Braille Monitor                                     June 2017

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My Free White Cane

by Heather Bird

Heather Bird stands in front of her house with her long white cane and her guide dog. Her two young sons, one on each side, hold their own child-sized canes.From the Editor: Heather Bird is the president of the Rochester Chapter of the New York state affiliate of the NFB. Quite often I telephone those who submit articles to discuss changes I want to make or when I think their article may run. In this case, I called because I wanted to meet Heather and to verify that what she had written about the canes she was provided really reflected how she felt. This was not intended as an article, but as a thank-you letter in response to our free white cane program. Sure enough, the enthusiasm I saw in the letter was reflected in our conversation. So it is that we proudly run this piece:

First of all, I would like to thank you for the two white canes that I received, one for myself and one for my older son, Gustave Jeremy Jonas.

I understand the value as a guide dog handler of going out to keep my cane skills sharp a few times a month, and I also know the value of taking time to learn some routes with my cane prior to working them with my Seeing Eye dog. However, I have been remiss about doing so on a logistical and practical level, even though I know on an academic and cognitive level that this is something I should be doing regularly. This disconnect between best practice and real action is due to my very heavy, too short, collapsible cane from Ambutech. I am on the tall side for a woman and knew that I could benefit from a somewhat longer cane, but I just couldn't cope with the added weight that a longer, more appropriately-sized cane would entail. Using my previous cane hurts my right wrist with touch-tap or tap-and-glide techniques. Resting my wrist by employing purely diagonal technique or a constant-contact sweeping technique resulted in the cane constantly getting caught in cracks in the sidewalk, grass edges, and obstacles, which would jar my wrist or worse, jam the cane into my stomach or ribs, which obviously left me frustrated and only able to walk at a half to a quarter of the speed I can with my guide dog. However, this cane has made such a difference. It is so much lighter that I was able to walk one of my longer 2.5-mile-long routes with absolutely no pain or discomfort in my wrist. I was able to walk at a much more comfortable pace, perhaps 75 to 85 percent the speed I walk with my guide, because I wasn't constantly getting the clunky collapsible cane caught in cracks and my wrist action allowed me to easily transition between touch-tap and tap-and-glide techniques at considerable speed, but still with safe reaction time for changes in elevation and obstacle clearance. This cane is so much more responsive.

With the old cane the truncated domes at the edge of a curb felt like rough pavement, but with this cane I can actually feel the individual bumps that make up the indicator. I accidentally ran this cane over my preschooler's leg, and I could tell that his father had changed him out of the blue jeans I had put him in and into corduroy pants.

Crawling along the ground or having a five-foot-long arm that could sweep the ground ahead of you would be the equivalent of reading Braille with the fingertips. Using the old cane I had would be like trying to read Braille through a woolen sock placed over the hand. Using this cane is like trying to read Braille through a thin rubber glove or plastic wrap, because it just gives me so much more information.

I am very fortunate in that I have had access to moderately to very good O&M and white cane instruction for my whole life. I got my first cane at age two, but I want to know why the heck no one ever gave me a cane like this to try. I still would have gotten a guide dog, but my childhood and teenaged years of grudging acceptance and sometimes real hatred of my cane would have instead been matter-of-fact use and sometimes enthusiastic appreciation of my cane. I honestly feel cheated at all of the awkward, clumsy, and frustrating cane travel I have embarked upon prior to getting my first guide and when in between guides with a cane ill-suited to me or my needs. So, in a roundabout way I am saying thank you very very much, and also why the heck don't sighted professionals get it and make a more concerted effort to help their blind students and clients?

My eight-year-old son, Jeremy, had this to say about his new NFB cane, "This cane is so much better. My O&M instructor always gets mad at me and tells me to quit complaining that my arm is tired, and I really didn't like using my cane, even though I know I need to use it to be safe and stuff like that. This one moves where I want it to go and doesn't get stuck on things. I can feel more stuff too and tell what it is—easier than with the old cane. I can't fold this one up, but that's OK ‘cuz the old one kept pinching my fingers when I had to fold and unfold it anyway. This cane feels like just a body part or something, like an ear or a hand or a nose or something. The old cane felt like I was just swinging a stick around."

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