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The Braille Monitor,  May 2001 Edition
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Reflections on the Long White Cane

by Kevan Worley


Kevan Worley
Kevan Worley

     From the Editor: On one of the NFB listservs recently someone asked people to share their experience with and thoughts about the white cane. Kevan Worley (First Vice President of the NFB of Colorado and President of the National Association of Blind Merchants) was one of those who sat down to reflect on this useful tool and the way his attitudes toward it have grown and changed through the years. The evolution his thoughts and actions have undergone seems healthy and may be useful to those who are still struggling to accept this tool of independence. This is what Kevan said:


     I am forty-four years old and employed as a managing partner of a military dining hall food service operation. I am a long-white-cane user. I am six feet one-and-a-half inches tall, and I use a cane that is about sixty-five inches tall. It comes to slightly above my nose.

     My first experience with any kind of travel aid was when my father cut long tree limbs for me to wave in front of me. I was about seven or eight years old. Dad had me take a step with one foot and put the stick out in front of that foot, just the opposite of the way cane technique is taught today. The tree-limb cane was a neat idea, my dad's attempt to fashion a helpful travel tool. I remember using it some, but mostly I rambled and bounced around the neighborhood, a normal, fearless seven- or eight-year-old. The tree limbs came up to the middle of my chest, and over time they did help me gain some speed of travel and increase my confidence around the neighborhood. Of course, when I returned to the State School for the Blind, I did not use these home-made methods for travel. Instead I shuffled along snapping my fingers and clicking my tongue to provide echoes. I would also trail sidewalks and clap my hands for echoes--not the most effective, quick, or socially acceptable travel techniques.

     In seventh grade we were given training by a university-trained travel instructor. We were given rigid aluminum canes, which came up to our sternums, the lower chest. They had crooked handles with rubbery grips, which had a flat place on the side for the index finger to splay out along as we traveled. We spent a lot of time traveling the already familiar halls of our school. However, I will say that both of the men who taught travel spent time on understanding the environment, listening skills, changing surfaces under foot, keeping a wide cane arc, learning how to choke up the cane across the body in crowded conditions, and other helpful techniques. They spent a little time on sighted guide technique, but not a lot.

     I recall that both instructors were very precise and appropriate in the way they expected us to travel sighted guide, something I never really understood at the time and still don't. For example, I always felt that I was autonomous and should mostly be responsible for my own personal safety. I also felt that grabbing a guide above the elbow and expecting him or her to make fairly large gestures with the elbow and body to warn me of doors, steps, etc., was inconvenient. I felt it was almost a violation of the guide's personal space. It also sent a signal to me that the sighted person was in control, not the blind person.

     It seemed to me that, if I used proper cane technique together with other environmental clues--in short if I used my own wits, my own ability, and paid attention--I could stay with that sighted person by placing my fingertips on the back of the guide's shoulder. That has always been my preferred sighted-companion or human-guide technique. I can in fact gain almost as much information about my traveling companion's body movements just by placing my fingertips on the shoulder.

     Recently I found myself traveling from a parking lot to a meeting in a large office building with a former long-time employee of the agency for the blind in Kansas. We talked as we walked through the crowds, and at some point she delighted in mocking my sighted-guide technique saying, "You know, this is kind of fun for me, you being a long-time leader in the National Association of Blind Merchants [a division of the National Federation of the Blind] and yet you don't know proper sighted-guide technique."

     I was dumbfounded. I did not know her very well and would never have commented on her social graces or lack thereof. I would never have presumed to tell her how to open a door or mount a stairway or drive her car or pour her coffee or comb her hair, yet she was delighted to find some fault with my social/travel skills. I was indeed assisted through the crowds to the elevator and on to our meeting room by my contact with her shoulder. The contact also made it more convenient for us to talk, fingertip-to-shoulder taking the place of eye contact, if you will. Of course, I could have found the meeting room without her and at only somewhat less convenience to myself.

     Back to junior high school. Most of our junior-high travel with the professional mobility instructors was spent traveling the halls we already knew or in residential areas. During the last month of our seventh-grade year and the last month of our eighth-grade year we did some travel crossing traffic-light-controlled intersections. Much of our travel at this particular school for the blind consisted of traveling the four or five blocks along State Street from our residential campus to a restaurant, where we would then have a Pepsi with the travel instructors. Most of the time they would drive us back to school.

     I had no travel instruction whatsoever in high school. When I transferred from the insulated and idyllic campus at the school for the blind to the public school for my senior year, my father and my brother took me to the campus a couple of days prior to the school-year opening so that I could walk around and learn it a bit.

     My freshman year of college I had a wonderful travel instructor, who, as I recall, had a master's in peripatology. I think she was from North Texas State University. She was very supportive and provided a lot of useful information. She also asked me to consider using a slightly longer cane. This one came to a couple of inches below my Adam's apple.

     She was tolerant of my wandering methods but felt that I would do better if I memorized specific routes, e.g., from my dorm room to English 110 or from my dorm room to the library or from my dorm room to the student union. She didn't quite understand that I might want to go from the student union to the girls' dorm.

     A few years later, 1984, I was invited to lunch with the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, Gary Wunder, and a blind attorney who was representing the NFB in a civil rights case. His name was Marc Maurer. Mr. Maurer showed me his telescoping fiberglass cane. Up to that time I had been using the rigid aluminum cane with the old-style handle referred to above. I was fascinated by the length of Mr. Maurer's cane, but I did not know if I wanted a cane that might start telescoping as I was crossing a street. So I ordered a rigid, fiberglass cane a little longer than the one I had been using--this one up to my chin. I found that the greater length and lighter weight of my cane allowed me to travel with more quickness and grace. I remember telling someone that it was like switching to power steering.

