These Canes Are History
By Patrick A. Barrett
(Editor's Note: Our Metro Chapter held an essay contest on how the National Federation of the Blind has changed lives. This is the winner of that contest).
Any cane-using Federationist will tell you: one loses count on the many canes gone through. Mine have been involved in car accidents where a hungry door has snapped its life short. Other Federationists, while rushing off to convention meetings or parties, have involuntarily abducted my cane. I must confess, I have been guilty of the same misdemeanor. Those canes were history, as they say.
My history with the cane began when I was a sophomore in high school. I was legally blind up to that point, and no one had suggested to me to use a cane, not even the itinerant teacher I had from the Idaho School for the Blind. Crossing the street just before getting to school one cloudy day, I did not look carefully enough. A car, not going very fast, bumped me over its hood down to the pavement. I was not really hurt, but badly shaken.
I went to traffic court. The judge asked me how fast I had been going. My mom said, "Your Honor, Pat is legally blind, and does not drive." The judge did a double-take and looked at the officer, who nodded. I was found negligent, and the judge "sentenced" me to use a cane--for life. That was one of the best things to happen toward my independence.
I attended my first NFB national convention in Chicago in 1975. No longer was I using my aluminum fold-up cane that would at times fold up while I was crossing the street. Attending the orientation center at the Idaho Commission for the Blind, I was given a solid straight Rainshine cane. I still have it for when I want to "rough it." This was my first significant exposure to blind people. I marveled at how Frank Smith, Norm Gardner, and hundreds of others swiftly got around using their canes. Trying to retain it all during this fast-paced enlightening week of activity, one realization hit home. All these blind people were working and raising families so naturally. I was not going to regard my blindness anymore as a barricade to go around, and courageously pat Pat's self on the back for doing it. I was relieved with the revelation that blindness was simply a part of me. It was no more noteworthy than my brown hair.
The summer of 1980 saw some serious pavement pounding. I was now using the 59-inch hollow fiberglass cane. The end of June was my first NAC tracking in Boston. Ninety‑five degrees and 95% humidity didn't keep us from carrying picket signs and distributing flyers. I was handing out flyers in front of the NAC meeting place. One passerby wanted several, but I was suspicious he might be a NAC-ster. I just gave him one.
I went from Boston to Minneapolis. I met Trudy there: this was our first national convention. We married in August of 1979. Our canes tapped together down Hennepin Avenue with hundreds of other Federationists toward the Minneapolis Society for the Blind (MSB). We were protesting MSB's refusal to allow fair representation of the blind on its board. Joyce Scanlan, armed with a megaphone, was demanding that Jessie Roston come out and listen to the largest organization of the blind. Our canes were trumpets, tapping a chorus to topple the walls of old ideas.
In 1984 the Idaho Commission for the Blind faced the loss of its autonomy. Ramona Walhof, Director of the Commission, went to the legislature and press to stop this decision by the governor. Federationists a generation before had fought to create a separate agency to focus on the specific needs of the blind. The governor and two Commission board members dismissed Mrs. Walhof for her actions. Trudy and I marched with others in support of Mrs. Walhof. Three years later, when our daughter Raeann was a baby, I was dismissed from my job by Howard Barton for my stance.
I believe that blind kids should use canes from the moment they start walking. At our 1992 NFB convention in Charlotte, I smiled to myself seeing all the toddlers using canes.
At that same convention, I lost my cane while holding an elevator door open for several people. I must have positioned my cane just wrong and, whoosh, down the shaft it fell. That cane was history. Looking back, I guess it was callous of me not to give a short eulogy over my thin white friend.
Next day, over my grief, I visited Jerry Whittle at the cane table in the exhibit hall. Jerry still teaches at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I asked him for a 61-inch cane. In his smooth, southern, salesman voice he said, "Why don't y'all try a 63. It'll give you more notice and y'll walk faster."
I was skeptical because the dang thing almost touched my nose. After two weeks of test caning, however, I was sold on it.
Russell Anderson, my travel instructor at BLIND, Inc., paired me with a 65-inch cane in 1993. It was with me during travel routes, rock climbing, and canoeing. Though in the last case, we went overboard. Thanks to Coach Dan Harman, we realized the thrill of victory after muddy feet.
Raeann has been learning from infancy that mom and dad's canes are ways to get our family to the zoo, church, or the library. One time when Raeann was three, the librarian asked her, "Are you a big help to your mom and dad?" Raeann's reply was immediate and firm, "My mom and dad help themselves."
Dr. Jernigan taught us in his banquet address, Blindness: is History Against us? about Zisca and other great blind leaders throughout world history. Their dreams and drive made them leaders. In my NFB history, many sighted and blind role models have inspired me to go for the goal of independence. I no longer strain to see the ground. With cane in hand and head held high, I view the future with optimism. That's the bright baton of understanding I want to pass on to blind and sighted citizens.