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The Braille Monitor – November, 2000 Edition


An Adventure

by Jennifer Dunnam

From the Editor: A good sense of humor and an unapologetic attitude are two of the most valuable components of effective cane travel. When one must make decisions based on sometimes insufficient information and depend on direction given by people whose knowledge of compass points, visual recall, ability to tell left from right, and basic intelligence are unknown, one can expect occasionally to have unforeseen adventures when traveling. The ability to laugh at the absurd is indispensable. One must also get past the feeling that getting lost or taking the long way around is somehow a matter for apology.

Jennifer Dunnam
Jennifer Dunnam

Nothing gives perspective like lots of travel experience and having adventures like the following. Any blind person who gets out and about will identify with Jennifer Dunnam and Judy Sanders. Both women are leaders in the NFB of Minnesota and experienced cane travelers. While their adventure was happening, they probably found very little to laugh about. It isn't amusing to walk a long distance at night with no guarantee that the searched-for bus stop will appear. But their ability to solve their problems, put the adventure into proper perspective, and see the humor in the experience provides an excellent example to all new or uncertain cane-users. The article is reprinted from the Summer, 2000, issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Minnesota. Here it is:


Members of the National Federation of the Blind are often asked what the difference is between the NFB's model of adjustment-to-blindness training and other types of training in blindness skills. Anyone who has ever made a comparison can tell you that in philosophy, process, and especially outcomes the differences are striking. One area in which the differences are clearly and immediately noticeable is in cane-travel instruction. In the travel classes at the NFB training centers the instructors--who are usually blind themselves-- give the students an excellent foundation in what it takes to travel efficiently, safely, and comfortably in all sorts of environments. But the real key to the success of this type of travel training--and a factor that is not universally present in blindness training--is the strong, overarching belief in the abilities of blind people and the high expectations for what can be accomplished. Not only are students given challenges designed for meaningful success, but they are also allowed the freedom to make the kinds of mistakes that promote good problem-solving skills and instill the confidence to deal effectively with any situation that may arise--traits of a good traveler.

Good travel skills, once acquired, are good for a lifetime and do not need to be relearned for every new environment. This is important because during a lifetime even the best travelers--whether blind or not--occasionally encounter something unexpected or become disoriented. In such cases a skilled traveler knows how to seek out necessary information and make judicious use of resources, often turning a potentially frightening or frustrating experience into simply an amusing anecdote to tell later.

I was reminded of all this one evening when Judy Sanders and I attended a political event held on the University of Minnesota campus. Judy and I are both blind, and we are both quite experienced at getting around independently in unfamiliar places. Judy has held several jobs that required her to travel routinely around the state and the country, and I have studied and worked in several European countries. On the evening in question neither of us was particularly familiar with the area of the campus where the debate was held, but we had some general directions about the location of the auditorium. We rode the bus to campus and found the place without incident.

After the debate we took the opportunity to mill about and talk with many candidates and other people working on their campaigns. We were among the very last to leave the auditorium, and, as we walked through the large, deserted lobby, we found ourselves unsure about where we'd come in or whether we could exit that way at all. We tried several options, eventually returned to the auditorium, and tried again.

At last we located a door that led outside. We knew it wasn't the door we'd come in, but we were sure that once we were outside we'd have an easier time locating a bus stop. Joking about possibly setting off security alarms, we rushed out the door with a joint sigh of relief.

Just as the door slammed heavily behind us, however, our rushing came to an abrupt halt. With our canes we detected, just ahead of us, a drop-off. On further inspection we discovered that the drop was about four feet.

A loading dock may be a nice place to visit, but the hour seemed a bit late for tourism. As I turned around to open the door again, I had a sinking feeling that we might be about to see much more of that loading dock than we'd planned. Sure enough, as I expected even before I tried the handle, Judy and I were now standing on the outside of a locked door.

