Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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I Do Do It: Three Fundamentals of Cane Travel

by Peggy Elliott

Peggy Elliott and Michael Gosse walk together using their canes.
Peggy Elliott and Michael Gosse walk together using their canes.

From the Editor: Peggy Elliott is one of the best cane travelers I know. She is president of the Iowa affiliate, second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind, and a busy attorney and city council member in Grinnell, Iowa. All this means that she gets lots of practice using her cane. In the following article she draws from example and illustration to distill what some consider to be her rather eccentric cane technique from three fundamental skills. In addition she throws in a lot more good advice. If the test of successful cane travel is getting where you want to go safely, gracefully, and efficiently, Peggy is among our best travelers, and we should all pay close attention to her comments. This is what she says:

I learned to use a white cane a number of years ago under circumstances that would now be described as discovery learning, but before that term was coined. I was taught the fundamental cane technique of stepping and simultaneously tapping my cane in front of the foot I wasn't stepping on and then stepping forward and repeating the simultaneous tapping in front of the other foot at the other end of an arc no wider than my shoulders. The technique is often called the two-point touch technique. I was taught to center my cane by holding it with my index finger extended and my thumb on top. The cane handle was to be kept near the center of my stomach. I was then drilled with daily practice for about nine months to perfect the skills of tapping, centering, staying in step, arcing widely enough, and trusting the information my cane provided until these techniques became so routine that I no longer needed to think about them and did them unconsciously.

Though I no longer use these techniques routinely, I would absolutely teach a new cane user exactly as I was taught in order to achieve the same result--unconscious and casual reliance on the cane to tell the user information accurately and rapidly enough to maintain safety. In short, I would encourage personalizing the style of cane use only after the fundamentals have been mastered and internalized.

As I say, I don't center, stay rigidly in step, or worry about a precise arc. And, most important to me, I don't tap. Instead I slide the cane from side to side, never lifting the tip off the ground. People have asked me over the years how I was taught, what I now do, and why, usually in the context of discussing some tidbit of cane use or orientation, and often at a big national convention hotel. So I have decided to describe a few of the things I do in case they are useful to others.

While I learned cane travel in a Federation center, not everyone can, largely because the rehab system still doesn't completely believe in our Federation approach. But the Federation approach is not taught solely at such centers. Every chapter meeting, every state convention, every encounter between two blind people can be a context for teaching and learning the Federation approach to cane travel; attending a center merely speeds the instruction and roots it firmly in the mind and soul. But people who never attend a center can and do become fine and safe cane travelers. The only requirements are commitment to learning and practice.

So I have boiled down advanced cane use to several basic concepts. Mastery of these concepts through practice allows anyone to become a safe and efficient cane traveler. Good cane users could add lots of tips and tricks gleaned from daily use, but I think these are the foundation. For true success in cane travel, each must be mastered.

While confidence in the Federation approach to cane travel and daily experience using the cane are the strongest indicators of success in traveling competently as a blind person, these are the three fundamental concepts I use regularly. None was exactly taught me when I learned cane travel. In fact, some techniques I now use are actually contrary to what I was taught. This is partly why I say that confidence and experience are the strongest predictors of success in travel. All successful blind travelers take what they are taught, formally and informally, and create a successful personal style. Trying to travel exactly the way one was taught yields constant nervousness for fear one may be doing things wrong while preventing innovation using one's own strengths and observations.

Successful cane travel seems impossible to the novice; it certainly did to me. Looking back over many years of cane travel, I can say with certainty that, if I had simply kept doing what I had been taught and traveled in familiar areas only, I wouldn't be a good traveler today. Innovation and application of the techniques in new situations have made me a much better traveler. Again, looking back, I once thought successful travel as a blind person was a pleasant myth. Only when I stepped out, white cane in hand, and began applying the techniques and adapting them for myself did I find the goal reachable. I write these words in the hope that others will dare to move into unfamiliar places and situations and find the methods most congenial for them. Then, one day, these experimenters can look back as I do and say that gradually, without noticing it, their style has changed and their skills improved until they have achieved a comfort and confidence they once thought possible only for others. In other words, it works!

Here are the three fundamental concepts I use. Having mastered basic cane technique and these three concepts, anyone can experiment, try new things, and spread his or her wings. The key is to challenge oneself to improve. Here are three ways to do it: mapping, reversing, and pathfinding.

