap left. As a beginner, you may think that swinging the cane beyond your shoulders is too wide, but you will learn soon enough that you need the width. With the right length of cane and using this technique, you can learn to walk safely and with confidence. You will locate obstacles and drop-offs, and be prepared for them. If you keep the taps at a steady two inches beyond your shoulders, it will help to even out your stride and keep you walking straight. In crowds or other close quarters, shorten up on the handle and narrow your swing. You are still a member of the human race, so remember your basic courtesies.
The cane, of course, will not find every small obstacle on the ground. It can go around an obstacle the size of a brick, but it will find things larger than that. Sometimes there are holes in the sidewalk, and the cane may go completely over a dip the size of a dinner plate or a place mat. True, the cane is not perfect, but nothing else is, either. Sighted or blind, everyone has stories of how they tripped over or stepped into something.
The cane can tell you what is ahead, but be sure to give it the chance to do that. If you are about to turn in an open area or go around a corner, let the cane clear the area before you step there. The headlights on a car point straight ahead and do not look around the corner before the car turns. With a cane you can and should check the area where you are about to turn and step; side-stepping can be dangerous.
There are many un-numbered lesser rules, but always remember Rule One: "When the body is in motion, the cane is in rhythm."
Planning Practice Routes
In the beginning a straight route is suitable. Try walking up and down your block a time or two while concentrating on Rule One. As you walk you may find a "shoreline" on one side: a wall, a fence, or grass. Let your cane touch the shoreline each time the swing goes to that side. It can help to keep you on course. Shorelines have breaks and irregularities which soon become landmarks to help you keep track of where you are. Soon you will be walking around the block, if your neighborhood is laid out that way, and returning to the starting point. You will find both fixed and movable obstacles, all part of cane travel.
How can you match your next challenge to your level of experience? You may just go a little farther every day. Guided practice can be helpful if you can get it, but I mentioned that at the beginning, so I will not belabor the point.
Going Up and Down Stairs
You're not going to be a flatlander for the rest of your life. Almost every building has stairs or steps somewhere.
You are at the bottom of the stairs, about to go up. Some stairs have hand-rails, and some don't, and you need to be able to use either kind. If you are using the hand-rail, put your cane in the other hand. Either way, The cane can tell you how high and deep the first step is. I slide my hand part-way down the cane and hold it diagonally across my body. The cane taps two or three steps ahead of my feet. Going up and down stairs is almost the only place I will tell you not to swing the cane from side to side. At the top, resume Rule One.
When going down, locate the top step first with the cane, then with the foot. Whether or not you use the hand-rail, hold the cane diagonally across your body. Let the cane tip slide off each step as you go. At the bottom, resume Rule One. There are complications such as landings with or without turns. No one can list all the tricks that architects can imagine. Let your cane go first, and pay attention to what it says.
After this, you will be going up and down the ordinary hills and valleys of the outdoor world.
Listening to Traffic on the Street as a Guide
Cars are a common part of the world we live in. Cars usually drive straight along streets and turn at corners. Yes, I know ... but there are crazy blind pedestrians just as there are crazy sighted drivers.
I have found that a steady stream of traffic is one of the best helps there is. By listening to traffic I can tell how far away the street is, if the street runs straight or turns, where the intersection is, and which color is showing on the traffic light. I use traffic as an audible shoreline.
When you are walking around the block for practice, I recommend that you do not turn the corner when you think you are there. Go all the way to the curb, then back up a few steps and turn. It is easy for beginners to turn too soon and find themselves without the expected landmarks. Now that you have learned about walking straight and listening to traffic, let's go on to crossing streets.
Crossing Streets with No Traffic
For purposes of practice, use a street with as little traffic as possible. Because many corners are rounded off for the convenience of turning traffic, you cannot just walk straight away from the curb. You need to find something as a guide to be sure you are starting off straight across the street. That guide may be part of the curb beyond the curved section at the corner. It may be the dividing lines in the sidewalk. It may be the curb ramp for wheelchairs, but be sure that the ramp is aimed directly across the street and not diagonally out into the intersection. It may be traffic either going your way or crossing in front of you. When you locate your guide, line yourself up with it so that you are facing directly across the street. Listen carefully to be sure that no cars are approaching from the side or around the corner.
Having checked your direction and your safety, step off the curb and walk. Go quickly without rushing. Remember Rule One. There can be obstacles or holes in the street as well as anywhere else. When you come to the far side, sweep the curb with your cane before stepping up. It is common to find signposts near intersections, and I have found some with my head because I didn't find them with my cane. Did you cross straight and arrive at the sidewalk? If not, and I don't always, myself, pause to make an educated guess from your surroundings, and make the necessary corrections. There you are across the street. Now you can go on your way.
