Picture this scene: It was my junior year of high school, and I stood erect, but uncertain, with something in my right hand. The object was approximately four feet long, constructed from aluminum and had a rubber handle. The bottom of it was painted red along with a marshmallow tip. This was my first non-NFB cane, and my first “foray” into blindness. I was the only blind individual at my high school in Boardman, Ohio, but my graduating class would total approximately 400 sighted students. I was familiar with traveling with a sighted guide from class to class ever since kindergarten.
However, on that day, it would be my first time using a cane with both my aide and Orientation and Mobility instructor standing nearby. Countless thoughts raced without pause as I clutched this cane since, at that time, my true understanding of blindness was limited in scope and perspective. How would others perceive me as I walked past? No one had ever seen me using a long white cane. The hallways were empty, but at any moment, someone could step outside of the hallowed classrooms and immediately internalize: “Oh, she’s using this ‘stick,’”–if they didn’t know the proper term for a cane – “she’ll need more assistance. She won’t be able to travel on her own.”
In all honesty, this is how I viewed blindness at that time in my life. I possessed gifts, skills, and talents, but the positive philosophy of blindness was not one of them; I was trapped in the invisible glass cage: requiring the assistance of the sighted at every turn. I had not yet earned my wings.
Fast-forward many years later to 2015, where I experienced a pivotal moment in my life. Several months earlier, I decided to attend months of rigorous Structured Discovery Training in Baltimore at BISM (Blind Industries and Services of Maryland). The mid-February icy winds bit at my entire being. I stood, this time on a sidewalk, but my eyes could only perceive blackness. My ears were awash with the cacophony of sounds; it was an absolute torrent of noise, and I did not know how I would have the capacity to decipher various sounds in my environment.
My world was dark as pitch, due to the fact I was wearing sleep shades. In my right hand, I held a much longer and lighter fiberglass NFB cane. This would be my first time walking across the street with my sleep shades and cane. Directly in front of me, several hundred feet away, I could discern that one unmistakable sound: the bells, rumble, and vibrations of the light rail. The light rail tracks were across the street from the apartment complex where I would be living for the next ten months. I was extremely nervous and uncertain, but this time, I had taken the plunge and the next chapter in my life.
Dezman, my Cane Travel instructor, who was also blind, stood directly nearby; his presence calmed and reassured me. He told me most students who haven’t had sufficient Cane Travel instruction before training experience similar emotions. It just takes time, but once I successfully interpret the sound cues before me and learn to trust my cane and my skills, I can travel anywhere with sleep shades.
Later, I would be able to integrate my usable vision and blindness skills, along with asking sighted persons for directions in unknown situations, to travel where I wanted to go. More often than not, asking the average sighted person for directions would lead me astray under sleep shades, but even worse than this, they would come up to me without warning and grasp my cane-hand in a death grip. Explaining I was in blindness training, and that I wanted to achieve the assignment on my own, rarely allowed for my release. All I wanted was verbal assistance and nothing more. If the situation persisted to the point of utter frustration and misunderstanding, which was rare, I had to go against my true nature and almost scream that I did not want their help.
Shockwaves of liberation and elation took hold after completing the route, for that is when I knew my life had gone from ordinary to extraordinary.
Last year, for the first time, my life had come full circle. I stood at the top of the driveway with my cane in my right hand, my Apple headphones in my ears, and wearing my classic Aira smart glasses over my prescription glasses. I was going to attempt something I had never done on my own, even after training, due to an unmarked crosswalk. I was going to make the trek to Menchies Frozen Yogurt without asking for any sighted assistance. The summer sun beat profusely, but this time, I wasn’t deterred by its continuous waves of heat. I was going to conquer this goal, this aspiration, and once I had achieved it, I would never look back. My heart pounded rapidly as the adrenaline rush began to take effect. Once connected, I strode confidently, cane tapping and listening intently; at each step, my eyes scanned for obstacles or a change of surface.
Shockwaves of liberation and elation took hold after completing the route, for that is when I knew my life had gone from ordinary to extraordinary. I possessed the gifts, skills, and talents to alter the perception of blindness through my own means. I had not only completed training, but now, I had my second set of wings, and I was ready to chase my dreams with my heart and my mind, and most significantly, show everyone I would encounter, that nothing is impossible!