APPREHENSION accompanied me as I made my way to the Malaysian Association for the Blind (MAB) complex to start my course on Orientation & Mobility (O&M). At that point while the doctor had certified me clinically blind, I however begged to differ. After all, I could still read newspaper headlines. To end up using the white cane would be the ultimate confirmation of my visual status. After all, everyone associates white cane and Braille with blind people, right?
Part of the course module offered by MAB required my learning how to use a cane. I met Peter Manickam, the Welfare officer at MAB. He had offered to give me lessons on orientation and mobility the week before. So that was how it all started, I with a folded white cane hidden inside my bag.
Peter greeted me pleasantly. The first lesson was conducted within the MAB building. He showed me the proper way to hold a cane.
“Put the tip of the cane on the floor and sweep it across the floor from side to side,” Peter instructed as he demonstrated the action.
He moved forward with the tip of the cane never leaving the floor.
“The sweeping motion of the cane lets you know whether there are any drains, hazards and boundaries on either side.
Don’t take the tip of the cane off the floor. The tip lets you feel bumps, holes, obstacles or edges of stairs,” He explained. The cane also enables the blind to avoid collision in, near or alongside her or his path,” he explained.
“Aha!” I thought, ‘the tip of the cane is like an eye on the ground but instead of visually seeing with the cane, the blind uses the sense of touch to ‘see’!”
After a number of lessons within the MAB complex, Peter took me out to learn navigation on the sidewalks. A tapping action is used on sidewalks and roads since their surfaces are rough. A sweeping motion with the cane will exhaust its tip quickly. We walked to a traffic light and stopped.
Said Peter: “If you want to cross a road, put your cane out on the road first. Tap the cane a few times. This is to warn approaching vehicles that you want to cross the road.”
Lots To Learn
Before I crossed a road, I had to listen carefully and assess whether vehicles were moving or had stopped. It was also important to judge which direction the traffic was moving, their speed and volume
By the time the term started, I had almost finished my O&M lessons. I was paired with a blind woman. Our class instructor told me to be her ‘buddy’ and show her around the place. For the next few months, we went everywhere together. When we changed classes, I would show her to the correct class. We went to the canteen, the library and even the washroom together!
Initially I did not know the proper way to lead a blind person. Peter had told me that as a blind person, I could hold the sighted guide just above the elbow or let the sighted guide hold me in the same way. Therefore, I held my buddy just above the elbow to guide her. When we needed to turn a corner, I would hold her by both shoulders and turn her whole body to the correct direction. Her O&M instructor must have been appalled by the way I guided her ‘client’ because one day, she told me she wanted to give me lessons on how to be a guide for the blind.
In the first lesson, the O&M instructor asked me to hold her just above the elbow and stay a step behind her. “I will be the sighted guide, “ she told me. We walked along the corridor of the MAB building. When we reached a corner, she just walked around the corner and I followed. “Notice I had just walked around a corner and you’ve followed me?” she asked, “When you are a guide, you don’t need to turn the person you are leading around by the shoulder.” Then, we changed roles and I practiced guiding her.In the next lesson, the O&M instructor taught me how to lead a person along a narrow path. She asked me to hold her the usual way. I used my left hand to hold her right arm. We moved forward.
“You are walking beside me, now,” she said, “when I move my arm back, go directly behind me”. She proceeded to move her right arm back and to the left of her body. I moved directly behind her. We continued walking. “Use this method of leading a blind person when you need to walk along a narrow path or in a very crowded place where there’s little space to move side by side.” She explained.
After the lessons from the O&M instructor, I used her techniques when guiding my buddy. One day, I was guiding her to another class. Suddenly she stopped and commented, “We are in an open space,”
I was amazed! “How did you know?” I asked.
She answered, “I can feel a fresh breeze. In an enclosed space, there is no such fresh breeze”.
I think what she meant was that the air circulation pattern and air quality in an enclosed space were different from an open space.
There was another blind person who liked to tap his cane loudly. He used the echo generated to help him navigate.
Another lady preferred to extend her white cane to the edge of the train platform so she could walk parallel to the platform. The only problem was sometimes people put luggage or stood in her path. Personally, I prefer to tap or sweep my cane to navigate the train station.
First encounter with blind man
My first encounter with a blind person using the cane was during my primary school days. Sighted then, I was waiting at the bus- stop with a few people after school. A blind man approached us. Instead of walking in front of the bus- stop, he walked behind it. There was a monsoon drain behind the bus- stop and as he walked on, the space between the monsoon drain and the bus-stop became increasingly narrow. The blind man fumbled. He used his white cane to probe tentatively around him. Everyone stood watching but none offered to help.
I went behind the bus-stop and led him to the front. “You have walked behind a bus-stop,” I told him, “you can walk on now”. The blind man thanked me and went on his way.
The incident showed me that while the cane can help warn a blind person about the surrounding hazards it however cannot show him which path is safe.
Embarrassed to use cane
The first few years after completing the O&M course, I was too embarrassed to use the white cane in public. Instead, I used an umbrella for navigation. I became acutely aware of people with umbrellas in their hands when out walking. I noticed some people, especially the elderly carried long umbrellas when they took morning walks, did their marketing in the morning or when shopping on fine days. While some used the umbrella for support. There were a few who did not seem to need the umbrella for support at all. I wondered whether like me, they were using the umbrella for navigation purposes.
I also noticed blind people who did not use the white cane. They prefer a sighted guide to help lead them. I thought they looked rather dependent. Some of them did not walk with the same poise and confidence as someone using the cane.
Its My Eye
Gradually, I got round to the idea of using the white cane. Furthermore, my residual vision had also declined drastically. I soon found out that using the cane had its advantages. People moved out of my way when they saw me walking towards them. Some drivers stopped and let me cross the road even though the traffic light was green. Some passengers offered me their seats in public transports. Sometimes, at self-service restaurants, the staff offered to carry the food to the table for me. There were kind souls who guided me across the road or led me to my destination.
However, a few of them guided me by lifting one end of the cane off the ground. Oh dear! The cane is my eye! I needed to keep it on the ground to ‘see’ for me!
Symbol of Independence
Now I am comfortable using the cane in public. William Rowland, president of the South African National Council for the Blind had once written, “The white cane is not so much a symbol of our blindness, but a symbol of our independence as blind people.”
Blind people have climbed mountains, ran marathons and travelled around the world on their own with the trusty white cane. There are blind individuals who head research teams in multinational corporations. The blind also hold important posts either in public or private sector bodies. With such beacons of inspiration, why should I be embarrassed to use my white cane in public?
Lifestyle -Independent Living by CS Khan
Challenges Magazine Vol1 Issue4, 2008 (Challenges Magazine is a journalism skills training project for persons with disabilities started in 2007)