Which Way Can Cars Turn At Intersections?
When you consider intersections, you need to know the directions and paths that cars take when they go through or turn. That is: if you are facing a street with the intersecting street on your right, and each street allows two-way traffic, a left-turning car can go from the middle lane on your right to the middle lane in front of you. If you are crossing then, the car will appear to approach from behind your right shoulder. If your experience does not include such information, it is time to learn. You can either observe for yourself or ask for help. There are many combinations of factors to know about including one-way streets, right turn on red, special turning lanes, traffic islands, and traffic lights to accommodate all of these. All drivers out there have to learn the rules of traffic, and you are just as smart as they are. Learn them one at a time as you find them.
Environmental Clues and Mental Maps
In some ways, this section is the heart of cane travel. By using your cane, which I do, or a little sight, which I do not do, you are only extending the range of your perception a few feet. By listening to the sounds around you and the nature of those sounds, you are extending the range of your perception for many feet, sometimes hundreds of feet. The mind has the greatest reach, and can consider distances from inches away to miles away, and objects the size of a bump in the sidewalk to a sports stadium. The mind can form a mental picture or map arranging landmarks along in the right order. Then it can check off each point as you pass it. The mind coordinates all your knowledge, information, senses and skills, so let us use this marvelous mind of ours.
Rule One says: "When the body is in motion, the cane is in rhythm." The cane is good at gathering short-range information for you to act on. The mind needs to be aware of the messages that the cane is sending. The cane sends such messages as: the next step is clear, stop, jog to the side, make a sharp turn, step up or down.
I am sure you have heard someone talking who, in the middle of a sentence, turned his head or put his hand over his mouth. You noticed the change in the character of the sound. The same kind of change happens when the speaker walks around a corner. We can learn to hear these same changes outside while we are walking.
When I became blind, I began to listen to sounds more carefully. Even when I was told about some sounds, I did not notice them. I learned gradually, not all at once. For me, "gradually" meant from a few weeks to a few years.
I found that the sound of a car driving down the street changed when it passed by a parked car or a tree. The first time I remember noticing that effect was when I was still sighted, but temporarily blind. That is, I walked between two parked cars in a very dark parking lot and "heard" them, even though they were standing still. What I heard was the sound shadow, the difference in the background sound as these large objects blocked part of what I heard. It makes no difference what you call this effect, but it may help you if you use the experience. Sometimes you can identify or locate an object by noticing the air currents moving around it, be it a natural breeze or caused by human action.
When you walk down a hall in a large building, you sometimes pass a door with noise coming out of it. You may approach the intersection of another hall where people are passing by in front of you. The time may come when you notice the open door or the intersecting hall just by the nature of the background sound.
There are more than the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. There is the sense in our muscles that tells us where our various body parts are. There are also the senses of time and distance. These two work together and can be put to use keeping track of where we are.
At home and work, I know about how big the rooms are and how long the halls are, so I get used to how long it takes to cross a room or to get to the end of the hall. Having gone far enough, I anticipate the next thing to do, which is usually to turn a corner or enter a doorway. When walking outside, we make use of the same senses. We just expand the distances.
One more of the senses is the sense of turning. This sense is not exact to me. I can identify turns better when I am going fast than when I am going slow. Sometimes I walk around a gentle curve and do not know how much I have turned, or that I have turned at all. I wish I could do better.
Once, just for practice, a friend and I stood between a table and a wall and tried to turn exactly 90 degrees back and forth. It helped somewhat. This sense, alone, is not reliable to me, but it is a help when combined with the other senses.
As a new travel student, I asked my teacher, "How can I go two or three blocks this way, and four or five blocks that way, and find the barber shop?" I learned later how much of a "beginner's question" that was. It is like the algebra student who comes to the first class and opens the book in the middle, only to ask, "How can I ever solve that problem?" The answer is that you start at the beginning, and later, when you pass that point in the book you find that it was just one more step along the way. Long ago I found that I could make use of general directions, and I did find the barber shop.
I can usually keep track of where I am by checking off local landmarks and noticing distances, but sometimes I do get confused, disoriented, or simply "lost." I ask directions or pick out a particular spot and do some limited exploring. I may have been a block short, 90 degrees off course, or even right on course but not aware of it. I may feel stupid for a minute, but I get "found" and go on my way.
I learn easily from spacial displays. I like two-dimensional paper maps, but they are hard to find.
