I have begun a dialog with World Access for the Blind. They teach a skill called echolocation, where a blind person can train their brain to synthesize images through reflected sound instead of reflected light. This opens up a lot of doors and I will have more to say about that in future entries. As soon as I read about it I contacted them. A trainer named Justin wrote me back and we met on Skype. Along with giving me some basic exercises to practice this incredible skill, he also told me to use a longer cane. I figured these people have cutting edge information, so gave it a try.
I became blind at birth, so began learning mobility at a young age. This included getting my first cane which happened in first or second grade. I learned the standard way to hold a cane. This involves bending your elbow down and in front, placing your forearm parallel to your abdomen. This feels rather uncomfortable and a lot of kids naturally resisted, preferring to keep their elbow at their side. They probably got yelled at for their defiance, but it turns out most of my blind friends prefer this as adults. I stuck with the traditional program and shorter cane.
Justin at World Access corrected me on the issue. For kids, a shorter length works fine, but an adult has a longer stride. This means one of two things can happen. You can walk faster than your cane can cover, causing you to miss things and contributing to a general sense of disorientation. The cane could hit a bump, causing the elbow to painfully jab you right in the gut. Ouch! Using a slightly longer cane and keeping the elbow by the hip fixes both of these problems.
His argument made sense, so I headed over to Ambutech and proceeded through their delightful form to make a custom cane. My mobility teachers always taught me that the cane should come to the breastbone, which comes to 52 inches for me. Justin said to give it abut six extra inches, putting it at the height of the chin. I ordered a 58 inch rigid cane and it fit perfectly. Rigid? Yes rigid. I have always used folding canes and made fun of rigid cane users for carrying such an unwieldy instrument, but they do give better tactile feedback. He also recommended a ceramic tip. I hadn’t heard of them before and neither had my friends. “Oh, they’re like the best things ever! You can land a helicopter on one.” Justin enthused. I used a marshmallow tip before, but this sounded cool. We did agree on one thing: we both like graphite for the material of the cane. I also ordered an extra one made of heavier illumine for karate. I bent my cane during the last demo.
It felt weird to place an order for a cane which had pretty much the exact opposite configuration from the one I had used forever. My old one measured 52 inches, folded, and had a marshmallow roller tip. This new one measures 58 inches, does not fold, and has a ceramic tip. I thought I knew the best thing to do, and according to common advice I did, but now I found myself totally revising my views on an issue. Sometimes that happens in life. Unfortunately, since Ambutech resides in Canada, the package had to go through a long process of import scanning. I waited and wondered and practiced echolocation.
My new cane finally arrived in a long box after ten days, and I tried it immediately. What a difference! Indeed, the longer length gave me more time to react to things around me. It felt more liberating to have an expanded sphere of awareness. This enabled me to travel more smoothly and quickly. The rigid length does give more feedback, though it does still get stuck in cracks sometimes. At least it doesn’t get stuck in my gut. Ouch! The light material and tip also make it easier to skip over cracks and get back on track. I made two street crossings perfectly. Even if I missed a little, the longer length again came in handy, helping me reorient more quickly. I felt very impressed.
I haven’t gotten a chance to use my karate cane yet. I brought it to class, but I think Sensei Chris felt scared of it. I don’t blame him. The rigidity should give it a nice whipping motion, and that tip at the end will hurt!
In conclusion, World Access for the Blind has cutting edge information about mobility which the blind establishment ignores to their disadvantage. Even something as simple as having a longer cane makes a big difference. If someone blind since birth needs more mobility training, say after a move, they won’t really learn anything new as far as techniques go. They will learn new routes, but they will not learn new ways to navigate and orient themselves to their environment. What they learned at age twelve will still hold true. It therefore feels very refreshing to hear a new voice with new knowledge and techniques. Just wait until I master echolocation!