     During the 1980s I struggled to build a career in broadcasting and in business. After losing one position, I seemed to lose confidence, so I attended the Colorado Center for the Blind in order to boost my skills and regain my confidence. I believe I was exceptionally fortunate to have the courage and good sense to attend the Colorado Center for the Blind, where I was taught by Trina Boyd. Trina was an NFB-Center-trained cane-travel instructor. She also had a degree in education and seemed to have the ability to blend good teaching with tried and true travel techniques. I gained much from the NFB-Center methods, expertly taught by Trina. She convinced me to use a longer cane (to my nose), and she and the Colorado Center encouraged me to try different kinds of canes and tips.

     They did some teaching of routes in the very beginning, I think to increase confidence and teach basic techniques, but very quickly they expected us to use skills, confidence, and problem-solving ability to plan travel objectives and figure out how to get where we were going and get back.

     During that training and since, I developed and continued to develop and possess a broad range of knowledge and set of problem-solving techniques so that I believe I can travel whenever and wherever I want to with little inconvenience to myself or others. Now I often take a cab to work. Sometimes my secretary drives me somewhere. Occasionally I grab a city bus and meet the boys downtown for a beer and a ball game. Once in a while I grab a bus and change to the light rail to travel down south for a meeting. Maybe I'll call my fiancée for a lift home. In my position as a manager and as President of the National Association of Blind Merchants, I travel once or twice a month to other cities.

     In the seventies and eighties, when I traveled--airports, bus stations, etc.--I became nervous and easily confused. But for the last decade I have actually enjoyed most of my travel experience. Since my training at the Colorado Center for the Blind increased the length of my cane, greatly enhanced my skills, and totally rebuilt my positive attitude, I love traveling around airports, problem-solving my way through the highways and byways of life.

     Of course some people are intimidated or nervous about a rapidly moving two-hundred-pound man approaching them waving a long stick. It is certainly my responsibility to be careful and understanding of others and to use techniques in the appropriate setting. But I also must not allow myself to become daunted or docile, thwarted by the misunderstandings and misconceptions of others.

     Recently I was looking for the baggage carousel at Kansas City International Airport. I momentarily became tangled in the guide ropes that channeled people to the Southwest Airlines ticket counter. After a moment or two I resolved my dilemma. I retreated the few steps back to the main pedestrian thoroughfare, but before I could get many steps along the path, two well-meaning Southwest ticket agents came up and grabbed me on either side. They began to propel me back toward the ropes from which I had just extricated myself. They said, "Southwest is this way. You want to come this way."

     I tried to explain to them that I was not going to Southwest, but they weren't listening to me. In fact, I was trying to be kind. Therefore I allowed myself to be propelled all the way up to the Southwest ticket counter. That is where they left me. I then had to retreat through the ropes to be on my way, but other customers were coming toward the counter, and I found myself moving against the flow of traffic, whereupon a man snarled at me, "If you didn't want a ticket, why did you come in here?"

     At any rate, I ultimately found the carousel, and, exploring the area, I found ground transportation. I never mean to inconvenience others, but I need to be able to travel independently, to understand and enjoy my environment like others in our society. While I enjoy traveling totally independently, tip-tapping around with my cane, listening for escalators, smelling for burger stands, finding a line of people pulling luggage and trailing them to the next landmark or queue, I also enjoy traveling with others. I occasionally seek assistance from fellow travelers or airline personnel, and I greatly appreciate the assistance, suggestions, and directions that I get. I try to be as proactive in my traveling as I can.

     For example, recently on a flight back to Denver's International Airport, the man next to me on the plane struck up a conversation. Now I was exhausted from my trip, and mostly I just wanted to listen to a CD and nod off, but, I thought, he is a nice man. He wants to talk. You never know when you may need something from someone, so I visited with him for a while. When I got off my plane on the C concourse, I traveled alone to the shuttle train which takes people to the main terminal. However, at the A concourse the train broke down. Most people stood there for several minutes waiting for the train to go. I heard a voice coming up on my left that said, "Hey Kevan, did you know you could walk to the main terminal from here?" It was my friend from the airplane. I told him I had not known that.

     I said, "Let's go!" I put my fingers on his shoulder, and he and I struck out. Several people decided to follow us. He showed me the way to the main concourse, where he was intrigued by the alternative techniques to vision that I used to locate my luggage. On our way to ground transportation we exchanged business cards, and I gave him a Kernel Book to educate him further about blind people.

     I know that people do react differently to a person who uses a cane. The reactions may be more negative or more definite than I realize. Since I am blind, I obviously don't see some of the ways people react to me.

     In a conversation a few years ago I once suggested that the ordinary sighted public would react more negatively to a person using a dog than to a person using a long white cane. This was in a conversation I was having with a group of my customers. They quickly debated my assertion. They said, most people like dogs. Most people are not threatened by a dog in a harness. They said that most people are at least slightly concerned when I walk down a hall waving a long stick in front of me.

     Of course I attempt to use my cane responsibly, and rarely do I hit anyone with it. When I do, it is a very light tap on the shoe or lower leg. However, even my children have told me that people sometimes react visibly when I ramble down the street, arcing my cane from side to side. I have also had people tell me that, while occasionally people stare as if their eyes will pop or jump out of the way like a crazy person, mostly there's not much reaction. There's no way to know how much of the reaction is to the wielding of the cane and how much is a reaction to the perceived abnormality of blindness.

     I guess I've come to believe that, if you feel good about yourself as a person, if you are confident and self-assured, if you travel with some sense of your environment, including the fact that other people are nearby, and if you treat them with courtesy, that's all you can do.

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