Future Reflections Special Issue: Blind Children with Additional Disabilities
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by Treva Olivero
Reprinted from Future Reflections Special Issue: Cane Travel and Independence, Volume 27, No. 2
From the Editor: Treva Olivero is an education program specialist with the NFB Jernigan Institute. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, Tony.
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 asking for assistance only rarely. They didn't file for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for me, even when they were eligible. In financially difficult times, instead of asking for aid from our 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.
For me, however, the standard was different. Although I didn't 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 wouldn't allow me to travel independently on the rural road where we lived. Despite what they said to me, I chose to follow their example of self-sufficiency. I 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 haven't always known how to deal with situations surrounding my blindness, but I do not dwell on what life would be like if I weren't blind. However, I haven't always used a wheelchair. When I was five years old I was diagnosed with a bone disease. 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 able to walk normally, and I have used a wheelchair ever since. I didn't 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 got by, mostly by using the little remaining vision I had. However, after toppling down several flights of steps and falling off a curb into a busy street, I had to admit that my vision was getting worse. 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, a sighted person usually went with me to push my wheelchair.
I continued getting by until I attended my first National Federation of the Blind convention in Louisville in 2002. There I met a blind man who traveled the hotel independently, successfully using a cane from his wheelchair. I had always thought that as a wheelchair user I couldn't use a long white cane. 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 took this advice. The flag looked ridiculous and was extremely cumbersome when I traveled indoors. Furthermore, this solution took responsibility for my safety out of my control. Now, in Louisville, I was amazed by the idea that I could travel with a cane.
I immediately bought an NFB cane and started using it at the convention. Suddenly I felt free to travel on my own. I didn't have to wait for my coworkers or strain to look down 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. Since I first started using a cane, I have learned some tips through trial and error. I want to share them so that others, too, can put them to use. I hope that parents and teachers of blind children who use wheelchairs will take what I have learned and will help these children travel independently.
1. Your child can use a manual chair and a cane. I prefer a manual chair because of its portability. Since I don't have a car, I need a wheelchair that can fold up and fit into almost any vehicle. Grasping the handrims of my wheelchair with each hand, I hold the cane in my right hand at the same time. I can 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 received training under sleepshades in high school or before I went to college. From my blind friends who obtained such training I know it would have increased my confidence significantly.
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 didn't start out by using a straight cane. I thought it would be easier to store a telescoping cane, but I became frustrated because my cane randomly collapsed. 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 like any other kid. For a while my parents carried me up the steps, but this limited my independence because I couldn't go outside on my own. Eventually they made the necessary changes, and I could come and go freely.
5. Sometimes it's better not to use your cane inside. Like many blind people who do not use chairs, I have discovered that in familiar places, such as my home, I don't need the cane. I don't always use it in unfamiliar places, either. For example, it's 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 pull myself through.
6. It's okay to travel slowly when necessary. For safety, I 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 don't understand how I travel independently. I talk to them about it and explain 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 would be easier for me to find the 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. Don't push your child's wheelchair just because you don't think he or she can travel independently. Sometimes I let my husband, Tony (he's blind, too, but does not use a wheelchair), push me because it is the best way for us to walk together "arm in arm," but I value my independence. For example, when you're at the mall with your child, he or she will most likely want to be independent. Don't take this away by pushing your child's chair.
Here is my final advice. Don't 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 to wheel and cane at the same time. Remind yourself that your child will someday thank you for believing in him or her. I'm independent, and your child can be independent, too.
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