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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf-Blind Reality: Living the Life
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To my great embarrassment, my mind went blank, and I couldn’t remember my address! Flustered, I told him I couldn’t remember. He turned back to the phone and spoke into it some more, while I wondered what in the heck was I going to do? I didn’t know anyone to call for help; other family members were out of town that day, too. Gosh, I felt like a fool.

Finally, the assistant hung up and took my notebook again, printing, “Cab company found your address in their records.” Whew!

When we lived in Pittsburgh and Ben was almost four years old, I took him to all his doctor appointments at the children’s hospital there. Bill was in culinary arts school and working as a cook. I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, caring for Joe and Ben. I used the local transit bus service to take Ben to the hospital, because it was safer than public bus service and cost less than a cab. The driver of the transit bus helped to set up Ben’s car seat in the bus and then would leave the car seat in the lobby of the hospital. An interpreter would meet us and guide us to Ben’s appointment.

When I was pregnant with Tim, I had help from a woman who worked as a doula, a woman who helps a pregnant woman with prenatal visits and any other things and with labor. She didn’t know sign, but I taught her finger spelling. She drove me to most of my prenatal doctor visits, and Ben came, too, if he wasn’t in preschool. An interpreter would meet us at the hospital and help with communication.

I first experienced white cane training when I was thirteen years old and a student at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. I learned basic cane skills, like trailing the cane up and down stairs and sweeping the ground in front of me. I also learned how to cross intersections by following traffic patterns. However, I didn’t start to seriously use a white cane until I was in college and went off-campus to restaurants and shopping malls. At first, I found that the white cane was more like an ID, helping other people to understand I was visually impaired. Without the cane, I looked pretty normal—until I bumped into someone I didn’t see or couldn’t find the handle on a door. The cane helped other people to understand, and I appreciated that.

In the fall of 1997, I went to Leader Dogs School in Michigan, where I met Milo, my first guide dog. He was a seventy-pound yellow Labrador retriever, and he was the guide dog of my dreams. I had read quite a lot of stories about blind people’s experiences with guide dogs, and I was very inspired to have one of my own. Milo was a great match, very patient, calm, always wanting to please, and adaptive to different things we encountered together.

For example, Bill and I went on a long road trip along the western coast of Florida to Key West. Joe was about three, and he stayed with my parents. Milo enjoyed the adventure. Wherever we stopped to explore, he was game and guided me along, following Bill. When we finally reached Key West, we went out on a sunset cruise on an old schooner. The sunset cruise trip offered free beer and champagne. It was mid-February, but I hadn’t bargained for cold water and wind. The sun had been so warm that I was surprised at how cold it was on that schooner, and the waves were moderately rough, making the boat rock and the ocean spray hit me. Bill was busy behind our video camera, filming the beautiful sight of the Keys as the schooner moved around them. But I couldn’t sit still while getting wet and cold. Milo helped me walk from side to side of the boat, trying to avoid the spray. I found the drinks table, and the free champagne helped to warm my blood. It was an exhilarating experience to have Milo guide me to wherever I wanted to go.

Usually, whether I used a white cane or guide dog, people didn’t try to grab or steer me. Most people would stop near me, and I knew they were asking if I needed help. If I knew where I was going or if I was just waiting for Bill or someone, I would say, “I’m fine, thanks.” If I really did needed help, I would look for someone to help, like with a big intersection. In that case, I’d have a note to show a passerby that would ask the person to please help me cross the street. But I have encountered people who were too aggressive or too persistent with wanting to help me. On a Baltimore subway platform, a woman noticed me with my white cane. A train pulled in, but I knew it was the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. The woman grabbed my wrist and tried to pull me onto the train, but I shook her off and said I was waiting for the other train. Finally, she gave up and ran into the train as the doors closed.

After a little over eight years of working, Milo retired. I got a second guide dog, but unfortunately, he didn’t work out, and I had to send him back to Leader Dogs. Now I use my white cane again, but because of my deteriorating balance, I use a support cane more often and feel more confident if someone is guiding me. My younger sons, Ben and Tim, like to hold my left hand, while I hold the support cane in the other, and we walk around in the neighborhood near our home. I may return to Leader Dogs for another guide dog, but for now, my children keep me busy enough.

Judy Kahl

At the age of sixty-four, I can tell you I am independent only in my home. I do not venture out of the house without the aid of a sighted person. I am with my husband, friend, or one of my three adult children. They are all trained and know my limitations. It is difficult, especially in new surroundings.


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