Mapping is the mental gathering and retention of information about an area that allows the blind traveler to travel anywhere in it without other information except that contained on the mental map. Everyone uses mapping to get around. By this, I specifically mean sighted people. Sighted hunters have mental maps of the terrain that leads to their favorite deer stand or pheasant nesting ground. Sighted shoppers, familiar with a mall, plan their stops to avoid doubling back without reference to any but their mental maps. Sighted drivers moving about a familiar city rarely glance at street signs and navigate streets and freeways by referring to their own mental maps along with a sense of accustomed distances and observation of familiar landmarks.

When blind people set out for a destination, why shouldn't they use the same techniques? In fact, why should we not expect ourselves to make such maps for common daily use just as sighted people do? Our maps may have different reference points and landmarks, but they can be equally useful. In fact, since our maps use touch and sound instead of visible landmarks, we can more easily convey them to one another. We can of course use maps or directions from sighted people, but these are often given in visual terms and require translation into tactile and audible ones.

Many blind travelers use this mapping technique when traveling outdoors along streets, especially those set in a grid pattern. But, when it comes to buildings, some of us think that mapping doesn't work or isn't worth the effort. It most certainly does and is absolutely worth the effort.

Let me give a few examples. I first began rigorously to develop this technique inside buildings when traveling to NFB conventions. As soon as I reached my room and shooed out the bell person, I would sit down on the corner of the nearest bed and mentally go over the route from the desk to my room, rehearsing the route until I could remember it flawlessly then mentally practicing the reverse, walking back to the desk. As I traveled and practiced more, my ability to remember the route became more and more routine, so I never sit on the corner of the bed any more. By the time I get into my room, the practice of years has enabled me to lock in the route so that I can call upon it as needed. I usually ask a few questions at the hotel desk like the location of the restaurants, in order to get those on my mental map right away. Then, as I move around the hotel, I add details to the map for each floor. Here are a few examples from Federation convention hotels.

At the national convention hotel in Anaheim, I first stepped onto a floor with smaller meeting rooms to go to a specific room. To reach it, I discovered that one angled about forty-five degrees to the right after leaving the elevator lobby and then straightened out to walk down a long hall in the same direction as one had been going when leaving the elevator lobby. The angled digression was necessary to go around a large open stair well and escalators. Meeting rooms opened off this hall and also off hallways perpendicular to it branching to the right. Later that day I arrived at the same floor looking for a different room and discovered that, to find it, one angled forty-five degrees to the left to reach a different hallway, down which one proceeded in the same direction as one had been walking when leaving the elevator lobby. Rooms opened off this hallway and off hallways branching from it to the left. While the distances were long, the map of the floor was almost complete in my mind.

Still later that day I was at the end of the left hall and needed to go to a room at the end of the right hall. By then I knew that I could have returned all the way to the elevator lobby, walked across to the right-hand hall, and walked back up that hall to the room, since that day I had at different times already walked each piece of this proposed route. However, my mental map also told me that cross halls were very likely to connect the long left and right halls at intervals, allowing people like me to cross between them without having to go all the way back to the elevator lobby. I started looking for such a hall and found one almost immediately, saving myself a two-block detour.

This brings me to an important detail in mapping: which way is north? While I know good blind travelers who rarely pay attention to the cardinal directions, I am not one of them. When I enter a building that I'm going to use intensively, I try as soon as possible to learn which way north is so that I can draw my mental maps using north, south, east, and west rather than right and left, which are obviously dependent on which way one is facing. I find that knowing where north is allows me to make a map of a floor or lobby area that I can mentally look down upon, locate myself upon, and determine my next move, whereas having just rights and lefts requires constant transposition, depending on where one is and where one is going. When I can't find someone who knows which way north is, I simply assign what I call a "false north" (for example, the direction one travels when leaving the elevator), so that I can still have a consistent map that works throughout the hotel and is not reliant on rights and lefts.

Once in a state convention motel I had vague directions for the path from my room to the first convention meeting. I discovered that the path included the entire length of a parking lot, passing along the outside of the lobby and then meandering among several other buildings before arriving at the one we were using. Once I arrived at the first meeting, I reviewed the route several times in my head, since indoors and out it was nearly three blocks long and one of the longer routes I had walked in quite some time. By using north, estimating direction, and drawing my mental map, I discovered that I had walked around three sides of a very large square inside which were located various motel buildings.

I began enquiring about going from my room on the very edge of the square across the fourth side instead of traveling around the other three sides. At first I was told that there was no way to do that, but other convention goers staying down at the very end as I was eventually did discover that there was a way to walk along the fourth side, which went off hotel property and then back onto it. Finding that route earlier would have saved me a lot of walking.

