Future Reflections Special Issue on Advocacy
by Penny Duffy
From the Editor: Penny Duffy is president of the New Hampshire Parents of Blind Children. In this article she describes an unfortunate incident that occurred on a family outing and reflects on the need for greater public awareness about the rights of blind people.
In one form or another, parents of blind children advocate for their children every single day. My nine-year-old daughter, Abby, became blind two-and-a-half years ago, and I find we are still learning important new things about advocating for her and helping her learn to advocate for herself. One of our biggest lessons to date came a few months ago.
The short form of the story is simple and shocking. In late August 2012, my husband, Chris, and our two children, Abby and Sam, went to a local history museum on a special outing. When they arrived, the clerk told them that Abby couldn't bring her long white cane into the museum. Chris explained that Abby is blind, but the clerk insisted that she could not enter with her cane. "We have had issues with kids in the past," she stated.
My husband complied with the clerk's request. He passed Abby's cane to someone beyond the desk.
A few minutes later Sam complained that he felt nauseous. He called and asked me to pick him up. I took him home, and his stomachache immediately disappeared. Looking back, I think he was feeling a lot of anxiety over what happened at the desk.
Abby and Chris continued to explore the museum. With her cane Abby is a confident traveler, but now she followed close behind her dad, and sometimes he led her by the hand. Without her cane, she felt unsafe on a steep flight of stairs.
When I found out what had happened, I contacted the museum right away. I knew their refusal to let Abby use her cane was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Later I discovered that it violated New Hampshire's White Cane Law as well. The person I spoke with told me that the clerk's action was against the museum's official policy. She explained that the clerk didn't know what a white cane was.
I left the conversation still feeling very frustrated. I wanted to do what I could to help prevent such a thing from happening again, so I wrote about my family's experience on my blog. "Perhaps [the clerk] didn't hear when Chris said Abby was blind," I wrote. "The issue is, regardless, what did she think [the cane] was? It's a white cane, not a switchblade! Who are these kids she spoke of? I envision a ninja army of blind children with white canes trashing the museum.
"We have already gotten an apology and I believe it was genuine, but I am very concerned this could happen again. No one should ever have to go through what happened to my family. The issue is that it happened, and that can never be changed. The experience is now part of our family's story."
The incident ended up going a bit viral. It wound up in a local newspaper and on two evening television newscasts. It was picked up by a large-scale national Internet news website and even appeared in a tabloid on a website in the UK.
I want to address the obvious question that many people are asking. Why would the parent of a blind child allow someone to take their child's white cane away? Chris really thought the museum had the right to restrict any item from being brought inside. He was sure the museum must know better than to make an illegal request. He did question the request, and he told the clerk that Abby is blind to prevent any confusion. He could have left after he was told that she couldn't bring in her white cane. However, he had two kids with him, and he didn't want to disappoint them. As parents we all make decisions that we end up regretting, and this was one of those times.
It has now been more than six months since the incident happened. There were many lessons learned. One of those lessons is that sometimes one parent is more knowledgeable than the other. It is really important that both parents understand their blind child's basic rights. I hope other parents can learn and grow from what happened to our family.
I learned a lot as I read through the hundreds of comments on the story that were posted online. I discovered that some people still don't feel blind people belong in museums. I learned that many people still have a negative understanding of what a white cane does. I came to realize that there is much work still to be done.
I did hear from someone who handles ADA compliance for a major museum. She shared with me that many museums are taking notice of the story and not just assuming that their employees know what a white cane is. They are trying to make sure their staff members are educated. In the end, that is all I wanted.