Future Reflections  Winter/Spring 2007

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What It Means to Walk with a White Cane

by Christopher Danielsen

Reprinted from the February 2007 issue of the Braille Monitor, a monthly publication of the National Federation of the Blind.

Chris Danielsen, third from left, proves that using a cane isn’t a sign of weakness.Editor’s Note: Everything that sparkles is not gold, and not everything you hear on television talk shows is true. Recently, a young blind teen made quite a stir when he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and announced that he can navigate the world just fine without using a white cane. Christopher Danielsen, editor of the NFB blog, Voice of the Nation’s Blind, recalls his own ignorance and arrogance as a young blind teen as he reviews and exposes the half-truths and mythology behind this sensational headliner:

The public holds two beliefs about blindness that seem to be mutually exclusive. One is the idea that blind people are generally helpless and incompetent. This belief is prevalent, as evidenced by an unemployment rate among blind people that stubbornly remains at around 70 percent. But coexisting with this view is the seemingly incongruous conviction that the blind are endowed with almost superhuman abilities. This belief arises from the myth that, when a person has lost one sense, the remaining ones become sharper to compensate for the lost sense--in this case eyesight. Thus the blind are believed to hear better than the sighted, which accounts for the musical talents of famous blind musicians like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Ronnie Milsap. It is also often assumed that the blind must naturally have extra-sensitive touch in order to read Braille.

Of course neither of these beliefs is accurate. The blind are not helpless and incompetent, at least not when we have acquired effective training in the alternative techniques of blindness. Nor are we superhuman; we have simply trained ourselves to use our remaining senses in ways and with an attention that the sighted do not usually employ. Our hearing is not sharper, but we are likely to notice sounds that the sighted tune out because they deem them unimportant, like traffic noise or the sound of an air conditioning unit at a building we pass on our way to the store that serves as a clue to where we are on the route. The fact that we are able to read Braille proficiently comes from practice and training, not from magically altered nerve cells in our fingers.

But though the public’s belief in the uncanny perceptual abilities of the blind provides little in the way of practical improvement to our lives--more job opportunities, greater social acceptance, and the like--it persists, and when the notion seems to be validated by a blind person, the media pounce on the story.

The latest blind media phenomenon of this sort is fourteen-year-old Ben Underwood of Sacramento, California. In the past several weeks Mr. Underwood has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, on the CBS Evening News, and in a number of print newspaper and magazine articles. Mr. Underwood navigates his neighborhood and high school by rapidly clicking his tongue and using the echoes from the sound to determine what is around him. Using this technique, he even zips around his neighborhood on roller blades.

Mr. Underwood’s seemingly uncanny ability to navigate exclusively by sound has been dubbed by the media “echolocation,” which is the name given by scientists to the ability of nocturnal creatures like bats to navigate by emitting sonar signals at frequencies that are too high for humans to hear and that allow them to locate and feed on flying insects. Some dolphins also use echolocation to navigate through the water by making clicking sounds. With television cameras recording the spectacle, Mr. Underwood went swimming with dolphins at Sea World to compare their methods to his own. Young Mr. Underwood did not seem to have any qualms about making a show of himself or about being compared to bats or aquatic mammals.

The concept of using tongue clicks to navigate isn’t new; another Californian, Daniel Kish, has been doing it for years and even teaches the technique to other blind people to supplement their use of a white cane or dog guide. Mr. Underwood has been using the technique since he was three, and, either through extensive practice or uncanny aptitude, he does appear to navigate quite well, at least within familiar environments. But unlike Mr. Kish, Underwood has publicly disparaged the tool with which most blind people navigate: the long white cane. With all the unrestrained hubris that only teenagers can regularly muster, Underwood declared on the Oprah Winfrey program: “I will never use a cane. A cane is for other people who cannot walk. I'm not falling over.”

This brash statement betrays both contempt for the long white cane and ignorance about how it is actually used by blind people. Mr. Underwood seems to confuse the long white cane used by the blind with support canes used by those who have difficulty walking. He has apparently never considered the idea that a white cane might provide even more information about his environment, since he would be adding the sense of touch to the sense of hearing for a fuller picture of what is around him. Nor does he seem to understand that the tapping of a white cane serves the same purpose for a blind traveler as his tongue clicks; the sound provides information about whether one is walking along a row of buildings or in an open space and what kind of material one is contacting. A glass window sounds different from a metal drainpipe.

