In the March 19, 2008, New York Times story on Theresa (Terri) Fiorentino’s tragic death after falling onto the tracks at Croton Harmon train station, the word cane was not mentioned. Dan Brucker, a spokesman for Metro-North, the commuter railroad that serves the station, said surveillance camera images showed Ms. Fiorentino falling off the platform as the train roared through the station. She was not pushed, Mr. Brucker said, and the authorities have discarded the possibility of suicide.
“It seems like this was a tragic accident,” Mr. Brucker said.
Seven years before her death, Terri sat down for
an interview about her life growing up with a mobility visual impairment in a podcast just uploaded today on Safe Toddles website (https://www.safetoddles.org/podcast) She was born in 1933, 12 years before the long cane was invented. She reported her vision as 5/200 at birth. She was intellectually gifted, she began college at the age of 15 and went on to obtain graduate degrees and ran a successful newsstand in the Croton Harmon New York commuter train station for 40 years.
In 1964, “I was buffing wooden floors in preparation for my daughter’s first communion, and I thought I saw something on the floor… Later on, it just turned out to be a beam of sunlight… But, I reached down and I caught the corner of the buffer in my eye.”
The result of this accident was that she became blind. She was twice married, had two daughters- and she and her second husband (also blind) enjoyed going to the casino for the occasional fun weekend away.
During our interview she talked about her soft life. She defined that as usually having someone to take her places, she didn’t have to be independent and that is why she didn’t need instruction in independent travel skills. She discussed some of her strategies as well. For example, how she used the radio as a beacon, to orient herself at the train station, “Uh, it’s amazing… That’s what I do. I know if I walk straight toward that, I’ll walk straight into that thing, and I hear [whispers as if somebody else] see I told you she could see.”
She also described her difficulty, when the radio she used as a beacon to return to her newsstand was turned off. She blamed the environment “everything is on an angle at that station”. She quipped, without the radio “I’ll end up falling off track 2”. Terri’s now prophetic remark is chilling for many reasons.
First and foremost, that Terri died when she walked off the platform onto the tracks without her long cane. My guess, she was disoriented thinking she was headed back to her newsstand. Only she was on the platform and an Amtrak train was entering the track at a high speed- and she stepped off into the path of the train and died before anyone could rescue her.
One problem that may seem benign to sighted people, is her misplaced pride in fooling sighted people that she was not blind because she could walk around the station without her long cane. Terry had no real choice. She was 12 before the white cane was invented.
But children still grow up blind or mobility visually impaired being taught this misplaced source of pride in deceiving sighted people making them question whether they have a disability. In honor of Terri, I ask us all to stop this lesson.
Let’s replace it instead with a pride in the mobility tool that is obvious but effective.
Terri’s story defines the true difference between orientation and mobility. Orientation is having that beacon that tells you which way to head, mobility is using a mobility tool to make sure you have the path information needed to keep you safe from colliding with obstacles. The long cane user can locate drop offs in time to stop and avoid injury. Terri was run over by an Amtrak train, not because she was disoriented, but because she had no ability to detect the platform edge in time to stop.
Walking without seeing where you are going is more dangerous without a mobility tool. It is impossible to see where you’re going when you’re blind and that is unsafe and leads to injury and sometimes even death. And this is also a part of the legacy of Terri and her wonderful life lived without benefit of a mobility tool, and without benefit of being taught to use the one long cane she occasionally carried with her to the casino.
She was prouder of deceiving sighted people that she was sighted; than she ever was of her long white cane.
We could all honor her by recognizing the long cane as a proud badge of honor. It enables blind or mobility visually impaired travelers to keep themselves safer as they move about. And that is what we need to do for toddlers born blind. We need to give them pride in wearing their belt canes. They too can learn to stop when they feel the drop.