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Dr. Jo DeFini

Dr. Josephine DeFini was gifted in math from a very young age. Born with low vision, as the first born – she helped look after her 3 siblings. Although long white canes had been used for 5 years when she became blind, at age 11, one was never provided to her. In school, there were plenty of ways for her to learn independently -she had talking books and eventually learned braille to read independently, but the most natural independence of all- walking, she was taught a dependent solution. The only solution they could think of was for her to walk with an escort to keep her safe, which she wanted no part of. She wanted a dog guide, which was a much older mobility tool. (to listen to her podcast click button.

Jo is sitting in a chair, her black labrador guide dog is in harness, seated on her right side.
AMANDA BROWN/THE STAR-LEDGER Josephine DeFini and her guide dog Zion.

Morris Frank got his first dog guide in 1928 – as an adult. And dog guides are still available to someone once they have graduated from high school. Jo was evaluated on the long cane before she graduated high school, but she was never provided a long cane.

Black and white photo showing 8 people, each with a german sheppard guide dog in harness standing on a sidewalk in front of the buildings at Seeting Eye.
Photo courtesy of The Seeing Eye Josephine DeFini, second from left with her first dog Halla in 1957 from The Seeing Eye in Morris County.

Independent travel tools for blind persons were once considered the domain of adults. They were invented for blind adults. It took decades to bring long canes to high schoolers (1960s). How can this be? There exists no logic to this outcome.

Once it was obvious that a blind adults could be safer with a long white cane, why wasn't the next logical outcome "we need to find a way to make devices for blind toddlers and children of all ages?" Blind toddlers need our protection most of all.

Why did it take 70 years from the advent of the long cane for blind adults to conceive and build a pediatric belt cane for blind toddlers?

Jo grew up as an independent child -her low vision allowed her to walk on time and yet, later as an adult she became keenly aware of how unsafe her independence had been. She remembered crossing major avenues with incomplete knowledge of exactly where the cars were, before and after she became blind.

Jo experienced accidents that clearly demonstrated the difference between orientation and mobility. She was oriented – no problem. But knowing where you are and where you are going is just half of the equation – the other half is mobility. Mobility with blindness or a mobility visual impairment requires a mobility tool. If she had one that day she feel down the stairs in high school, perhaps she would have avoided that accident. Or the day when the janitor left a full mop bucket next to the wall she trailed along - a messy and painful accident.

She lived for 17 years without an effective mobility tool. She survived – but is that really the legacy we want for children who are born blind or mobility visually impaired? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? No, I don’t think so. Jo would still have been a math scholar, achieved her doctorate and gone on to be as successful as she was, even if she had been provided with mobility safety from an early age.

Dangerous mobility does not make a blind person more independent. If anything it leaves a lasting negative impression on the adults in positions to protect them - looking back and recognizing clearly that those who were supposed to protect them when they were vulnerable children failed to do so.

My take home message from Dr. DeFini's interview is, let’s recognize the value of mobility tools for people who are blind or mobility visually impaired- welcome them much like you already welcome wheelchairs, as essential to address a need.

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