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Mobility: Whose Responsibility Is It?
by Gary Wunder
Reprinted from Future Reflections

From 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.

My 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 Missy—never had one accident whatsoever. But when we came to the curb, she said, "Stop, Daddy, stop!"

I was surprised, and I said, "Missy, I know to stop."

"How do you know?" said Missy.

"My cane falls off the curb," I said.

"Oh, yeah. Well, don't go, Daddy; don't go."

"Missy, I'm not going to go."

"Well, you can't see the light."

"No, I can't see the light, but I can tell when to go by the traffic. Do you know what I mean?"


"Well, 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?"

"No, 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 safe."

She said, "I know. I just wanted to see did you know."

So 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.

I 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.

When 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 son—which was okay—to 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 old.

When 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 train.

Your 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.

I 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 rang—especially 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.

At 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 me—if 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.

What's 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.

There's 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.

I 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.

It wasn't until two or three blocks later that she realized I wasn't there anymore. She got off, and—not knowing where I was going, only that it had something to do with the blind—she 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 way—unaccompanied—to the Kansas City Association for the Blind. So it didn't do my folks a lot of good to have me followed, but they tried.

It 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.

I 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.

After 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 people—parents, sisters, brothers, friends, teachers, etc.—who had assumed that my mobility was their responsibility, I had come to consider that attitude just normal.

Priscilla 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.

The 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.

It wasn't until I came to an NFB meeting and somebody said,

"Your 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.

There 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? Not anymore.

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