Mapping uses all the tactile and audible features of an area as landmarks. For example, we Iowans quickly and to our delight discovered that, when walking along the ballroom foyer that included all the entrances to the Louisville convention ballroom, we could just keep walking until we stepped from carpet to tile. The next door brought us into the convention hall just behind the Iowa section. In large open spaces I always look for details like low walls, steps, potted vegetation, changes from tile to carpet, and seating areas--details I can find with my cane and use as landmarks or points at which to change direction.

Then there are fountains. I used to hate them. Their constant sound can drown out other information. Then I discovered their utility--a huge fixed point of navigation. You don't have to go anywhere near a fountain to know where it is and to use it as a navigation aid. I remember a state convention with a fountain in the hotel lobby. I arrived at the banquet from one direction and left it in another, heading for the lobby. Using my mental map, I chose a hallway I had never used before, confident that it would lead toward the lobby and that I would be able to tell exactly where I was as soon as I heard the fountain. The plan worked just fine. In fact, my husband and I have a joke that goes, "The fountain is our friend!" by which we mean that some people think fountains are noisy when we think them useful.

When I enter a building I have never been in before, I start gathering information, including asking questions of both blind and sighted people. It's my job to create my own map, and I get information in many ways and make it useful in building my maps. With sighted people I usually point in the direction I think they are indicating and ask if that's what they mean. Once I confirm the direction they mean, I find my own tactile or audible method of getting there.

This same technique works well in airports I use regularly. My own home airport and the one I use most often to change planes, United in Chicago, are both laid out in the shape of a huge print H, which allows me to know at all times both where I am and how to walk to an objective. When the new Denver airport was opened, my husband Doug went through it for a plane change before I did. He came back, pleased that the Denver people had been accommodating enough to build the long United corridor just like our street at home. When we walk out our front door, which is on the side with odd numbers, larger numbers are to our left. This exact pattern--odd-numbered gates on one side, even on the other, and odd numbers arranged like our neighborhood street--makes it easy for us to know from the single fact of the number of our arriving gate exactly which way and on which side our departing gate is located.

Many of us have a mental map of the Capitol Holiday Inn in Washington, and some of us actually retain three or four maps of the ground floor, which has changed over the years. The hotel manager told us last February that the ground floor is changing again and gave a few examples. I encountered him three days later, and he was astonished that I could repeat exactly what he had said. I would have been disappointed in myself if I could not have done so. Having advance notice of a change of map was a real treat. It counterbalanced just a little all those times, especially in airports, when the map that once worked no longer works due to construction.

This leads me to a final tip about mapping. If the map is not working, don't junk the technique; just revise the map. I was recently at a state convention, and one element of my map just wasn't working--the orientation of the elevator on one floor. Everything else worked just fine, but I could never reliably find the elevator on that one floor. We left the hotel and returned, coming in a different door, and I approached this elusive elevator from a different direction, which allowed me to discover that I had one element of my map in the wrong place. On one of the lower floors I had the orientation of the elevator spun ninety degrees, facing south when it actually faced west. When the map isn't working, keep revising, and it will eventually work.

Remember, it's your job to gather the information and to make the map, not the job of sighted people to know how to tell you where things are. In the first place they don't think about tile and fountains and "north" the way we do. In the second place blaming a sighted person for giving bad directions is no different from blaming a bad cane travel teacher or bad genes for not finding a place. The objective is to learn how to talk to all kinds of people and make the map for yourself. Many blind people routinely do this every day, and most of us can learn to do so.

The other two fundamental concepts are actually specific ways of using and enhancing the skill of mental mapping. I call the next one reversing. Reversing is the ability to move unerringly from Point B to Point A along the route one has already walked to get from Point A to Point B. The most common use for reversing is in restaurants, although the skill is universally useful. In restaurants I want to be able to walk to the front door from my table, both for leaving and for finding the cash register, which is commonly by the front door. And I want to be able to return to my table or to the front door from the rest room. In order to do either, I have to be able to reverse a route I have just walked within the last hour or two or the last ten minutes or so. In restaurants I frequent, the need for this specific skill of reversing fades as an actual mental map emerges. But I want to be able to move about in a restaurant I'm going to be in only once. I use the same technique I use when going from a hotel check-in desk to my room, paying attention to turns and other detail such as raised areas, sources of music, changes in flooring, and changes in noise level.

Learning the specific skill of reversing, like learning how to map, is something I made myself do consciously so that the skill became second nature and takes very little effort any more. At first it felt scary to stand up from a restaurant table and start walking toward where I thought the door was. Gradually I learned to pay attention on the way in so that I was no longer guessing on the way back out.

