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Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Fall, 1986 issue of The Federationist in Connecticut. The author, Cheri Heppe, is a former NFB scholarship winner and is currently in school studying to become a Chiropractor. She is also a dog guide user of many years.
This fall, at our National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut Sate Convention we will be afforded a special opportunity to learn more about traveling effectively as blind people. One of the workshops will focus on good travel, with Fred Schroeder as presenter. Among his qualifications, Fred Schroeder has a Masters Degree in Orientation and is completing a Doctorate in Education at San Francisco State, so he can speak the language of "the field," and has some practical knowledge in traveling as a totally blind person.
Many of us still hold to the notion that only a few, somehow specially gifted people, can achieve smooth, competent travel skills. Many also believe that long cane travel and dog guide ownership have nothing in common. However, more and more of us are discovering the paradoxes and false thinking reflected in these views.
For example, no one of us starts out knowing how to get around. Sighted or blind, we all have to learn to crawl as babies, then take our first wobbly steps with family members holding our hands and encouraging us. I know of no one who has an instinctual capability to get on a two-wheeled bicycle and ride it perfectly the first time.
And consider the attention given to driver's education in high schools. We need proper training as blind people to be able to travel comfortably and effectively in our day-to-day lives. The good travelers have spent time and effort practicing and polishing their travel skills and have retained open minds to learn from others. The first time I traveled using a long cane, I felt awkward and out of place, not because my cane use was so bad, but because others I knew who were sighted did not use a cane and I felt different. I wanted to corn- form and be just like the other people. In time, I discovered that my means of getting around worked well for me and gave me an edge over my previous, uneducated place.
We who travel with dog guides need to examine our underlying motivations for owning a dog guide and perhaps, refresh our skills in long cane use. Many of us took to working with a dog guide because we experienced agency philosophy or training in combination with less effective agency canes. Many of us chose a dog as a buffer between what we or our families considered a crime-ridden and frightening unknown world and ourselves. Unfortunately, the insecurity of the owner transfers to the dog and results in nervousness, aggressive or uncontrolled behavior and lack of direction. Dogs need to look to their human owner for instruction, guidance, discipline and direction. The dog that does not find this in the owner will take the dominant part in the relationship. In the 1920's when dog guide training first came to the U.S., there was no way for blind people to travel effectively, except on the arm of a sighted friend or companion, or, perhaps, a paid guide. The dog guide schools did need to take people very soon after the onset of blindness, before poor attitudes and lack of exercise and training destroyed the individual's initiative.
Time and experience pointed to the success of the dog guide. The public marveled that a blind person could walk down the street, re-learn skills to keep a home and hold a job. Agencies for the blind envied the way the dog guide schools attracted the financial support of the public and the loyalty and respect of both recipients and the public. Some agencies made an effort to gain control of the dog guide programs and the dog guide schools, being largely performance oriented and practical, remained autonomous. Word then began to be circulated about the various inconveniences and drawbacks of dog guide ownership. Also, some owners did not maintain their training and added fuel to such criticisms by the evidence of their poor handling.
The Veteran's Administration worked to develop the long cane and its use in the mid 1940's. This opened the door for everyone who was blind and wanted to travel independently to be able to do so. However, the long cane travel training fell almost entirely to agencies and service providers, not to practitioners who were blind. So, many of limiting attitudes of the agencies reflected themselves in the way cane travel was taught.
We in the NFB have developed a practical, usable and effective long cane, as well as various folding canes. More importantly, we are developing a philosophy of using and traveling with a cane that makes all the difference in how we get around. The world has become more sophisticated and demands more of us, because we, as blind people, expect more of ourselves.
All of us, dog guide owners as well as cane travelers, are encouraged to come to the travel seminar at our state convention to learn more about good traveling. Someone has said that knowledge is power. The more we know, the better we can all deal with the joys and challenges of living our lives to a full and complete degree.
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