Whose Responsibility Is It?
Reprinted from Future Reflections
the Editor: This article is from a speech the
author made at a National Organization of Parents of
Blind Children Seminar:
Priscilla Ferris was just talking about people misunderstanding
what dog guides do. It strikes me that there is a theme
here that is appropriate for the cane user as well:
Any time a blind person is with somebody who is sighted,
his or her mobility is considered by many people as
necessarily the sighted person's responsibility. This
poses a problem when one is, as I am, the blind parent
of a sighted child.
daughter was four years old when we were out walking
one day. There have been times when my daughter knew
that I knew everything and times when she was sure I
knew nothing. We were going through one of those "I
don't think he knows very much" stages. Whether that
happened because of something that somebody at preschool
said to her about having a blind father, or because
it just happens in the development of children, I don't
know. But we were out walking one day. I've always walked
with a cane, and I've always taken care of Missynever
had one accident whatsoever. But when we came to the
curb, she said, "Stop, Daddy, stop!"
was surprised, and I said, "Missy, I know to stop."
do you know?" said Missy.
cane falls off the curb," I said.
yeah. Well, don't go, Daddy; don't go."
I'm not going to go."
you can't see the light."
I can't see the light, but I can tell when to go by
the traffic. Do you know what I mean?"
when the parallel traffic is going, it's safe for me
to go. When the perpendicular traffic is going, it's
not safe. Do you know what I mean?"
what's perpendicular?" So I explained to her that parallel
is that traffic moving on my right and perpendicular
is those cars sitting out here in front of me. We waited
a while, and Missy said, "Go, Daddy, go." I said, "Missy,
the traffic in front of me is still going. It's not
said, "I know. I just wanted to see did you know."
we crossed the street when both the light and the traffic
changed. No sooner did we get across than this woman
bent down and gave my daughter a hug. She said, "Oh,
you do such a good job with him." So, again, it's the
public misperception that it's the dog or the child
with the blind person who knows everything, and it's
the blind person who is necessarily dependent in travel.
That is wrong.
can't overemphasize the importance of independence when
it comes to having a positive self-concept. Whether
that independence is used to go down to the store to
get a loaf of bread or whether it lets you do something
as trivial as getting up and walking off in a huff when
you're having an argument, the ability to be mobile
is terribly important. The difficult thing for blind
people is that we learn dependence at a very early age,
but we are not likely to grow out of it as other people
do. Children at a year and a half or two years old are
dependent, whether they are blind or sighted. Parents
hold their hands every place they go. The trouble is
that at six or eight years of age many of our blind
children are still attached to their parents' hands
when walking. And while on the one hand blind children
resent that and wish for freedom, on the other hand
they mostly come to think that this abnormal dependency
is a pretty normal thing for blind kids.
I was growing up, you didn't get a cane when you were
six or four or three years old. The cane was a thing
that my parents put off for as long as they could, and
they did it with the support of educators. For them
the cane was a symbol. It transformed me from being
their blind sonwhich was okayto being somebody
who might grow up to be a blind man. That wasn't okay.
So I didn't see a cane until I was about eleven years
I was in elementary school, I was taught to read and
write Braille efficiently, but my mobility was something
else. I was one of the kids who formed a giant human
train whenever we went anywhere. We all got into a big
line, a line which was led by a sighted teacher. We
all followed along. Because blind people were necessarily
less mobile than everybody else, we got to go to lunch
early. We were the first in line, the first out to recess,
and the first back from recess. We were always in the
blind children don't have to do that today because more
and more people are accepting the fact that, if you
give a blind child a cane, he or she can learn to move
around independently. I thought it was a big deal when
I invented a technique that would let me walk around
the block. It was called "slide one foot along the curb."
I understand now that I was not the first person to
invent it, but at the time I thought about marketing
it to other blind people. It seemed like a really good
idea to me. It was a lot more fun than being hooked
up to somebody else all the time.
remember in high school playing lots of tricks and using
gimmicks because I didn't have mobility skills. I
remember being told that, if you had to use a cane at
all, you used it only when you were outside. If you
used it inside, you'd be bound to trip your classmates.