Adding the location of rest rooms is merely a further application of this skill. I can get directions from a server or another diner to the rest room or follow someone there the first time. I pay close attention to the route between the table and the rest rooms. Once there, I can then return to the table by reversing. Or, as sometimes happens, I can add together the two routes, one to the table and the other to the rest room, to make a broader map, allowing me to go from the rest room to the door, where the rest of the party is gathering. All this takes much longer to explain than to do, and all this is easily performed by any blind person who makes up his or her mind to do it. It starts with a determination to develop the skill of reversing and the willingness to try.

The third fundamental concept I use is pathfinding. I became convinced a long time ago that I cannot walk a straight line. Neither can most other people, blind or sighted. Take as an example the sport of orienteering. Sighted people take two things with them into wild country and make a day of going from Point A to Point B, using only these two things. One is a topographical map, and the other is a compass. These orienteers are sighted, but they assume they can't walk a straight line, so they use a compass as one of their two basic tools. Well I can't walk a straight line either. It doesn't matter how carefully I center my cane or standardize my stride. I drift off the straight line. I suspect that this is true of most people and thus of most blind people.

Without additional cues, over a distance anyone will walk at an angle. Sighted people use curb lines and objects at a distance toward which they can navigate, so they seem to walk straight. But send them orienteering, and they'll find out about straight. Blind people don't have curbs at a distance beyond our cane reach to parallel or objects in the distance toward which we can steer unless we're lucky enough to be walking toward a constant noise source like a fountain or a busy street. So I long ago concluded I would have to find auditory or tactile alternatives to guide me in a straight line, and I developed what I call pathfinding.

This was the basis for deciding not to tap my cane. I learned when starting to use a cane to arc the cane from left to right and then back to the left again, tapping at the outer edges of the arc. I used this method for a while and then figured out I was missing all kinds of information by picking up the cane for most of its trip across my path. I found that, by leaving the cane on the ground and gliding it from edge to edge of the arc, I learned a great deal more about the surface on which I was walking and could more reliably keep to a straight path.

The information I acquire using the glide method includes the location of cracks between sidewalk and parking lot, an important pathfinding device when walking along a parking lot; seams in the sidewalk perpendicular to my path, which nonetheless convey direction; and, most important, seams between sidewalk and street, which are often composed of two different materials, also discernible more easily using the glide technique. Using this method, I can detect slopes, both those going across my path, which indicate driveways, and those going in my direction, which indicate the approach of streets or alleys. I can find details in the walking surface which help to identify other cues so that the walking surface itself turns out to contain landmarks like the metal strip in the floor of the east tower in Louisville which, when one crosses it going south, is a signal to start drifting left to find the stairs up to the second floor. I think I also find drop-offs and stairs more reliably when my cane never leaves the ground.

All these changes I have made in my cane technique from the original arcing technique I was taught have led me to make yet three more changes. The first is cane length. I took an informal survey several years ago among people who seem to travel well using a white cane. My survey was provoked by the comment I often receive that my cane is too long. I must say here that I am really the only one who can tell whether or not my cane is too long as long as I am not constantly tripping others. I use a straight cane, meaning one that does not fold or telescope, since I find that canes in sections, while they may be convenient to store, always give me two kinds of information: that which I need and that which continuously reminds me that I am using a segmented cane, which alters the information on its way from the tip to my hand. I prefer to receive information about my surroundings only and not to be reminded constantly that I have sections. The storage problems people anticipate for such long canes (mine is sixty-five inches) are mostly mythical in my experience, and, when the rare problem occurs, I think it's a small price to pay for the purity of information I'm getting.

My informal survey showed that most of my friends who travel confidently carry canes that, when held vertically with the tip on the ground reach a point somewhere between the user's chin and nose. Most of these people also use straight canes. Mine is equal to my height. While every person must choose the cane length of comfort, I do think that my informal survey indicates that good cane users typically use longer canes. I know some fine cane travelers who don't use canes of that length, and I always come back to the stipulation that the cane must be comfortable and safe for the user. But I always urge people to try longer canes. I began my cane use with a much shorter cane. As I grew in skill, I started buying longer and longer canes. For one thing, I can always shorten the cane as needed by holding it more nearly upright and lowering my hand along the shaft, sometimes in crowds gliding my cane tip mere inches in front of my feet, while the handle is by my cheek.

But I cannot lengthen a shorter cane. For another, when I walk at speed, a longer cane gives me another step's warning of obstacles in my path, an extra measure of safety I appreciate when encountering drop-offs and obstructions, before which I can stop well short of the object or flight of steps.