When I think of where I'm going, I map out my route in my head. For some people, maps are of no help at all. They do not want to know north and south. Just tell them left or right, and how far it is. I can work from either kind of directions. We all have different abilities, notice different landmarks, and go on different trips, so use the things that help you.
Compass directions can be a very useful tool. First, you need to know that North and South are opposite each other, and that East and West are opposite each other. When you face North, West is to the left and East is to the right. Many cities try to have some orientation to the compass, but there are usually a few streets that curve or are just not straight with the compass. When walking inside a large building, it may be helpful to identify halls by compass directions.
Let me end this section with a set of directions I once gave to a friend of mine. "Go out of the building and turn left to the corner. Cross the street to the right and go south, down to the next corner. You need to cross the intersection both ways, and end up going left, east, for two blocks. That is where you come to the big, wide street with the traffic island on the far side and the separate light for the small street beyond it. When you get across there, turn right, and you will be going slightly down-hill. A little way down the block, the street makes a slight turn to the left. From that point on, there are several store entrances that are similar. The one you want is the fourth or fifth one, but it is the only one with a rubber doormat." He said he went right to it.
Expanding Your Horizons
If you are starting cane travel without formal training, you will meet these conditions in no special order. You can learn them as you come to them.
An experienced guide or teacher can be of help in judging the degree of your ability so as to present new challenges at the right time with the right degree of complication. Do you need more practice going around the block so you don't get confused crossing the alley? Do you still pass that store that is set back from the street? Are you keeping track of the landmarks along the route so you know when to turn into the office you wanted to find? On a round-trip, can you get back to your starting point?
Landmarks can be such things as a particular arrangement of signposts, mailboxes, lawns, bushes, driveways, barking dogs, busy streets, broken sidewalks, hot-dog stands and gas stations. I have deliberately mentioned things that you feel with a cane, feel with your feet, hear or smell. All of these things have, at times, been landmarks for me. Every blind traveler will develop his own local list of landmarks.
Do you need to take a route down a narrow sidewalk with parking meters every ten feet? That will help you learn how wide to swing your cane and how to get it untangled from obstacles. Do you need to take a route along a very wide sidewalk with crowds of people going both ways, or no other people going either way? That will help you develop your ability to walk straight.
By the way, what is "walking straight?" It is a matter of keeping the goal ahead of you and making a series of minor course corrections. As you gain experience in swinging your cane evenly, as you pick up a little bit of speed, as you make use of more landmarks, and as you identify more sounds around you, you will find that you are walking straight. I listen in all directions, but we usually walk in the direction we are looking, so keep your face straight ahead.
Every now and then someone calls to me, usually from at least 20 feet away, while I am crossing a street, "Straighten out, you're walking crooked!" Of course, had I known I was walking crooked, I would already have made my own corrections. It finally occurred to me that what these people are trying to say is, "You are going off at an angle to the desired direction, and it would be well to alter your course slightly." The person has an idea of what the ideal course would be, but they did not tell me which way to go, left or right. At times like that, I make a quick decision based on what is around me. Oh, when will people learn to be more specific and do it without informing the whole neighborhood?
As I walk down a block in either a business or residential area, I listen to what is around me and what is ahead of me. What is ahead soon becomes the next intersection. By the time I arrive I usually know what the traffic condition is and which street has the green light. If you can learn to add this trick to your list, it will keep you going more smoothly.
One Dangerous Situation to Avoid
Let me tell you of one time not to cross a street. When a car that could go past stops, and the driver calls to you, "Go ahead, I'll wait for you," and especially if there is an empty lane beside the car, do not cross. The time will come when a second driver will not see you and will zip past at speed. Why not? The lights were with him. I have narrowly escaped injury in such a situation. I went to the funeral of a couple who were caught in just such a situation. Having learned my lesson, I sometimes have to turn and walk away from the curb a few steps in order to convince the driver that I will not cross then.
Crossing Big, Busy Intersections
Busy intersections usually have traffic lights with lots of cars going through. I use the sound of the traffic to show where, when, and how far I need to go. Consider the possibility of such things as traffic islands and multiple phases in the traffic lights. With as much traffic as there is, you could line up your shoulders parallel with the cars crossing in front of you, or find some mark on the sidewalk to point you straight across the street. Do not start part-way through a cycle on a "stale green" light. I am always wary of people who tell me, "You can go now. There's no one coming." Where I live, drivers observe traffic lights more strictly than pedestrians do.
