Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1997, Vol. 16 No. 1


These Canes Are History

by Patrick Barrett

Reprinted from the Winter, 1996, issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, the newsletter of the NFB of Minnesota.

Minnesota Bulletin Editor's Note: Our Metro Chapter of the NFB of MN held an essay contest on how the National Federation of the Blind has changed lives. This is the winner of that contest:

Any cane-using Federationist will tell you: one loses count of the many canes one goes through in an active life. Mine have been involved in car accidents where a hungry door has snapped its life short. Other Federationists, while rushing off to convention meetings or parties, have involuntarily abducted my cane. I must confess, I have been guilty of the same misdemeanor. Those canes are now, as they say, history.

My history with the cane began when I was a sophomore in high school. I was legally blind, and no one had suggested to me that I should use a cane, not even my itinerant teacher from the Idaho School for the Blind. One cloudy day, while crossing the street on my way to school, I did not look carefully enough. A car, not going very fast, bumped me over its hood down to the pavement. I was not really hurt, but was badly shaken.

I went to traffic court. The judge asked me how fast I had been going. My mom said, "Your Honor, Pat is legally blind and does not drive." The judge did a double-take and looked at the officer, who nodded. I was found negligent, and the judge "sentenced" me to use a cane--for life. That was one of the best things to happen for my independence.

I attended my first NFB National Convention in Chicago in 1975. No longer was I using my aluminum fold-up cane that would at times fold-up while I was crossing the street. I was carrying my straight, solid Rainshine cane. I got this cane when I attended the orientation training center at the Idaho Commission for the Blind. I still use this cane when I want to "rough it." Anyway, the NFB Convention was my first significant exposure to blind people. I marveled at how Frank Smith, Norm Gardner, and hundreds of others swiftly got around using their canes. One realization hit home during this fast-paced enlightening week of activity: All these blind people were working and raising families as if this was just the most natural thing in the world to do. I decided then that I would no longer regard my blindness as a "barricade" or consider myself courageous for trying to go around this barricade. I was relieved with the revelation that blindness was simply a part of me. It was no more noteworthy than my brown hair.

The summer of 1980 saw some serious pavement pounding. I was now using the 59-inch hollow fiberglass cane. The end of June was my first NAC tracking expedition in Boston. 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity didn't keep us (Federationists) from carrying picket signs and distributing flyers. I was handing out flyers in front of the NAC meeting place. One passerby wanted several, but I was suspicious he might be a NAC-ster. I just gave him one.

From Boston I went to Minneapolis to the NFB National Convention in July. I met Trudy there, and we married in August of 1979. Later we returned to Minneapolis and our canes tapped together down Hennepin Avenue with hundreds of other Federationists toward the Minneapolis Society for the Blind (MSB). We were protesting MSB's refusal to allow fair representation of the blind on its board. Joyce Scanlan, armed with a megaphone, was demanding that Jessie Roston come out and listen to the largest organization of the blind. Our canes were trumpets, tapping a chorus to topple the walls of old outmoded, paternalistic ideas.

Another outmoded idea is that blind kids shouldn't use canes until they are older. I believe that blind kids should use canes from the moment they start walking. At our 1992 NFB Convention in Charlotte, I smiled to see all the toddlers using canes. At that same convention I lost my cane while holding an elevator door open for several people. I must have positioned my cane just wrong and, whoosh, down the shaft it fell. That cane was history. Looking back, I guess it was callous of me not to give a short eulogy over my thin white friend.

Next day, over my grief, I visited Jerry Whittle at the cane table in the exhibit hall. Jerry still teaches at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I asked him for a 61-inch cane. In his smooth, southern, salesman voice he said, "Why don't y'all try a 63. It'll give you more notice and y'all walk faster." I was skeptical because the dang thing almost touched my nose. After two weeks of testing, however, I was sold on it.

Russell Anderson, my travel instructor at BLIND, Inc., paired me with a 65-inch cane in 1993. It was with me during travel routes, rock climbing, and canoeing. (Though in the last case we both--my cane and I--went overboard). Thanks to Coach Dan Harman we realized the thrill of victory after muddy feet.

In 1987 Trudy and I adopted our daughter, Raeann. Raeann has learned from infancy that mom and dad's canes are ways to get our family to the zoo, church, or the library. One time when Raeann was three the librarian asked her, "Are you a big help to your mom and dad?" Raeann's reply was immediate and firm, "My mom and dad help themselves."

Dr. Jernigan taught us in his banquet address, "Blindness: Is History Against Us?" about Zisca and other great blind leaders throughout world history. Their dreams and drive made them leaders. In my NFB history, many sighted and blind role models have inspired me to go for the goal of independence. I no longer strain to see the ground. With cane in hand and head held high, I view the future with optimism. That's the bright baton of understanding I want to pass on to blind and sighted citizens.