That would be a terrible thing to do; it would be irresponsible.
Besides, who wanted to look any blinder than they had
to? That was the line I was given and believed. So I
remember in high school figuring out how long each period
was and trying to arrange things so I could strike up
a conversation with a fellow student just before the
bell rangespecially if the student with whom I
struck up the conversation happened to be going to the
same class as I. Now it's fine to have interesting,
stimulating conversations with fellow students; but
it's not fine to believe that that's what you have to
do to get from one class to the next. Again, the reason
I did it was that it wasn't considered acceptable to
use a cane indoors. A cane was an outside thing.
first I carried the cane with a certain growl, believing,
like most people around me, that my mobility was really
someone else's responsibility. Most of the time I could
find somebody to hang on to. The cane was only there
for times when I couldn't force that responsibility
on somebody else. I got lots of support for this attitude.
As I said earlier, for a long time my family resisted
letting me get and use the cane. They always guided
me from one place to another. It wasn't easy to change
this when I got to be eleven and was finally introduced
to a cane. My brothers and sisters just assumed that
somebody in the family ought to have hold of meif
not one of them, then my mother or my father was supposed
to hold onto me. We were taught that mobility was a
very complex and highly scientific thing that had to
be taught by the mobility professionals. If there were
no mobility professionals around, well of course you
had to hang on.
worse is that we were taught that route travel (memorizing
how to get from point A to point B) was the only form
of independent travel a blind person could be taught.
If ever points C and D were to be introduced into that
route, the mobility specialist would have to be notified
at least two or three weeks before the new route was
needed. It didn't sound too exciting to me. I learned
many things about mobility when I started meeting blind
people who were independent travelers.
I learned some of my best mobility tips from a blind
guy who asked me at midnight if I knew how to get from
building A to building B on the college campus. I said
that I didn't, and the mobility instructor wasn't coming
until the next Thursday. My blind friend said that he
thought he could teach me how to get there now, so we
went out and learned it. He showed me how to use things
like trash cans and telephone poles as landmarks. (The
mobility professionals had always taught me to avoid
those things.) What amazed me most, however, about this
experience was that I was being taught by someone who
was blind. And he was teaching me that it wasn't so
important to learn a slick routine to get from A to
B, but that I should learn general skills that would
let me travel safely.
a tremendous difference between route travel and truly
independent travel. It's strange that it took somebody
who was blind to teach me that. But I'm glad, too, because
I knew that the guy who was blind didn't have professional
certification. He was just a blind man who was looking
for something to do at midnight and figured he could
help another guy. That was wonderful because, at that
time in my life, I didn't believe that blind people
could teach other blind people anything. I thought mobility
was a highly technical skill, and it isn't.
remember going for my first job interview. I wanted
a summer job, so I went to the Kansas City Association
for the Blind, which is a sheltered workshop. That summer
I put pins together and put washers on bolts and did
all kinds of things that made me a decent little stash
of money for a college student. My parents had never
seen me travel without the benefit of a travel instructor,
so my mother decided she was going to have me followed.
She figured that I would catch her if she did it herself
(I'm not sure why she thought this), so she asked my
cousin to follow me. My cousin was about eighteen years
old at the time and rather scatterbrained. She was a
nice enough kid but couldn't stay on task (that's the
term we use for it now). So I got on the city bus and
rode from South Kansas City to Downtown Kansas City,
and while she wasn't looking, I got up and off the bus.
wasn't until two or three blocks later that she realized
I wasn't there anymore. She got off, andnot knowing
where I was going, only that it had something to do
with the blindshe went to a phone book. The first
thing she saw was the Bureau for the Blind. She went
over to that office, where she and a counselor discussed
what a wonderful kid I was while I continued on my wayunaccompaniedto
the Kansas City Association for the Blind. So it didn't
do my folks a lot of good to have me followed, but they
took me years to come to see my cane as a symbol of
independence. For a long time I regarded it as something
to be used only when I couldn't foist my mobility off
onto somebody else.
want to tell you the story of what broke me of that
attitude. I started dating hot and heavy when I went
to college. I enjoyed it immensely. One night I went
out to dinner with a young woman. Because my date was
sighted, I left my cane at home and went sighted guide.