The movement of traffic tells me when the light changes in my favor. I may pause, but just for a moment, to be sure that no cars are turning in front of me. It is time to step down and walk quickly, using Rule One. If there are other pedestrians, go with them. There is some safety in numbers. I listen to the cars going my way, and follow the direction they take. This is the time to listen, feel, and think in all directions. Sometimes there is turning traffic for which you must either speed up or slow down. The other side of the street really does exist, and you can get there. By now the last of the cars going your way are passing you on one side, and you are passing the cars waiting on the street you are crossing on the other side of you. Now here is the curb. Sweep it off, step up, and go on your way.
What Goes Through My Mind While Walking Down a Street?
When I was a child I used to hear of people who could dance and talk with their partner at the same time. I thought they had to be very good dancers to do that. When I grew older and learned to dance, I found that it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. When a blind person walks down a sidewalk, swinging a long white cane, some of the same physical and mental coordination is going on. When walking with a cane you coordinate your own speed and rhythm with your surroundings. There are lots of things you anticipate, notice, and then pass by. Come along as I take a six-block walk through a downtown area.
As I get off the bus, I let the cane tell me if I am in the street or on the curb. It's a deep step to the street. The first swing of the cane finds the curb. The rest of the swing clears the curb, and I step up and go in about two more steps. Now I am at the sidewalk. Along this street there are sections of grassy tree lawn, so I have to keep back from the curb about this distance.
I turn right and get Rule One going. There's traffic in the street on the right, and I'll try to stay an even distance from it. It sounds like people standing and talking near the edge of the walk, so I need to curve around them. Now there's grass on the right, so let the cane touch it on each swing to that side. The grass won't last long, but it's a good shoreline while it's there.
Some lady in high heels is trying to trot past me. I must not be going fast enough for her. So what! I walk faster than some people and slower than others. I'll follow those heels to the end of the block.
I must be nearing the end of the block. I can hear cars crossing in front of me. I should go clear out to the curb on this block. I have turned to go around the corner too soon on other trips here and found myself where I didn't want to be and wasn't sure where I was. At a time like that I try to reverse my course and get back to a known location.
There's the corner with its wheel chair ramp. I back up a step, turn left, and get Rule One going again. There's no good shoreline on this side of the walk. On the return trip there's a good shoreline, a nice cement curb along the inner edge of the walk. Sometimes I drift over and take that side of the walk, anyway. This time I listen hard to the traffic on the right and keep it just so far from me. "Oh drat!" I got too close, and the tree is trying to brush my hair for me. People are approaching from ahead, so I narrow the swing of the cane on the left a bit.
There's traffic crossing in front of me, again. I need to notice how long it keeps moving since this time I must cross the street. "Five seconds--ten seconds." No, it changed. Now the cars are going my way. Will I have time to get there before the green light goes stale? "Ten seconds--fifteen--twenty." No, too late. Lights change every thirty seconds in this part of town, so I would rather wait for a fresh start. I'm not perfectly accurate on counting seconds, but I'm close enough to give myself a good idea of when to expect the lights to change. The light changes; no cars turning; I walk; and, what do you know, right up the ramp on the other side.
The next block has a wide sidewalk with tall buildings on the left. There is something going on at the lower edge of my awareness, and I don't think of it most of the time. Background noise reflects off this continuous wall of buildings, and "hearing that wall" makes it easier for me to keep a steady distance from it. These next four blocks have the same feature, but the only time I think of it is in the last block when an alley makes a break in the wall. The cane keeps swinging, according to Rule One, but that is almost as unconscious an act as moving my feet.
Both street and pedestrian traffic are heavier here. There is a person calling out at the far end of the block. Drawing nearer I can tell it is a woman selling fruit. I give her a little more space on the right. There is plenty of traffic to mark the intersection. Just as I come even with the fruit woman, there is a shift in the surrounding noise, and I have passed the buildings. Now which direction was the light green? I wasn't paying enough attention to that. There are cars crossing in front of me, so I'll just walk slowly up to the curb. There are plenty of cars and people to define the red and green light.
Here's the green light, and all the pedestrians are going, which means that no cars are turning. It's a wide street, and I go at a quick pace. At other times I have found a sign post half way across at the edge of the crosswalk, but if I keep to the right I should avoid it.
I do a mental juggling act to balance all the values. Don't get too close to the cars on the right; avoid the sign on the left; don't trip the pedestrians with the cane; here's the hump in the middle of the street; it's downhill from here; a car is turning the corner in front of me; pause, it's bigger than I am; and now, the curb, at last. Sweep off the curb, and--whoops! Don't step up here. There are several signposts in the way. Turn toward the corner with one tap of the cane in the street and one tap on the curb. Now the curb is clear, so step up, and just in time. Listen a moment to people and cars for a directional guide, and off we go again.
