Future Reflections Cane Travel and Independence
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by Treva Olivero
Although my parents tried to shelter me when I was growing up, I inherited their self-determination, which in turn fueled my desire to be as independent as possible. My parents exhibited their self-reliance by rarely asking for assistance. They didnít file for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for me, even when they were eligible. In financially difficult times, instead of asking for assistance from extended family, the church, or the government, my Mom got a second job to help support the family. When my siblings were older, they were also expected to get jobs and be independent. But for me, the standard was different. Although I didnít want to rely on the government, my parents urged me to apply for SSI when I turned eighteen. Even after I demonstrated my ability to listen for traffic and make good travel judgments, they wouldnít allow me to travel independently on the rural road on which we lived. However, despite what they said, I chose to follow their determined example of self-sufficiency and refused to let my disabilities get in the way of my desire for independence.
I was born legally blind, and for me my blindness has always just been another part of my life. I havenít always known how to deal with situations surrounding my blindness, but I do not dwell on what life would be like if I werenít blind. However, I havenít always been in a wheelchair. When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with a bone disease, but I could still walk until age eleven when my right leg was amputated above the knee. Although I went through physical therapy, I was never really able to walk normally, and I have used a wheelchair ever since. I didnít want to let being in a wheelchair stop me, but I always wished for the ability to walk again.
Throughout high school and college, I ďgot byĒ mostly by using the little remaining vision I had. However, after toppling down several flights of steps and falling off of a curb into a busy street, I had to admit that my vision was getting worse, and that it was no longer reliable. For a while I dealt with this by limiting my activities and only going to familiar places. When I did travel to an unfamiliar place, I usually had a sighted person with me to push my chair, but this took away more independence. I continued to ďget byĒ until I attended my first National Federation of the Blind convention in Louisville in 2002. There I met a blind man who successfully used a cane from his wheelchair to independently navigate the hotel. This surprised me; I had always thought that I couldnít use a long white cane in a wheelchair. During high school, my orientation and mobility instructor told me that instead of using a cane I should put a tall pole with an orange flag on the back of my chair so that people in cars could watch out for me. I never did this, not only because the flag looked ridiculous and was extremely cumbersome when I traveled indoors, but this solution took responsibility for my safety out of my control. I was amazed at the idea that I could travel with a cane. I immediately bought an NFB cane and started using it while I was at the convention. I felt free to travel on my own. I didnít have to wait for my co-workers or look down and strain to see the curb cuts; I was no longer limited in my travels. It took me a while to adjust to using a cane, but I persisted because my independence is valuable to me. Since I first started using a cane, I have learned some tips through trial and error that have helped me be successful in my travel, and I want to share these with you so that you can help your child:
1. Your child can use a manual chair and a cane. I prefer a manual chair because of the portability of it. Because I donít have a car, I need a wheelchair that can just fold up and fit into almost any vehicle. The way I use my cane is by grasping the handrims of my wheelchair with each hand while at the same time grasping the cane in my right hand. This way I can still push both wheels while holding onto the cane and arcing it with my right hand.
2. Training in the techniques of nonvisual travel is essential. I have not had extensive training with sleepshades, but I have discovered that when I do activities nonvisually, I am more observant of my surroundings. I wish I had gotten training using sleepshades in high school or before I went to college because I know from my blind friends who did, that it would have significantly increased my confidence.
3. Find the cane that works. I currently use a sixty-one-inch fiberglass NFB straight cane. The length of the cane helps me to make a wider arc, and the narrow handle works best for me because I can grip it and the handrim on my wheelchair at the same time. I didnít start out by using a straight cane because I thought it would be easier to store a telescoping cane, but I became frustrated with my cane randomly collapsing. Now, after using the straight cane for a while, I have discovered that it really works well and the inconveniences are minor.
4. Make your home wheelchair accessible. Your child needs to be able to get into and around the house independently just like any other child. For a while, my parents just carried me up the steps, but this limited my independence because I couldnít go outside on my own. Eventually they made the necessary changes, and then I could come and go freely.
5. Sometimes itís better to not use your cane inside. Just like many other blind people who are not in chairs, I have discovered that in familiar places, such as my home, I donít use the cane. But I donít always use it in unfamiliar places, either. For example, itís easier to go through interior doors, which are usually not very wide, without the cane in use. I tuck my cane under my chin and grab onto the doorframe with my hands. I can feel where the door is, line myself up, and sometime just pull myself through the door.
6. Itís okay to travel slowly when necessary. For safety, I will slow down when I am on a downhill slope or when I come to an intersection and need to find a curb cut.
7. Educate others. People donít understand how I travel independently, so I will talk to them about it and explain to them how my blindness and being in a wheelchair are not barriers for me. For example, recently I was out shopping with my husband when I encountered a man who was trying to give me directions to a ramp. He had seen me stop just before getting to a flight of stairs. He was extremely worried that I was going to fall down the stairs. I explained to him that I was using my cane. He was trying to tell me how to get to the ramp, but his directions were horrible. I explained to him that I would find the ramp by myself by using my cane. I told him that if I discover it myself, it will help me when finding the same ramp in the future. He left me alone, and I successfully found the ramp and was on my way.
8. Let your child be independent. Donít push your childís wheelchair just because you donít think he or she can travel independently. Sometimes I let my husband Tony (heís blind, too, but does not use a wheelchair) push me because it is the best way that we can walk together ďarm in arm,Ē but I value my independence. For example, when youíre at the mall with your child, he or she will most likely want to be independent, so donít take this away by pushing your childís chair.
My final advice: Donít limit your child just because of blindness and being in a wheelchair. It may be doubly tough to get stared at in public while your child learns how to wheel and cane at the same time, but just remind yourself that your child will someday thank you for believing in him or her. Iím independent and your child can be, too.
Treva Olivero is the coordinator of the Mentoring and Outreach project of the NFB Jernigan Institute. The job requires out-of-state travel about twice a month. She lives in Baltimore with her husband Tony.
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