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Cane Makes You Able, But Not Necessarily Safe

By DEBORAH KENDRICK · October 19th, 2005 · In My View
"Wait! Stay there a minute," a guy shouts at me as I'm walking up a major road in Hyde Park. On my right, the cars are streaming past, drowning out some of his distant words to me. My guide dog is zipping along at her usual pace, not pausing in the slightest, as she knows to do if there's an obstacle in my path.

Hmmm, I'm thinking, maybe it's another piece of the ubiquitous construction -- a hole that might swallow me up or wet cement that I don't particularly want to imprint with my new cool shoes.

"What is it?" I shout back, slowing my dog to a gradual stop, trusting that this stranger is protecting me from a danger that has missed my canine's typical vigilance.

"I'm moving!" he barks at me. "Just stay there!"

For one more naĆ­ve instant, I think maybe he means he's moving in or out of a residence here, and a couch or entertainment center is blocking the driveway. But no, then I hear him slam the door as he gets in his car and starts the motor.

This guy's purpose in shouting for me to wait was simply that he wanted to get in his car and pull out of his driveway into the road. I could have been another block from here before he'd started his engine, but in my confusion in sorting out the situation, I had actually waited patiently lest this far more important human be inconvenienced.

That same day Danielle Iredale, a blind woman in Carboro, N.C., is waiting at a bus stop when Stephen Coffee, a bartender who had sampled twice the legal limit of his boss' merchandise, was too drunk to keep his car on the road. Instead, he roared onto the sidewalk, sent Iredale and her dog flying and then drove home to pass out in his bed.

Iredale's dog was killed and she herself had broken legs and a concussion.

Somewhere amid the rules and regulations you learned back when getting your driver's license was the one that said pedestrians using long white canes or guide dogs have the right of way. I've never thought much about those laws, believing instead that most drivers are courteous human beings and that, when they see a blind person crossing a street, they'll just naturally, well, mind their manners. But just as road rage is rising, so, it seems, is the vulnerability of pedestrians -- particularly pedestrians who don't see the cars.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the first proclamation for a national White Cane Safety Day, and a similar proclamation has been signed annually by every president since that time. Although the national date is Oct. 15, cities around the country have held awareness events on various days over the past week or so, and we need one here.

In Austin, Daytona Beach, Savannah and dozens of other cities, hundreds of blind and visually impaired people and their friends organized marches with their white canes and guide dogs, crossing the same busy intersections where drivers inch by inch, so to speak, have grown bolder and meaner in the last decade, creeping into a crosswalk that a blind person is ready to approach.

In Utah, blind children and adults took their white canes into the Hee Haw Farms corn maze, illustrating that finding one's way is as much a matter of brain power and problem solving as eyesight. In Hawaii, Gov. Linda Lingle walked with blind constituents and learned a bit about using a white cane herself.

Blind people come in all shapes and sizes, every race, religion and economic level. An ordinary blind person can do anything an ordinary person with sight can do, but some adaptive tricks of the trade are required. We make mental maps of environments and use other senses and some little grey cells to navigate. To cross streets, we listen to traffic patterns and cross when the parallel traffic starts moving. But streets can be difficult to cross for any pedestrian. When you can't see the cars, a little concentration -- and consideration -- seem reasonable expectations.

I'm not mysterious. And neither my guide dog nor I have extra powers or senses. If you walked a mile -- or even a block -- in my shoes with a bit of training, you'd realize that you still know the same things, you're still you and can thus decode some pedestrian navigation.

You'll hear that tall building on your left, the openness of the parking lot on your right. You'll smell the coffee or the hotdogs to help pinpoint your location. You'll still feel the sun on your face, the leaves beneath your feet. You'll know you can cross the street -- you're still an adult, after all -- but the busy intersections will be a bit more daunting, and you'll be grateful to know that drivers see that long white cane in your hand and won't run you over just so they can get somewhere a little sooner.

contact Deborah Kendrick: letters(at)citybeat.com


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