First we made the truly enlightened observation that one of us really should have stayed inside. After all, we told ourselves, both of us were far too experienced to have made such a mistake. But, being pragmatic people, we quickly got beyond that patch of brilliance and considered our one option: to seek our fortunes beyond the edge of the loading dock. This time, however, we resolved to proceed with more caution. We agreed that one of us should go off the dock first to scope things out, just in case there was a high fence or something else to prevent us from making our escape.

Taking my cue, I scrambled out to the edge, tossing aside my windbreaker and fanny pack in preparation for the descent. Judy stood and waited, as dignified as someone locked out on a loading dock could be.

As a child I had eagerly plunged off every drop-off I could find, but at the more advanced age of nearly thirty, I knew I should practice a bit more restraint. I prepared to climb down starting from a sitting position. I sat for a few seconds with my legs hanging over the edge, getting ready.

Suddenly we heard a whooshing sound, followed by footsteps. I jumped up and gathered my belongings as quickly as I could (so that I would be dignified, too), while Judy pounded on the door and called out.

The door was opened by a man and a woman who seemed to be on security duty. We offered our humiliating explanation, and they walked with us through a maze of interconnected buildings to find an exit with a little more potential. The woman giggled at us all the way--which was quite all right, since we were laughing too.

After a long time of wending our way through narrow doorways and long corridors and up and down staircases, we asked the security people how they usually exited the building. They said that they went out at the loading dock. Judy asked if they jumped off the dock, and one of them said, "Why, no. We just use the ladder." Since it had never occurred to us to look for a ladder, what else could we say but, "Yes, of course. The ladder."

Finally out in the cool night air with yards and yards of flat ground all around us, we pondered our next move. We were obviously nowhere near the entrance we had used before the debate, and we had very dubious directions to a bus stop from the people who had saved us from a night on the loading dock they'd suggested, but as we went, there b egan to be less and less traffic, and things generally seemed too quiet.

Just when we had decided to turn back, we heard someone ahead of us. We asked if she knew where the nearest bus stop was, and she was eager to help but uncertain about how to give directions, so she walked with us part of the way-- the opposite direction from that in which we had been going. She said she was waiting for some friends to pick her up in a car and, when she saw them driving up, offered to have them drive us to the bus stop. But her friends never saw her and drove right by, so we figured she'd better go back to where she had originally been standing in order not to lose her own ride. After imparting a few directions, she took off.

Several major construction projects were in progress on campus at the time, so we had to take a few detours on our way to the bus stop. We encountered various people and asked directions along the way (and walked what seemed like miles). We met and conversed with several interesting people; at one point we got some particularly good directions from a student on his bicycle going to see a movie at a friend's house.

At long last we reached the bus stop. As we sat waiting for the bus, Judy quipped, "At least we didn't cry. At earlier times in our lives we might have." How true. For much of my life, the idea of becoming even a little bit lost terrified me.

After a second thought, however, Judy revised her comment: "Actually, we wouldn't have cried, because we never would have gone to the debate in the first place." This also was quite true. Before I learned that I could travel independently, I had nearly always planned my activities and schedule around those of a sighted person. Many blind people have lived that way--not because that's what blindness dictates but because we had no idea we could do otherwise.

What a life-changing experience it was for me when I attended my first convention of the National Federation of the Blind. For the first time I observed blind people traveling about in a hotel and a city where they'd never been, making last-minute decisions about which division meeting to attend or where to eat or shop, and changing plans right in the middle if they thought up something better. And how liberating it was for me to spend time at a training center run by people who expected much more of me than I did of myself and who taught me the skills and, by example, enabled me to pursue the confidence necessary to live a full and sometimes spontaneous life.

Adventures like the one I've just described are certainly not the norm in the lives of even the most adventurous blind people. Good travel skills mean that most of the time we come and go as we please, efficiently and without much worry or fuss. But if such situations do occur, the outcomes are much more positive if we've had opportunities to learn to handle them with confidence and resourcefulness and to put them in perspective.

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