(I thought this was the way that the world worked if
you were blind.) We had liver and onions, and as I was
cutting my liver and engaging this woman in conversation
(I was showing her how witty I was), the plate moved
closer and closer to the edge of the table and suddenly
plopped off into my lap. Well, I was in something of
a bind, and I was terribly embarrassed. When my date
asked if I wanted her to walk me home so I could change
my clothes, I already felt bad enough without also accepting
the humiliation of having her walk me home, so I said
"No, I'll be fine." I had to walk six blocks home without
a cane. There were several four-lane, lighted street
crossings, and I didn't like that very much.
this experience it seemed to me that carrying a cane
was probably a very good thing. (I also learned to be
a little more careful in cutting liver.) For the first
time I realized that I had to be responsible for my
own mobility. I don't know why that was such a hard
concept to understand. I guess that, after years of
being taken care of by peopleparents, sisters,
brothers, friends, teachers, etc.who had assumed
that my mobility was their responsibility, I had come
to consider that attitude just normal.
talked a lot about guide dogs and canes. I used a guide
dog for a time when I went to college. I enjoyed using
a dog, so I don't have a thing to say against using
them. However, I want to give you a couple of precautions
which I think Priscilla would go along with. When I
got my guide dog, I did so because I had some trouble
with orientation. I thought, somewhere deep down inside,
that I would be able to give a dog the command, "Go
to 3402 West 52nd Street," and the dog would figure
out for me how many blocks south and west I wanted to
go. This didn't happen. In fact, I would say that the
dog often aggravated my orientation problems because
I couldn't look for the landmarks which were so obvious
to me with a cane. I had to keep track in my head of
where we were. The dog didn't let me get close to the
trash cans or the telephone poles because he knew that
was the surest way to get a leash correction. But with
a cane I could use these landmarks. In some respects
with a dog I had to know more about my surroundings
in order to travel.
second thing I thought the dog would solve for me was
a certain tension I felt when traveling with a cane.
It used to bother me to be clipping along, and suddenly
the cane would hit something. I would have only half
a step in which to react. With only that much distance,
you better travel tense; you have to be on your guard
and quick to react.
wasn't until I came to an NFB meeting and somebody said,
cane is a couple of feet too short," that I realized
that I didn't have to react in half a step; that I didn't
have to walk with my elbow locked and my arm straight--try
holding your arm straight out in front of you for very
long. This is what the specialists teach because they
say that in order to be a courteous blind person you
have to have a short cane that only comes up to your
breast bone. Nonsense. Now I have a cane that comes
up to my shoulder; sometimes I use one that comes up
to the tip of my nose. The length of a cane has nothing
to do with courtesy; it has to do with good use. I like
traveling with a cane much better now that I get a step
and a half or two of warning. I don't find travel to
be the ordeal that I did before. With proper advice
I wouldn't have had to go through any of that.
are a number of appropriate mobility techniques for
blind people to use from time to time. Sometimes people
frame mobility issues as, "I'm fer it or I'm agin it."
Do you use a sighted guide or don't you? Do you use
diagonal cane technique or don't you? Do you use the
pencil grip or don't you? Do you use a collapsible cane
or a straight, rigid one? There are times and places
for all of these things. The issue is to figure out
when you're using a technique because it truly is the
most convenient and appropriate for what you are trying
to do, and when you're using it as a cop-out. If I want
to have a conversation with one of you and we are cutting
through this convention crowd, it may be that I will
take your arm or you will take mine--whether you're
sighted or blind. We do that because it is convenient
and appropriate for what we want to do--have a conversation
and stay together in a crowd. So sometimes, yes, that
means that I may use a person as a sighted guide. But
do I give him or her responsibility for my mobility?