Let’s Talk about Disability: A Conversation with Winthrop’s John Morgan – Part I

Some blind people use a white cane to keep them safe when walking in public.

John Morgan of Winthrop is one of 130,000 people in Massachusetts with some kind of vision impairment. A resident for 46 years, he was recently appointed to the Winthrop Commission on Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations (CDICR) due to his ongoing efforts as an advocate for the disabled.

In honor of national White Cane Awareness Day Oct. 15, I interviewed Morgan about the importance of the white cane and about his experience with blindness.

LP: What do you do for work?

JM: I’m retired. I worked for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind Vending Facilities Program until 2014.

LP: What is your diagnosis?

JM: Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). It’s the deterioration of the retina. What I have is hereditary. It’s mostly a male gene. My father has been blind most of his life. He stopped working in the mid-1960s because his vision went. My brothers are in the beginning stage of vision loss.

LP: How much can you see?

JM: I have no useful vision. Sometimes I can tell when it’s light and dark out and other times, I can feel the sun on my face and everything is totally black. And in the middle of the night, when it’s dark, I can see light.

LP: Describe the process of being declared legally blind.

JM: In 1996, I went to the RP specialist. After my exam, it was determined that I reached the qualifications for being registered as legally blind. 20/200 in both eyes or a peripheral field of less than 10 degrees. That’s how you’re determined to be registered for the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB).

LP:
What are the benefits of registering with the MCB?

JM: In the beginning, I was able to get mobility training through the MCB and the Carroll Center for the Blind [in Newton]. They taught me how to use the white cane. I met some wonderfully talented and caring people.

LP: How did they teach you to use the white cane?

JM: I was given a cane and shown how to hold it, how to extend out from my body and sweep to avoid obstacles. The length of the cane varies by people’s height. I was taught how to cross a street in a crosswalk and what to listen to. After the training, I would learn on my own and adapt things to work for me. How I travel with the white cane is much different than someone else. Everyone has their own techniques and secrets as far as how they get around.

LP: How do you use the white cane differently than other people?

JM: I do a lot of walking and other blind people don’t do as much walking. They might not have as much experience in the outdoors as I do. I used to walk two miles a day. Now I’m down to little over a mile.

LP: How quickly did you adapt to using the white cane?

JM: Sometimes it was difficult and other times it was easy. I was living in the same place for 22 years, and I moved to a different area of town. I was familiar with the area, but I had never traveled it as a blind person. There were a lot more street crossings than I had to deal with before. That was very difficult, very frightening. When I got some additional mobility training, what was fearful to me became routine.

LP: What is the Massachusetts White Cane Law?

JM: Motorists have to slow down and if they see anyone in a crosswalk [with a white cane or guide dog], you must stop for that person. The [White Cane] Law made it stricter and there’s a fine if you’re in violation. If you’re going to teach someone, hit them in the wallet. They’ll learn a lot faster.

LP: Why are more people not familiar with the White Cane Law?

JM: There needs to be more education through the Registry of Motor Vehicles. When you renew your license, you should be informed of the White Cane Law and the consequences.

LP: What about cyclists?

JM:
Cyclists should be aware of the White Cane Law. There’s been a lot more people riding bicycles and they should follow the same rules. It’s easier for cyclists to stop and allow [people] to cross.

In the next installment of this conversation, I dive deeper into Morgan’s journey with blindness. Do you have a question you’d like me to ask him? Email [email protected]

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