White Cane Means YIELD
By Thom Wilborn
Blind veteran Joseph Leal learns to negotiate stairs using a folding long white cane with the assistance of blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist Jill Feigelis. Right, Leal on a Med Cruise, 1961.
Joseph Leal, a member of Chapter 32 in Morris Plains, N.J., served in the U.S. Marine Corps during one of the most dangerous moments in human history—the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was aboard ship in 1962, where he was issued ammunition and prepared to invade Cuba if so ordered. Fortunately, the crisis that threatened to throw the world into a nuclear war came to a peaceful end.
Today, he deals with another crisis. Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, Leal is legally blind and carries a white cane instead of a rifle.
“I consider the white cane my provider of safety,” said Leal. “If somebody sees that cane, they want to help you. But there are some people who just don’t care.”
National Blind Chapter Adjutant Paul Kaminsky agrees that there are some who either don’t know or don’t care that a blind cane means to yield. The veteran of the wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf retired as a U.S. Navy commander in 1995 as his eyesight began to decline. Caused by a viral infection from an inoculation in 1978, his potential blindness was discovered in 1982 and slowly progressed.
“Blind veterans sometimes feel socially disadvantaged,” Kaminsky said. “People will direct questions to our spouses and not us, so we feel personally excluded. I’ve seen people walk away from a blind person who was talking, and the blind person would be unaware of it. It makes a blind person look stupid talking to no one. People need to be aware enough to say they are stepping away for a moment.”
The VA estimates there are more than 1 million veterans age 45 and older who are visually impaired. About 157,000 are legally blind. As a result, the Veterans Health Administration has established the Blind Rehabilitation Service, offering a full range of care for visually impaired veterans.
“The incidence of blindness and age-related diseases is growing as our veteran population ages,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Barry Jesinoski. “The DAV supports VA training programs provided by 157 visual-impairment service teams, who provide case management, and 77 blind rehabilitation outpatient specialists, who offer in-home and in-community service. They help provide safe independent living for blind veterans. One of the most important tools is the white cane, coupled with adequate training.”
Jill Feigelis, a blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist at the East Orange, N.J., VA medical center, said the white cane carries the weight of law. “It protects the blind, and the power of the courtsaid. “It’s almost like the flag for blindness, but the only place people learn about it today is in a state driving manual.”
There are essentially two types of white canes used by the VA. Most blind persons prefer the long folding cane which can have a special tip either for tapping or rolling, depending on how they use the cane. There is also the support cane which is shorter and used by the blind who also have balance problems that can result in falls. All are white with a red tip, which is the U.S. standard.
“Once a veteran receives a white cane, I always educate them about the white cane law and how they are now an advocate along with their family and friends to educate the public about this law,” Feigelis said. “My goal is to have everyone aware of the white cane law. The visually impaired and blind person is doing their part to alert the public that they cannot see very well. It is the sighted public’s responsibility to respect and abide by the white cane law.”
But any VA blind rehabilitation worker will say that it takes a little work to operate the cane and to become confident in its protection. “Most of us would like people to recognize the cane as specific for identification purposes,” said Cecelia Rose, the blind rehabilitation outpatient specialist at the Washington, D.C., VA medical center.
Rose’s colleague, vision rehabilitation supervisor Lillie Kennedy, who is blind herself, works with about 100 blind and legally blind veterans. She says the training is based on individual goals, vision loss, length of training and the desire for knowledge. “It’s a big adjustment for families and for blind people to use a cane,” she said. “But nothing changes because you’re blind. You still have to buy the groceries and pay the mortgage.”
“VA care is stupendous,” said Leal. “It is really something that is very positive in my life since I lost much of my eyesight. They have the Visor program to admit you as a patient for 10 days and they teach you everything you need to know as a legally blind person.”
And sometimes, blind veterans, readily recognized by their white canes, are easy prey for criminals. “We teach our blind veterans to protect themselves,” said Kennedy. “We teach them how to fall, because they are an easy target. But by teaching them blind Judo to defend themselves, we give blind veterans more confidence.”
Still, Kennedy said there’s the stigma of the white cane. “It makes you uncomfortable when people stare at you,” she said. “Sighted people rarely know what to say or how to interact with the blind. It’s like they expect me to walk into a wall.”
The New Jersey VA hosts electronic billboard announcements to abide by the white cane law as well as advocacy days that inform the public about the law. White Cane Safety Day, Oct. 15, is conducted at every VA facility across the nation.
“The goal of an Orientation and Mobility Specialist (O&M) is to help a legally blind and blind individual to move in space and travel safely and independently in their daily routine,” said Feigelis. “Upon evaluation by an instructor, they are issued a white cane and provided instruction on its use.
“The O&M instructor can train the visually impaired and blind person to independently travel around their home to stores, shopping, and to take public transportation,” said Feigelis. “The extension of the long white cane provides reaction time so that the cane hits the problem before the individual, thereby reducing falls and providing safety.”
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