Members of the National Federation of the Blind have often observed that the wisdom of learning and using alternative techniques is not always immediately apparent. I use a white cane every day, but I did not always do so. When I was a child, I roamed my subdivision freely on foot, on my bike, and on roller skates, using my hearing and limited light perception to navigate. Obviously I survived, suffering only the customary scrapes and bruises of childhood. But when I began to explore the wider world around me, with its busy intersections and large buildings, I gradually realized that I could travel more effectively in unfamiliar areas by using a long white cane.

My high school orientation and mobility instructor used to refer to the cane as “your tactual digital extensor.” In using the word “digital,” he was referring to the digits of the hand (fingers), not to modern technology. And the phrase, though partly a joke, was intended to remind me that I needed to think of the cane as a part of me, an extension of my hand that allowed me to touch a larger piece of the world than I could without it. That same instructor also taught me to listen to the way my cane taps bounced off objects, but he never encouraged me to rely on my sense of hearing alone. He always reminded me to pay attention to everything that my cane, in conjunction with my other senses, was telling me.

Even then I didn’t fully realize the importance of what I was learning or develop full confidence in the power of the white cane. It took six months of training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind for me to integrate the white cane fully into my everyday life. Since my time in Louisiana, however, I have never ceased to carry my cane, and I have never regretted that decision. The importance of the white cane is a realization for which I am profoundly grateful to my blind brothers and sisters. My white cane gives me more freedom than I ever had as a child when I did not carry it. Then I was limited to the confines of my neighborhood, a familiar environment and one in which, I suspect, watchful neighbors monitored my every move and would spring into action if I appeared to be getting into danger. Now I can travel anywhere I please, whether I have previously visited the place or not, with full confidence in my ability to navigate efficiently and safely.

Mr. Underwood is fourteen years old, and like most people that age he believes that he knows a great deal more than he actually does. As a teenager it is also likely that he passionately wants to appear as much like his peers as possible, and they do not carry canes (though it’s worth pointing out that neither do they click their tongues as they walk). He will have to discover for himself the limits of his own capabilities and how alternative techniques can assist him best, just as all blind people must. (Despite his disparagement of the white cane, he does use Braille and adaptive technology.) Daniel Kish, the teacher of echolocation by tongue clicks, has met Underwood and seen his echolocation abilities, and he suspects that Underwood will ultimately find a white cane more useful when he visits unfamiliar places. Were it not for the recent national acclaim he has received, Underwood might be just another young blind person who needs to be urged, gently but firmly, to explore other alternative techniques and to develop a positive philosophy about blindness--a philosophy that brings him to the understanding that blindness is nothing to be ashamed of and therefore there is no reason to avoid carrying a white cane in order to appear not to be blind.

But Mr. Underwood’s national media appearances have fueled the belief in the public mind that the white cane is a mark of inferiority. He has inadvertently reinforced the distinction the public makes between extraordinarily gifted blind people and so-called ordinary blind people. His statements imply that the white cane is an inferior travel technique, a scarlet letter signifying incompetence and dependence. This assertion cannot go unanswered.

It is self-evident that the white cane has proved a useful tool to millions of blind people the world over. If it were not a useful tool, then the cane could never have achieved broad acceptance among the blind. Blind people who travel with a white cane navigate their environment with speed, confidence, and safety. The white cane is a tool that provides mobility and independence to blind people every day, and has done so at least since blinded veterans began returning from the battlefields of World War II. Other alternative techniques can supplement the white cane, but they will never replace it.

Precisely because it is such a useful tool, the white cane is a symbol of competence and independence, not a badge of inferiority and incompetence. The fact that the white cane signifies independent travel and civil rights for the blind is enshrined in the laws of the United States. Generations of people, blind and sighted alike, know what the white cane does and what it signifies. Our testimony as blind people, whether in speeches and articles like this one or in the simple act of walking quickly and confidently about our cities and communities as we work, play, and worship, proclaims the truth about the white cane to the nation and to the world.

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