Saturday, January 24, 2009

Don't Leave Home Without It!

"Don’t leave home without it!" A catchy slogan which many of us, perhaps, may recall this slogan being associated with a credit card advertising campaign some years back. However, to the blind community, “Don’t leave home without it” is a phrase so meaningful and entrenched in our dear hearts. I am referring to the faithful mobility tool aid which we, the blind community, simply cannot leave home without it. Yes, I am talking about the white cane or white stick depending on where you are.

To the blind community, the white cane is definitely a great mobility tool which enables and provides independence, sense of balance and bearings, alignment of directions when traveling or walking alone without guidance. In my early days of losing my sight, I was really feeling down in the dumps, frustrated and anger within, helpless until I got hold of the white cane, which, in a way, helped me to get out of the rut. The white cane enabled me the ability to probe, feel and identify the tracks, objects and other obstacles along the way while moving about with some degree of confidence. With the white cane I was able to avoid walking into potential danger spots and hurting myself. Soon, thereafter, with increased confidence coupled with the feel good factor. I decided to venture out to public places after much persuasion from my family, especially my dear wife. I had to re-learn several simple tasks, which normally, the sighted do not give it any second thoughts or be bothered about it. It was somewhat scary stepping onto walkalators, escalators, walking up and down the stairs. Looking back, I was not sure who was more terrified, my dear wife or me during the outdoor adventures. Sad to note, too, despite me holding the white cane and tapping from left to right and vice versa at certain public places there are still people who ‘bump’ or ‘knock into’ me. It prompted my young son to suggest tapping the white cane harder so making my presence known and also ‘sweeping’ the white cane at a wider angle to ‘protect and safeguard’ myself from other people who may be simply ignorant or `blind’ despite being sighted! It’s amazing what you can learn from the tapping of the white cane on the floor/ground. Before long, I was able to inform my dear wife about certain quality of tiled floors, e.g. hollow noise vibration detected from the white cane indicating some ‘looseness beneath the tiles, etc. The white cane, though simple is a very important mobility tool aid as I soon discovered over time. I don’t leave home without it!

I am also very grateful to Mano, a truly remarkable, unselfish and caring blind person whom I got to know at one of the IT training classes. Mano, so unselfishly spent time, every Wednesday morning without fail, to teach and showed me how to use the white cane in moving about MAB, Malaysian Association for the Blind. I am now able to locate the main office, clinic, library, toilets, canteen and the elderly blind centre on my own though I may be slow and needed to probe around a bit longer to get to the targeted destination. Slowly but surely, I shall overcome the fear and be more confident walking about on my own. I must continue to learn or discover something new everyday, a challenge I have set myself. To strive to be independent is my goal.

Append below is an extract about the history of the white cane from Wikipedia and other online sources which I have found to be interesting and informative and I am happy to share it with my readers.

There had been some earlier debate about the first ‘inventor’ of the white cane. Yes, it is between the British and the French debating about who was the first to ‘invent’ the white cane. Whoever he or she was, the white cane has certainly empowered the blind community the independence to move around with more freedom. This is definitely a positive factor for the blind community in living as normal a life as possible in our society!

“Throughout history, the cane, staff, and stick have existed as traveling aids for the blind and visually impaired. Dating back to biblical times records show that a shepherd's staff was used as a tool for solitary travel. The blind used such tools to alert them to obstacles in their path.

For centuries, the "cane" was used merely as a tool for travel and it was not until the twentieth century that the cane, as we know it today, was promoted for use by the blind as a symbol to alert others to the fact that an individual was blind.

Blind people have used canes as mobility tools for centuries, but it was not until after World War 1 that the white cane was introduced. In 1921 James Biggs, a photographer from Bristol who became blind after an accident and was uncomfortable with the amount of traffic around his home, painted his walking stick white to be more easily visible.

In 1931 in France, Guilly d'Herbemont launched a national white stick movement for blind people. In the United States, the introduction of the white cane is attributed to George A. Bonham of the Lions Clubs International [2]. In 1930, a Lions Club member watched as a man who was blind attempted to cross the street with a black cane that was barely visible to motorists against the dark pavement. The Lions decided to paint the cane white to make it more visible. In 1931, Lions Clubs International began a program promoting the use of white canes for people who are blind.

The first special White Cane Ordinance was passed in December 1930 in Peoria, Illinois granting blind pedestrians protections and the right-of-way while carrying a white cane. On October 6, 1964, a joint resolution of the Congress, HR 753, was signed into law authorizing the President of the United States to proclaim October 15 of each year as "White Cane Safety Day". President Lyndon Johnson was the first to make this proclamation. While the white cane is commonly accepted as a "symbol of blindness", different countries still have different rules concerning what constitutes a "cane for the blind".

In the United Kingdom, for example, the white cane is recognised as being used by visually impaired persons; with two red bands added it indicates that the user is deafblind.

In the United States, laws vary from state to state, but in all cases, those carrying white canes are afforded the right-of-way when crossing a road. They are afforded the right to use their cane in any public place as well. In some cases, it is illegal for a non-blind person to carry a white cane.

President Lyndon B. Johnson went down in history as the first to proclaim October 15, as White Cane Safety Day. The Presidential proclamation emphasized the significance of the use of the white cane as both a tool and as a visible symbol. In the first White Cane Proclamation, President Johnson commended blind people for the growing spirit of independence and the increased determination to be self-reliant and dignified. He said in part: "A white cane in our society has become one of the symbols of a blind person's ability to come and go on his own. Its use has promoted courtesy and opportunity for mobility of the blind on our streets and highways." During most years since 1964, the President has proclaimed October 15 as White Cane Safety Day.

On October 15, 2000, President Bill Clinton again reminded us of the history of the white cane as a tool, and its purpose as a symbol of blindness:

"With proper training, people using the white cane can enjoy greater mobility and safety by determining the location of curbs, steps, uneven pavement, and other physical obstacles in their path. The white cane has given them the freedom to travel independently to their schools and workplaces and to participate more fully in the life of their communities. It reminds us that the only barriers against people with disabilities are discriminatory attitudes and practices that our society has too often placed in their way. As we observe White Cane Safety Day, 2001, let us recall the history of the white cane, its emergence as a tool and a symbol through history; a staff of independence. Let us also recall the events that have permitted us to celebrate October 15 as White Cane Safety Day."

In the Netherlands, the foundation 'Stichting I-cane' is, together with industrial designer Monique de Wilt, developing a cane with GPS navigation and surface scanning. As of 2008, it is still a prototype, for which the route has to have been walked once before, and there can't be too many surrounding buildings because, unlike a car GPS system, it has to have a precision of a few metres. Under the user's thumb, there is an arrow that points the way by turning. The surface scanner can tell if the ground ahead moves up or down, which information is transmitted to the arrow, which then tilts forward or backward accordingly. This warns not only for obstacles, but also holes or even sheer drops, such as at a waterside. The product is expected to be perfected in a few years. “

More challenging times ahead!

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