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A Cane in Our Lives
by Carol Castellano
Reprinted from Future Reflections

Last Christmas, when she was five years old, our daughter Serena received a cane from Santa Claus. To be sure, her father and I were a lot more excited about it than she was that first day, but it wasn't long before Serena discovered just what it would mean to have a cane in her life.

She realized immediately that by holding that long object out in front of her, she could avoid bumping into things with her nose. She also found that she could get advance warning of steps, curbs, changes in the terrain, and the like. She no longer had to rely on holding someone's hand to avoid potential danger. Suddenly she was free!

It took her about a week and a half to incorporate the new tool into her existing repertoire of travel skills—and then there was no stopping her. The sidewalk was hers. Unfamiliar stairways—no problem. The way to our neighbors' house was easily learned and Serena strolled over to deliver a package. At the mall she was free to explore corridors and enjoy the echoes. Finding elevator doors was a snap; escalators provided great amusement (for her, not me). We were able to begin teaching her how to cross our quiet street alone, a skill appropriate to her age. We began to walk to the park like other families, holding hands sometimes for the pure pleasure of it and not because we had to.

One day my husband and I walked over with the children to the local school to vote. While we were busy signing in, Serena went off exploring. She followed the strains of an orchestra which was rehearsing in the school auditorium, a few hallways away. Halfway down the aisle, heading for the stage, was the new Miss Independence. What possibilities the cane opened up! I recall how it used to strike me as a little odd to see in the Braille Monitor picture after picture of people posing with their canes. Were they showing pride in being blind, I wondered? Were they trying to prove a point? Eventually I came to understand that the white cane is both a symbol of independence for blind people and a basic tool of making independence a reality. Matter-of-factly showing the cane in a photograph expresses the fundamental normalcy of blind people's lives.

In this year's Halloween picture of my children, the Queen of the Prom stands holding her cane next to brother Superman. It's not a display; it's not a soapbox issue. To us, a cane in Serena's hand is just the most natural thing. When our NFB friends gathered for a picnic in our backyard, Serena at one point was hanging around in the kitchen comparing canes with the rest of the gang. Just the most natural thing.

When I look back, I realize that getting the cane was the most significant event to happen to our family this year. It vastly changed Serena's level of independence; it changed mine. At Grandma's house, we can simply direct her to the steps; no longer do I have to hang onto her along with anything else I might be carrying; she can proceed independently at her own pace. At the library I can rush ahead with my pile of books, without worrying about her tripping on the steps or falling into the fountain. When we arrive at friends' houses, she can navigate the front walks and stairways herself. Serena goes from our car in the driveway, along the walk, up the front steps, and into the house alone; I do not have to walk her. Since we are in and out of the car so many times each day, this skill was very important to my freedom.

The cane greatly raised our expectations. It is natural now for Serena to move along independently. We expect this of her; more importantly, she expects it of herself. Would Serena have progressed as much if she hadn't had a cane? I think not. Her curiosity and urge to explore would have been thwarted; she would not have been able to move about nearly as freely beyond the four walls of our home. Her development would have been needlessly hampered.

It is hard to believe that canes are not given as a matter of course to young blind children, since the cane is probably the most important external factor in the development of independence. What does it say about the attitudes of many professionals towards blind people and independence if they will not give canes to children? Could it mean that it is satisfactory, in their eyes, for the blind always to be followers, always to be led?

It is impossible to understand—and chilling to ponder—why anyone would argue against normal, natural independence in a child's life. That is what the cane makes possible. It provides the opportunity for the blind child to make the normal developmental moves away from his or her parents, to be just like any other child, expected and encouraged to venture with increasing independence into the world.

One day a few weeks ago, Serena's cane got stuck in a crack, and when she pulled it out it broke. The magnitude of the disaster suddenly struck her.

"Ooooh," she whined, "now we're going to have to hold hands."

With thanks to Joe Cutter, 0 & M instructor, a creative and innovative person who teaches parents to teach their children and who believes in and respects other people, sighted and blind.

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