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Watch for white canes

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 17, 2007

Note to driver of the red mini van: You, my friend, are a jerk.


There, now that I’ve gotten that off of my chest, I can write this story.


Monday was national White Cane Day, an event designed to honor and recognize the challenges of people who are blind or visually handicapped.


The Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped celebrated the day with speakers including Janesville Transit Director Dave Mumma and Janesville police officer Chad Sullivan. Students made posters to hang in businesses, and T-shirts were handed out.


It was a good way to mark the day, but it didn’t really show the rest of us what it’s like to navigate the world with a white cane.


Which brings us to the jerk in the red mini van. Was it absolutely necessary for you to lay on the horn just as I was struggling to find the curb on West Milwaukee Street? Were you on your way to a fire? A big sale at Wal-Mart? Something crucial on television?


Well, at least now I know what it’s like to cross a busy street with a white cane extended in front of me.


On Tuesday, WSVH senior David Howard, 19, from New Richmond and WSVH orientation and mobility specialist Michelle King gave me a white cane lesson.


King gave me a 50-inch cane that came up to about my sternum and showed me how to hold it: Grasp the handle at the very end with the index finger pointed down on the flat side of the handle.


The cane is extended directly in front of you and moved with the wrist: Sweep to the left as you step with the right foot; sweep to the right as you step with the left foot.


“You’re clearing your step,” King explained.


I tried it in the empty hall with my eyes shut, mentally cataloging the possible results of a fall: Broken nose, broken wrist, sprained ankle, head injury.


Howard moved with confidence, saying, “It’s not hard.”


We decided to hit the streets.


The key to crossing streets, explained King, was to listen for the traffic “surge,” when the traffic at a light takes off. The “parallel surge” is the traffic moving next to you, and the “perpendicular surge” is the traffic moving on the other side of you. It’s also important to listen for the distinctive sound of turning traffic, which has a smoother sound.


When I was standing blindfolded on the downtown corner of Milwaukee and River streets, it all sounded the same: pants-wettingly terrifying.


Next to me, Howard kept up a thoughtful patter: “There’s the surge,” or “that’s the bus,” or “that car is making a right turn.”


My patter was more like “Where’s the curb?” “Is that Milwaukee Street?” “Are you sure?” “Where’s David?” “What if somebody turns?” and “What surge?”


Finally, Howard and King lead me across River Street, which, it turns out, is about 12 miles wide if you’re walking across it blindfolded.


On the way back, I wandered out of the crosswalk and ended up on the terrace, several feet from the curb.


Howard and other advanced mobility students are able to self-correct so they stay in the crosswalk.


“You listen for where the stopped traffic is,” Howard explained.


We tackled West Milwaukee Street last. I stepped off the curb with a sense of unease that quickly became a sweaty panic. Where was the other curb? Where was it? How much more time did I have?


It was an immense relief to reach the gutter on the other side of the street—until the driver of the red mini van hit his horn.


That was it for me. I was done.


I don’t have the courage to deal with traffic surges, rounded curbs or impatient drivers.


I’ll leave that to the students at the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped.


Navigating with a white cane isn’t easy

“Most of the time people are pretty good,” said Michelle King, orientation and mobility trainer for Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped (WSVH). “Sometimes when we try to get across intersections, people will turn in front of us.”


People making speedy left turns often pose a problem for students, as they’ll be halfway through the intersection and hear a car zoom by in front of them. It’s unnerving, to say the least.


Students offered these suggestions:


“The thing that bugs us when we’re out is when drivers will honk their horns, and we can’t see them. They want us to move out of the way, but at the same time we are visually impaired people, and we don’t know where we are. Honking the horn is not going to make us move any faster; it’s just scaring us. A respectful driver will basically stop 10 feet from us.”—Early Wilson, 18, senior, Milwaukee


“Watch for our canes.”—Maggie Williams, 15, sophomore, Brown Deer


“Once I went out on mobility, this guy was (stopped) in the crosswalk. If I would have went out into the street, which I didn’t,


I would have hit his car.”—Kim Greer, 16, Janesville


“I remember one instance I was out on my own and a pedestrian walked by and asked, ‘Can I help you?’ and he just grabbed on to me, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ People should just ask if you need help, but not grab onto you. You take their arm. They shouldn’t grab on to you like you’re a dog on a leash.”—David Howard, 19, senior, New Richmond


What’s the law?

Motorists must stop before getting within 10 feet of a pedestrian who is carrying a white and red cane or who is using a guide dog even if the pedestrian is outside of a crosswalk or is in violation of other pedestrian laws.



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