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by Chris Kuell
A cane is only as useful as the attitude of the person wielding it. I found out the first time I went hiking with my family after losing my sight. Our kids were young at the time, so we picked a relatively easy trail around a small lake near our home in western Connecticut. Our son scampered ahead of us, pointing out every interesting bird and flower. My wife, Christine, carried our year-old daughter in a backpack, and I clung to her right elbow, stumbling along in this new and unforgiving world of darkness.
Christine detached my hand from her elbow and said, "Use your cane." This was the third or fourth time she'd done this in the quarter mile we'd gone thus far.
"It's too hard," I said. "Let me take your elbow. It'll be much easier." I knew she had the extra weight of our daughter, but I didn't understand what the big deal was. Did she really expect me to walk this uneven, root-filled trail without getting hurt?
A few steps later I stumbled over a rock the size of a small terrier, and fell hard, scraping tender flesh from my hands and elbows. Months of anger and frustration erupted inside me. I smashed the cane into the rock like Paul Bunyan with his axe, bending it to an angle that matched my bloody elbow. A few seconds of absolute silence followed--not even the birds or chipmunks dared make a sound. Then the kids started to cry, Christine and I exchanged a few unloving words, and our hike was finished.
At 35, I lost my sight, my career, my confidence and my self-respect. To me, the white cane represented a neon sign, my scarlet letter, proclaiming to the world that I was blind, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Two days after the hiking fiasco, a new cane arrived in the mail.
I am blessed to have a wife who is caring, smart and tough. Even though both of our lives had been turned upside down, and the weight of responsibility grew heavier on her shoulders, she had the good sense that I was lacking. "We've got two kids," she said. "And I won't have them growing up feeling sorry for their Daddy." She paused to let this sink in. "You need to get off the pity pot and learn how to take care of yourself. I want my kids to be proud of you."
Those words proved to be the arrow that penetrated my layers of depression. She was right. If I couldn't do it for me, and I couldn't do it for her, I had to make some changes for my kids.
Over the next several months, I began a new phase in my life. I received orientation and mobility instruction from the state agency for the blind. Once a week an instructor visited my house and taught me proper cane travel technique. He showed me how to get around my neighborhood, and how to use public transportation. The cane gave me a physical connection to the places I traveled, and helped me to develop mental pictures of where I had been. For practice, I would go for walks downtown, to the pharmacy, or the library to check out a book on tape. This was when the real lessons occurred, because sometimes I would get lost. I am yet to find a panic equal to being blind and completely confused about where you are. You have to resist the urge to bawl, and utilize the sounds and your physical surroundings to figure out where you are, and how you went wrong.
On one such occasion, I found myself in a parking lot full of cars. I figured I must have drifted into the lot, and I attempted to retrace my steps to get back to the sidewalk. Everywhere I turned, I found only more cars. I paused and listened for sounds of traffic, but at 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, all the streets were quiet. I tapped around, trying to find a way out. At some point, I heard the distinctive clicking of high heels and made my way toward the sound.
"Excuse me," I said. "I'm blind, and I'm lost. Can you please show me where the sidewalk is?"
"Désolé, je ne parle pas anglais," a woman answered.
I pointed my face skyward and thought--God, if this is your idea of a joke, I am not laughing. I tried in vain to communicate with the woman, who really didn't know a word of English, until I gave up and wished her a nice day. She went to her car, and then the solution hit me. I listened while she backed up, and followed the sounds of her vehicle as it weaved through the aisles and back to the street. Once there, I found the sidewalk I had lost a half-hour before, and made my way home.
I joined a support group and talked with other blind people to find out how they did things. I began to believe in myself, and with support and encouragement from my family, I mastered some of the alternative techniques blind people use to get along in life.
With a newer, and lighter, fiberglass cane, I walked my children to and from school. In time, I learned braille, and how to use a computer with a speech synthesizer. As I gained understanding about the true nature of blindness, I started doing advocacy work on behalf of blind and visually impaired people.
Three years after losing my sight, I traveled solo to Atlanta. Two years after that, I traveled to West Virginia and attended a conference for writers--by myself. Since then, I have traveled to our State Capitol to lobby our Senators and Representatives to improve training and opportunities for blind people. I have co-chaired a legislative council overseeing our state agency for the blind and tapped my way to meetings with the governor and the secretary of state.
I now have a wide collection of canes. Most are taller than that first one, and most are lighter, fiberglass models--although I do have a sturdy aluminum one I use specifically for hiking. Some are one piece, others telescope or fold. Some have roller tips, and others have a plastic ball or a thin aluminum disk.
Now I can't imagine leaving the house without my cane, and I always have a spare in my suitcase when I travel. My cane does announce to the world that I'm blind, but I'm okay with that. It only symbolizes inferiority in the hands of those who don't have the skills and confidence to use it properly. When I'm walking down the street, it signals to cars and pedestrians alike that I'm going places.
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