by Dave Hyde
From the Editor: Dave Hyde is the professional development coordinator for the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. He has recently taken on part of the parent liaison responsibility for the state. He is also president of the Rock County Chapter and a member of the affiliate board of directors. As you will read, his Federation experience stretches back over several decades. This gives him a useful perspective on the education of blind children. This is what he says:
I recently spent a weekend with a little girl and her cane. That is a normal thing in the National Federation of the Blind. Blind children, like blind adults, use canes. The children learn that, if used properly, the cane hits things before they do and locates obstacles, even when those obstacles are human. For them the cane is a normal part of life, not remarkable at all. How things have changed.
When I was about eight, I asked a teacher why only the big boys got to use canes. They sounded neat as they tapped their way around campus. I was told that I’d get one someday, but it was more important that I use what vision I had; otherwise I would come to depend on the cane. I accepted this because, after all, it was uttered by an adult who should know. I got my cane at thirteen. I learned to use it in unfamiliar areas and to put it in the closet when not taking orientation and mobility lessons. I rarely used it on campus; after all, I knew the campus. But I liked that tapping sound. It was a sign of being a teenager, so I used it whenever I could. The cane went through a number of incarnations. It telescoped, it folded, it broke, it got heavier and lighter. It got traded for a dog guide but always lived in the house somewhere. It was, after all, a mark of being an adult.
In 1983 I was in a meeting in Kansas City at one of our national conventions. Someone had brought a two-year-old into the meeting, and, like most children of that age, he had gotten bored with the interesting discussion the adults were having. He got up and was walking around. As he passed by me, he hit me with something. Reaching down, I discovered a very short (about the right length for a two-year-old) cane, with a toy hooked to the top. My exploration didn’t slow him down; he went on to locate the next obstacle, my neighbor to the left. Watching the kid, I was surprised that someone would give a cane to a child that young.
The next year we were in Phoenix. The temperature was higher than the national debt, and we were all glad to have meetings inside. Heading for one of them on Saturday morning, I passed a family with their four- or five-year-old daughter trying to negotiate the escalator. The little girl was determined that she was not going to ride that thing, and Mom and Dad were just as determined that she would. Her protests excited a lot of echoes in the lobby of the hotel, and, no matter how they coaxed, she wasn’t going on that moving staircase. Eventually, dad picked her up and, over her loud, shrill protests, carried her up to the second floor.
That week in Phoenix a few children were using canes. They were rare, but they were there. Every once in a while in an elevator, in a hall, or in the restaurant, I’d find a person under four feet tall using a cane. Some used it as a horse, some as a device to make interesting noises on things, and one budding percussionist tried to take mine away thinking that longer might mean louder, and with enough length he could out-do Louis Prima.
On the Saturday after the convention, I again found myself in contact with the little girl and her family. I was in fact stopped by her father, who asked me to wait at the top of the escalator and catch his daughter. It seems that she had discovered not only independence, but timing. If she got on the up before her father got off the down, he could never catch her. I did end her new game and reveled in the change that had taken place in that week.
Most of us adults thought that the idea of getting canes that young was one of those things that, although we saw as good, some professional would find a way to squelch any move toward independence, and we’d go back to getting a cane some time close to puberty. But programs like that in New Mexico in the mid eighties, things like the children’s programs at our centers, and enlightened professionals in the field of orientation and mobility have proved us wrong. Children with canes are no longer a rarity. In fact, at national conventions they are common. For those who haven’t seen them, you should know that they frequently travel in packs and are rarely silent. They like to play, they like to swim, and they like to explore. It’s just like any other group of children, and the adult who is not alert is in peril of becoming an obstacle to travel. Those who got their canes around the time of their first date can only marvel and regret.
It is now almost thirty years since that toddler in Kansas found me with his cane. I now work with blind children and also with orientation and mobility professionals. Recently a colleague came in after visiting a young child and giving him his first cane. The boy was about two. She decided that it would be a good thing for the whole family to use canes to show how normal it was. She took pictures and proudly showed them to us over lunch. I smiled and found it hard not to break into a wide grin. To her giving a cane to a toddler is exactly what she should do. She makes books with Braille and pictures talking about the cane and how much fun it is. I don’t know if she is as excited as I am to see how much of a regular part of life she is making it, but I know that she is happy with what the children and the parents are learning about blindness. Now the whole family is learning that the cane and blindness are a normal part of life. If asked, she will tell you that she owes a lot to Joe Cutter, who was a pioneer in the orientation of young children and continues to contribute to the field.
So what can these children look forward to when they are starting with a tool that many of us found only as teenagers? I really have no idea. They will have different problems to solve than I did. I do know that, at least for me, the joy with which I watch them run and play in the unquestioning assurance that that cane will keep them safe is tinged with just a bit of envy. They are learning at their tender age lessons with which I struggled in high school and college. The best thing I can do is to celebrate their freedom and know that they have it because people my age did the things that were necessary to make it happen. So in every pod of cane-wielding children that runs past me, augmenting the sound of their canes with the delight of their voices, goes a part of you and a part of me. Yet people still ask, “Why the National Federation of the Blind?”