This block is rather uneventful, and here's the next intersection. There is plenty of traffic, so I know when the light's changing, and there it goes, just in time for me. It isn't quite a straight crossing, but half a step to the right is enough of a correction. I dodge left around the popcorn stand which shows itself in three ways. It blocks the sound of the cars behind it, a sound shadow; the vendor and customers are talking; and you can guess what the last clue is.
Now, for the last two blocks, and this one is plain vanilla. The light changes in my favor just as I pass the last building. "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand." There's the corner, and no cars turning. I still have time to make it.
The crossing is OK, and my building is almost at the end of the block. There's the alley which is about two-thirds of the way. It's time to cross over to the left side of the walk and tap the front of buildings with each swing of the cane.
What I want is a wide entrance with a foot-thick, metal-covered pole at the edge of the walk, but all the buildings here are even with the walk.
Here's a building, more building, a glass door, but it's not set back, more building ... "Bother!" There's the corner, so I passed it. Turn around and go back. There's the building; glass door, more building. Here are the setback and the pole, my building at last. Now it's just two steps and turn right for the swinging door.
Every trip is a bit different, even though some component parts are similar. Just disassemble the parts and shake them up before selecting the items for your next trip. If you keep your landmarks in mind, use your basic techniques, and pay attention to things around you; you'll get there.
Walking with Someone Else
The first thing to remember when you are walking with someone else is that you are still responsible for your own safety. The two times I suffered serious injury while walking were while I was with someone else. I falsely and foolishly gave over direction to the sighted person I thought was guiding me. In each case the other person considered that I was managing at least part of my own guidance. The other person may choose the main route, guide you around obstacles, let you know at step- ups and drop-offs, but it is essential for you to pay attention, too.
When I walk with another person, sighted or blind, I find it easier to stay with them if one of us takes the arm of the other. Not everyone likes that physical contact, so I have to divide my attention between where I am going and where the other person is. We can stay close enough for conversation, but the proximity is not as steady.
If you are with a stranger, or even a friend, it is polite to ask: "May I take your arm?" If they accept your offer, take their arm lightly or put your hand on their shoulder. Fall in step. Regardless of whether your companion is sighted or blind, continue using Rule One.
Some of my sighted friends and family members are used to guiding me, and I am confident of their judgment about speed, space, and obstacles. Sometimes I walk directly behind if the space is narrow. When the space opens up, I step up beside them. I do not always judge well where the other person's feet are, and step on their shoes. I try to judge their step by the sway of their body, but I don't always get it right.
Many guides, such as the people you meet at street corners who offer to help you across the street, are not familiar with how to guide. I may just muddle through, or I may take the time to say something like this: "It is easier if I take your arm. That way, you will be half a step in front, and I can anticipate my step by noticing what you do."
There are circumstances when I make good or bad compromises with the rules. With a guide I sometimes walk along with the cane diagonally across my body while making regular or occasional taps. Then there was the time, while rushing through the airport,I had a suitcase in one hand, my cane and a suitcase in the other hand, my guide had my arm and the third suitcase. We cut a wide swath, and I'm glad it was only an ashtray we knocked over and not a five-year-old.
Walking Without a Cane
We all walk without a cane sometimes, so let's talk about it. I remember the rule I read in a book about mountain climbing which said that you should always use a rope, but you should climb as if you did not have a rope.
When you are not using a cane, everything else in the environment becomes more important. Whatever you can find with any other sense organ must be evaluated as quickly as possible. In my own home, I try to keep doors open or closed all the way. I swing an arm through a doorway as I near it, just to be sure I am passing through it neatly. Sometimes I touch furniture as I go by. I pause at the top and bottom of stairs, and reach with my foot to locate the first step. When looking for a doorknob or light switch, I make more of a sweeping motion than a straight reach. I sometimes keep my arm across in front of my waist.
One thing I do not do is to hold my arms straight out with the palms forward in the traditional sleep-walker's pose. If I were that uncertain, I would use my cane. The cane looks better and is far more effective.
I walk more slowly without a cane. I do not use a cane within my own home, and rarely enough around my yard. But that is the boundary. Once in a while I will walk a short way around my neighborhood without a cane. And one time, because of freak circumstances, I was caught at night, five blocks from home, on the far side of a traffic circle without a cane. I walked very carefully and a little slower than usual, and made it, but I would not do it if there were another way.
Using a cane is a habit with me, and when I go out, I grab my cane on the way.