Blind World Magazine

Our Neighbor.

October 05, 2005.
Pine Journal, Cloquet MN.

Sharry Waldriff's life has been touched by tragedy, but it didn't need to be.

Two of her friends died in traffic accidents. One friend, Jack Thornton, is familiar to many Cloquet residents. The other was a friend in Superior. Negligent drivers killed both friends and both friends were blind.

"It was devastating," Waldriff said. "It happens everywhere."

Waldriff speaks from experience. She's blind also and deals with drivers disobeying traffic law every day - drivers refusing to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, speeding, not paying attention and nearly killing people. She's learned the hard way not to trust drivers. State law states a blind person has the right of way, always, but Waldriff never assumes drivers know that.

"It's something drivers and pedestrians need to be aware of," she said. "We need to work together to save lives and prevent this from ever happening again."

To help raise awareness about the issue, Waldriff is speaking to the AARP meeting Monday, Oct. 10, at Zion Lutheran Church. She'll use that day to highlight White Cane Safety Day, which is observed Oct. 15 every year.

White Cane Safety Day is a significant day for blind Americans. It signifies a commitment by the society to improve access to basic services for blind and visually impaired people.

The "white cane" is recognized as a tool blind people use to allow them to participate in daily life. When the Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act 15 years ago, the national government opened a new era in government support. Congress originally declared Oct. 15 of each year White Cane Safety Day in 1964.

The Minnesota statute stating the rights of blind people carrying white canes states: "Blind pedestrian has right-of-way. Any person operating a motor vehicle in this state shall bring such motor vehicle to stop and give right-of-way at any intersection of any street, alley or other public highway to a blind pedestrian who is carrying a cane predominately white or metallic in color, with or without red tip, or using a guide dog, when such blind person enters said intersection."

Yielding to a blind person sounds simple, yet because of ignorance, impatience or lack of attention, many drivers don't obey the law. When they fail to obey, they put lives (their own and the pedestrian) in danger.

The President of the United States signs the White Cane Safety Day proclamation every year, yet looking at how often people stop for any pedestrian at a crosswalk makes you wonder how well the message is getting through.

A vehicle hasn't ever struck Waldriff, but the memory of two dead friends is never far from her mind. She also knows another person in Duluth who was struck by a car in Duluth but thankfully not injured.

"The bottom line is to be careful," she said. "It doesn't take long to make a mistake. The kid who killed Jack Thornton told police he only looked down for a moment."

Waldriff said drivers should watch more closely for pedestrians during the coming winter months. The bad weather - snow, wind, ice - makes roads even more hazardous because of poor visibility and decreased stopping distances.

Waldriff was born two months premature. Receiving too much oxygen while she was being treated in the intensive care unit caused her blindness.

She talks freely about her deep faith in God, a belief held so dear she even disputes the label she was born premature.

"I don't believe I was born premature," she said. "I was born when God wanted me to born. It was only the doctors who weren't expecting me."

She's taken that deep faith in God and combined it with her musical talents. Waldriff is perhaps best known to area residents for her musical ministry.

Her free-will offering performances are popular in area churches. She's also recorded three albums that are available at Bridgeman's in Duluth and by calling 879-1995. Her music and lyrics have inspired people for years, and Waldriff hopes to expand that ministry.

"I want to expand it into working with seniors more and into hospice," she said. "Music can bring comfort and therapy."

It also brings comfort to her. Her lyrics are laced with religious imagery and reflect her spiritual journey, including her experience of being blind. One song's lyrics say, "With eyes though blind, my eyes can truly see."

"I was getting at the idea that there is more than one way to see," she said.

While much of Waldriff's ministry grows out of her personal experience, she also draws on her formal education training. She earned a bachelor's degree in music education and master's degrees in counseling and rehabilitation teaching. The "people" emphasis served her well when she worked at State Services for the Blind, a first stop for many blind people seeking services.

One question she heard from blind people was about the advantages and disadvantages of having a seeing-eye dog. Waldriff had never had one, so she always told them she didn't know. It got her thinking, though, and when she was 33 years old she decided to get her first guide dog.

"I figured I better get a dog and find out," she said. "I'm glad I did. They're wonderful companions."

Waldriff flew out to New Jersey and met her first dog. The organization chooses the dog for the blind person based on the person's lifestyle and work activities. She stayed in New Jersey for a month as she and her new companion got to know each other.

"I've never felt so blind as the first time I let the dog lead me," she said. "In the past, I always had my cane. You put a lot of faith in the dog."

Several myths surround seeing-eye dogs. The most common myth is that the dog tells the person where and when to go, which is false. But the person doesn't take complete command, either. The relationship is truly give and take.

"I tell my dog, Tillie, where I want to go," Waldriff said. "I also listen for cars and let her know when it's time to go. She looks to make sure no car is coming. It really is a team effort."

Tillie is especially good at watching for cars turning right, which is when many accidents occur. Waldriff listens for cars turning right more closely now, but she likes knowing Tillie is aware of the danger.

"That's where the dog is a big help," Waldriff said.

Tillie's training is easy to spot if you stay with her a while. When her harness is on, Tillie knows she's "on-duty" and she remains calm and obedient, always sitting calmly or awaiting a command at Waldriff's side.

No one pets Tillie when she's working, in part because blind people don't want their dogs taking off across the street to have someone pet them.

When the harness is on, Tillie is all business.

"It's our way of saying it's work time," Waldriff said. "Different owners have different rules, but generally people should always ask if they can pet the dog."

Take the harness off Tillie, though, take her off duty for a while and she acts, well, like a golden retriever. When Waldriff took off Tillie's harness during the interview for this story, Tillie ran over, tail wagging, wanting to be petted and played with. She's a completely different animal with the harness on.

The strong connection between dog and owner causes some heartache. Waldriff vowed after her first dog died that she'd never get another one. A year passed, however, and she was ready to try it again.

"I thought I'd never be able to go through that again," Waldriff said.

"But I've had Tillie for 11 years now. The dogs are wonderful because my blindness is never a burden. If I want to go for a walk at nine o'clock at night, the dog doesn't mind. She's ready for anything. Of course, my cane never threw up in Younkers."

There's always a trade.

Her dogs have meant so much to her that Waldriff is taking a break from her job as a counselor at Grace Baptist Church in Cloquet to write a book on the topic.

"It's a book about lessons my guide dog taught me," she said. "I hope it will inspire people."

Inspiring people is what, in many ways, Waldriff is about. When she talks to groups about being blind, she always brings them back to faith in God.

One of her common speeches, which she calls "Batteries Included," is about how God gives us strength to do whatever he's called us to do.

"I also speak a lot about transitions, about getting older, the dying process, moving from high school to college," she said.

She also continues to advocate for blind people. She supports (and used to work for) the Lighthouse For the Blind in Duluth, which runs a rehabilitation center for blind people. She continues to refer people to State Services for the Blind.

Providing resources and training to blind people is one thing. Changing the attitudes of the public is another. Waldriff said attitudes toward blind people are improving, but society still needs improvement. Her husband, Dale, said restaurant wait staff still ask him what she wants when they're out to eat and people still talk louder to her, figuring she can't hear well because she's blind.

"The worst thing about blindness isn't being blind. It's the attitude about the blindness," she said. "It takes work on both ends to understand each other."

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