My second change of technique was to abandon for most purposes the strict staying in step and also to abandon the tapping technique. If I were teaching cane travel to novices, as I mentioned previously, I would teach them to tap and stay in step as a way of getting people to pay attention to what the cane is doing. Later in their instruction I would encourage experimentation. Instead of swinging and tapping my cane, I glide it frequently enough to pathfind and identify obstacles. I just don't want to spend any brain power on strictly keeping in step. I prefer to use that brain power to do the pathfinding I described earlier. This can be done only by constantly moving the cane back and forth in the arc that clears the way for both shoulders. I'm just paying attention to the information coming from the tip of the cane in a different way from the way I was originally taught.

Third, I don't center my cane. Rather, I rest the cane in a cupped hand down by my hip in a hold that is comfortable and then impart the arcing motion to the cane by a combination of wrist and finger motion. This is much more comfortable to me than centering and tapping; my cane is long enough to correct for any disadvantage from no longer being centered; and my fingers and wrist are free to gather information as they move the cane, without being held near the middle of my body in what is to me an uncomfortable wrist position.

For this method of using a cane, I find that the very lightweight, hollow, fiberglass straight cane works best. It's got a little give so that it flexes when it gets stuck in a sidewalk crack or at the bottom of an obstruction, allowing me time to stop or hesitate and to move my wrist upward so that I can free the cane without the top of the cane hitting me in the solar plexus. The combination of cupping the cane and its light weight and flex actually tell me things rather than striking me.

One final note on cane physics: change tips early and often. Gliding a tip does cause wear, although I'm not sure any faster than tapping. The tip is a vital part of the information-gathering system. I learned long ago that, when my tip starts sticking, it's time to change it. At first changing the tip every time my cane began sticking seemed wasteful. But every time it sticks and I check it with my hand, the outer steel ring is nearly gone.

Good tip glide is necessary to me for safe, efficient travel, so I change as soon as the sticking begins. If I don't, my cane gets harder and harder to control, and I begin to feel like a bad cane user, missing information and veering more sharply. Changing the tip corrects all that like magic. I used to fuss privately about the cost until I remembered that sighted contact wearers buy cleaning solution. My tip-changing is merely my way of cleaning my contacts, so to speak. I change tips as needed, which can sometimes be as little as seven days and sometimes as much as three weeks.

Back now to pathfinding with this longer cane, this free-form arc, and this comfortable hold. I know some people are frustrated when the cane contacts all sorts of things in the environment. I prefer this. Touching information as I pass it helps to keep me oriented when I already know the path, and it helps me gain orientation if I'm passing by for the first time. Trash cans, poles, retaining walls, columns--all the stuff in my path inside or outside--give me information I can use now or put on my map for later. Holding my cane in a cupped hand allows me to move it out of the way quickly so that I can touch objects and not get hung up on them or raise my wrist slightly to shorten the cane and stop to examine the object. With my relaxed hold I can move the cane quickly to look, learn, avoid, or whatever as I move safely and also continue to refine my map.

While looking around, I am sometimes asked by a sighted person if he or she can help me. I always answer that, no, I'm just sightseeing. Which is quite literally true. The next time I pass that way, I will likely not pause but will touch lightly the objects I now have on my map if I need them as landmarks. But one quick examination makes my map more detailed and precise for later use.

This is especially true in large open areas where I'm looking for information to use later as landmarks. Easy landmarks are often there if you take a minute to observe them in their correct place on the map. Sometimes no information is available until you get to the other side of a large open area, in which case it's important to know the details of how to find the door or hall you're seeking when you get there, and context is important. A good mental map of a large open area uses fixed sounds like escalators and fountains for direction and details like potted plants; the turn of a wall; a change in flooring; or, as outside Champions in Atlanta, a huge model of a baseball for more precise identification of where you are and where you are going.

The convention level in the Marriott Marquis is like that. Numerous large and small meeting rooms are scattered around the perimeter of a huge central space, some opening right off the atrium and some hidden down winding hallways. The most efficient way to look for a door or a hallway in such large spaces is to cross the open area in the general direction of the room you want and then begin to look for details matching information on your mental map that guide you to the specific door once you've arrived at the wall.

Over the years my own techniques have changed as I've observed what works for me and listened to my blind friends describe what works for them. For me the absolute bottom line is that blind people can move successfully and safely through the world by using mapping, reversing, and pathfinding. Some people, both blind and sighted, think this just isn't possible. Many of my blind friends prove this contention false every day. Many more blind people learning to use white canes hope it's true and are working toward proficiency. All I can ask these people to do is to believe it works, keep practicing, and hold tight to the notion that others are now confidently using the techniques. If you start with the notion that "he or she is doing it," then progress to the notion that "I can do it if I try," and just keep working, one day you will look over your shoulder and say with a little surprise and a lot of pride: "Well, it's true! I do do it."

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