Choices We Make: Independence We Celebrate, Part One

Coordinated by Maribel Steel

Editor’s note: To celebrate July as “Independence Month,” for all of its independence-related celebrations, the peer advisors initiated this topic of “independence” last July and have a lengthy series of posts to peruse. Be sure to read Part Two on Choosing a Dog Guide.

The White Cane: A Useful Tool That Opens Up Your World

picture of person walking with long white cane extended

By Audrey Demmitt

The Wake-up Call

There comes a time when it just makes sense to use a white cane when you are losing your vision. Most of us resist this rite of passage, fearing the stigmas, myths, and images associated with the “dreaded white cane.” In my case, something awful had to happen to wake me up to the reality that I was no longer a safe traveler.

I had many falls and sprained ankles which I attributed to clumsiness. As my vision worsened, the falls became more frequent and I was forced to admit it was not just clumsiness. While at work, I took a series of falls which raised concerns with my employer. Then I fell at home and ended up having ankle reconstruction surgery. I knew it was time to consider using a cane.

Taking the Next Step

I called various vision rehabilitation services to inquire how to get training. They pointed me to the state vocational rehabilitation agency where I applied for services, to include what is called Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training.

After waiting a year with no word from my state agency, I tried to find private instructors to teach me O&M and was told there were none available and it would be cost prohibitive.

So, I turned to the internet and found the Accelerated Orientation and Mobility (AOM) program offered by Leader Dogs for the Blind (LDB). This is a seven day, one-on-one, intensive course taught by certified O&M specialists at the training center in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The cost to the client: FREE.

With great anticipation and a bit of trepidation, I applied for the AOM program. LDB walked me through the process, made all the travel arrangements, and paid all the expenses. All I had to do was show up at the airport and be ready to learn. When I arrived in Michigan, LDB staff was there to greet me.

An Incredible Experience

My week at LDB was an incredible experience. On the first morning, I was fitted with my new cane and the teaching began. It felt awkward in my hands, but I was eager to learn. The days’ lessons built on each other as my skills developed. There is so much more to Orientation and Mobility than I ever imagined. It is not just about thwacking a cane around. It involves cane techniques such as the grip, the swing, and two-point touch.

There is shore-lining, stairs, and street crossings to master. I was struck with the difference the cane made immediately. I was able to walk with my head up and with a normal gait as I learned to use the information my cane gave me. No more staring at the ground and shuffling like a grandma!

Standing Tall Again

It felt wonderful to stand tall and take in the surrounding environment. I learned to plan a route, use environmental cues to orient myself, and get from point A to point B safely. It was so exhilarating to realize I could once again get myself to where I wanted to go.

I like how the cane identifies me as visually impaired so I do not have to explain this. At first, I thought it would make me appear “disabled,” but on the contrary, I think I appear more “able,” traveling on my own with confidence. In addition, I find that using my white cane invites the kindness of strangers who are willing to offer assistance. Before long, instead of feeling awkward with it, I felt awkward without it.

I will be forever grateful for the gift of this training from Leader Dogs for the Blind as it was the beginning of regaining my independence.

Independence Day Then and Now

By Elizabeth Sammons, VisionAware Contributor

My own “independence” day arrived one hot summer day in 1974. That spring, my parents had hired a lawyer for $1 to convince our local school system that it was time to mainstream a child with a disability. We were told that I could not attend school in my own district, but that I needed to take a bus to another school several blocks away.

My parents began trying to make me use a white cane. But to my eight-year-old mind, the cane meant shouting to the world that I was blind. I remember holding it stiffly in front of me, refusing to let its tip touch the ground. In July, my mother told me a policeman would be coming the next week to escort me from my house to the bus stop, and if I was judged a “community hazard,” I could kiss my dream of attending public school good-bye. “So you’d better improve your cane technique,” she concluded.

Taking on the Challenge

Two hours of daily commuting to a blind class in another town was not worth it, so I began letting my hand and arm relax. I learned what my cane could show me as it tapped the ground, bumped tree root swells, or slid along brick cracks.

When the policeman came, I was ready. My ears and cane guided me through a perfect walk with him. Near the end, he remarked, “I am proud of you that you are being so independent.”

I knew then, that this was my real independence day!

Photo of AmbuTech cane colors

Other Information on Orientation and Mobility

Read an introduction on Orientation and Mobility training

Wearing Many Hats For Independence: Traveling Safely

White Cane A Symbol of Dependence or Independence

Does the Cane Have to be White?

Do you have a story to share about using mobility methods for maintaining independence? Please share in the comment box, we’d love to hear them.