Wanda Thomas, 68, enjoys shopping, going to the movies and attending classes at Society for the Blind in midtown. But when she travels down the sidewalk with her white fiberglass cane, she doesn’t always feel safe.
Thomas, who began losing her eyesight 10 years ago due to the degenerative disease retinitis pigmentosa, joined other seniors Saturday for a “cane-fu” self-defense class, intended to give those with vision challenges a combative advantage against attackers when they’re out alone.
About three years ago, Thomas was approached by a strange man while at a light-rail stop. She was waiting for the bus, she said, when she felt the man lingering nearby, then coming toward her. She couldn’t see where he was, but she could sense his shadows shifting around her.
“He kept pacing back and forth, back and forth,” she said. “It just didn’t feel right. Normal people don’t do that.”
Fortunately, the man backed off when her sighted helper arrived, but Thomas said she wants to be prepared in case it happens again.
“I’m hoping to be the best that I can be if I’m approached by anyone,” she said. “I want to know how my cane can help me, not just to walk down the street but to defend myself.”
Society for the Blind is a Sacramento nonprofit group that serves people in 26 Northern California counties. Shari Roeseler, the organization’s executive director and a martial arts instructor, said assailants often see people with sight impairment as easy targets. Her class teaches blind students how to walk with confidence, stay aware of their surroundings and make a quick exit when necessary.
“People will, unfortunately, take advantage when they realize somebody has vision loss, hearing loss, or another disability that may impair their mobility,” she said. “That’s why it’s important that we teach folks that regardless of vision loss or anything else, you still can defend yourself and feel confident being out there.”
She also teaches them to use any nearby object to aid in self-defense – including the white cane that many blind people use to identify obstacles while walking.
“Oftentimes seniors feel the cane is something that makes them look more vulnerable, so they won’t take them out,” she said. “But it’s a great weapon of opportunity – it becomes a tool.”
Most blind people are taught to keep their canes low to the ground, making an arc from “10 o clock to 2 o clock” while searching for walls and other people. If a blind person hears someone with violent intentions approaching, the easiest move might simply be to trip the assailant over.
A whack to the shins would also do the trick, Roeseler said.
“If this person is focused on you and you’ve got your cane, your cane could be your tool to trip them or inflict some pain,” she said. “The canes, especially these fiberglass ones, have some whip to them. Remember, this is somebody who’s trying to do you harm. On that lower level, your cane can become a really good tool for the lower body.”
The canes can also serve a purpose for blind people who are seated, she said. While many people tuck their canes beside their seats or hold them between their legs when sitting on a park bench or riding on public transit, Roeseler recommends they lay them flat across the lap whenever space allows.
That way, if a threatening person were to approach, the blind person could thrust their cane upward from a seated position to create an “arm-bar,” which would hold the assailant back and give the victim space to kick, stomp or call for help, she said.
Roeseler calls the technique “stun and run” – distract the attacker, then get out fast.
“They aren’t expecting you to fight back,” she said. “They’re expecting all of us to be vulnerable and cower and just give up.”
The cane-fu class was part of an all-day “No Limits” workshop for the society’s Senior IMPACT Project, aimed at helping blind seniors pursue leisure activities. Other workshops included line dancing, fall prevention and iPhone use.
Don Hales, a 61-year-old south Sacramento resident living with glaucoma, said he had no intentions of slowing down, even as his sight slowly diminished. He was at the workshops Saturday intending to practice self-defense, make decoupage on glass and learn a dance called the cupid shuffle.
“I can’t get mad – I just have to keep going,” he said. “Society for the Blind helps me. When seniors go blind, they think that it’s the end of the world. When they come down here, they get their independence back.”
For information about future workshops, call Society for the Blind at 916-452-8271.