Pride and the Fear of Prejudice: Reflections on Picking Up a White Cane

A photo of Eric sitting at a table, balancing his white cane on one finger.

“I need to get used to people staring,” said my wife, Kristin, as we walked up a busy sidewalk one evening, passing small clusters of shoppers and bar-hoppers.

“Oh, are they staring?” On some level, I know people do—I’ve thought about it a lot, in fact—but I don’t usually notice when it’s happening. 

We walked on for a moment, passing a few more chattering groups. “It’s pretty rude, actually.” A little more edge in her voice this time—a hint of anger and offense on my behalf. 

It wasn’t the first time I’d had my white cane out while we were walking together, but it hadn’t yet become normal and run-of-the-mill. It still hasn’t, really. I don’t need the cane in my own house, or my own neighborhood where I’m comfortable, but in unfamiliar surroundings, or at night, or in crowds, I can no longer get along without it. 

So I have started using the cane. I resisted it for a long time—I carried it with me for a year before I took it out in public. When I use it, the benefits are real. I am calmer. I don’t feel the constant fear that I might trip over a curb or run into a bench or a sign or an unsuspecting pedestrian. I hadn’t realized how tense I could get walking until my cane let me relax. 

Why did I resist for so long? It wasn’t the stares, per se, because I don’t notice the stares. I do notice other things. I notice people get out of my way. I hear children comment, or maybe just their parent saying “because he can’t see, honey—keep walking,” in a loud, embarrassed whisper. Sometimes, people are nicer to me. When I run into people, they apologize to me. People offer directions and guidance when I’m walking.  Panhandlers don’t see me as a mark, so they say hello and have a nice day and we each go on our way.

These are minor things, perhaps. On their own they would be annoying, tiresome, occasionally disheartening, but they are not on their own. They are just a few symptoms of a deeper and harder truth. When I carry my white cane, people see me differently. That thin metal stick blocks everything else from view and becomes the controlling factor in my first impression.

Suddenly, I am not just a man.

I am a blind man. 

And that, my friends, is a hard move to make. I spent most of my life actively trying to avoid being labeled for my vision, and for the most part I succeeded. My eyesight has always been poor, but it hasn’t defined me. People have gotten to know me first, and my visual impairment after. In a few cases, I knew someone for years before they learned I had low vision. It’s not that I tried to protect the secret that fiercely. I never outright denied it, but if a situation never arose where I had to admit it, I didn’t feel obliged to. It cannot be hard to imagine why I would rankle at the thought that my visual impairment, that thing I had sought to hide for so many years, would now become the first thing any new acquaintance would learn about me.

Looking back, it’s easy to interpret my reticence as vanity and empty pride. It’s easy to say I was foolish to avoid a useful and necessary tool just to maintain appearances. 

But I’m not alone. Many people with progressive vision loss wait way too long to start using their canes. My first Braille teacher would lament the stubbornness of her students at length: they wait too long to give up driving, they wait too long to learn Braille, they wait too long to start using their canes.

She once told me of a man who insisted he did not need a cane full-time. He was perfectly safe walking without it. After all, he had only been hit by two cars.

So before you chalk my resistance to the cane up to ego or foolish pride, consider how many others also resist. Consider how strongly they resist. And consider the factors that lead them to resist. They are not illegitimate.

***

Seventy percent of blind people are unemployed. The reasons for this—the historical degradation of the blind, the problems of education and accessibility, and so on—could fill volumes, but none of them is absolute. None is immutable. With some adaptation and accommodation, most blind people are fully capable of earning their pay the same way any other person does.

This unemployment rate is not the necessary result of blindness; it is driven in large part by social perception of the blind. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University showed that Americans fear blindness more than any other malady: more than losing their other senses, their limbs, even their memories and their minds. Sighted people fear blindness, and they project that fear onto the blind. The victims of their greatest fear become the objects of their greatest pity.

And pity is not an emotion that expects great things. Pity patronizes. Pity belittles. Pity excuses. It does not inspire faith, or trust, or get you a job.

***

Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, a professor at Bowling Green State University who is blind, created a short video illustrating the difficulties that blind people have in job interviews. The interviewers are not antagonistic, but their view of blindness has been conditioned by naive assumptions about the difficulty of being blind and their participation in a blindfolded simulation. Throughout the interview, they ask the blind interviewee simplistic and demeaning questions that betray their rock-bottom expectations for her performance.

“Did you type this? Oh my gosh, how? I don’t see a single typo or anything!!”

“When you teach, how do you know where the students are?” 

“I’m happy to walk you to your car. Do you need help getting down the stairs?”

They dismiss her legitimate achievements—an earned Ph.D., independent research, and ten years of teaching experience—and focus instead on her “impressive” ability to perform the simplest tasks. By the end, it is clear she was not interviewed as a candidate, but as a novelty. 

In an online discussion of the video, a blind graduate student asked if this was really the experience she could look forward to when she entered the job market. Dr. Wells-Jensen replied that interviewing wasn’t quite this bad—she had heard all of these things in one interview or another, but she had never heard them all in the same interview. Small consolation, for those of us with our careers ahead, but it is the reality we must face.

***

Jobs and opportunities are not earned. They are not simply conferred based on met requirements of ability and achievement. Jobs are given. They are given by people, based on those people’s perceptions of the candidates. 

Like it or not, the perceptions of others have a profound impact on our lives, and all of us—whether we acknowledge it or not—go to great lengths to manage and influence those perceptions.

I lived the first thirty-four years of my life with the ability to control how others perceived me. There was no part of my appearance or manner that instantly and inevitably lowered my estimation in the eyes of those I met. When I picked up the white cane, I took up the mantle of blindness, and the prejudice that comes with it. I could put that mantle down again, just by putting away the white cane. It was a symbol, the sign of my blindness, and while I could hide it, I did.

Increasingly, signs of blindness are always with me, in my body and my behavior. I’ve failed to recognize too many faces, missed too many offered handshakes, run into too many obstacles to think I can hide it now. The social benefits of keeping my cane zipped up in my bag have faded as the practical benefits of using it have grown. I am blind whether I carry it or not, and now I am seen as blind.

***

The main lesson here is not about white canes. I’m not just telling people to stop worrying and learn to love the cane. Everyone who loses their sight has to weigh the benefits of the cane against its costs, and decide for themselves when to use it (or when to get a guide dog!).

No, the lesson I’ve learned is about my fear. It was not baseless, and the thing I was afraid of is real, even if I couldn’t articulate it in the beginning. Social perception has deep and long-lasting repercussions in the real lives of blind people and it drives many of us who are going blind to resist tools that could help us in practical ways. Being hit by a car is a problem; so is unemployment.

But this is hard to see from the outside, and harder to truly appreciate. Even my Braille teacher, who worked closely with the blind and the going-blind, could not see the reasons why her students didn’t use their canes as early as they should have.

In this way, it is also a reminder to trust stories of prejudice and discrimination from others. My own white cane is an object I can pick up and put down, but many people are born with “white canes” in their bodies, characteristics they cannot hide that set them apart and mark them out from the rest of the population: sex, skin color, disability, and deformity. Others have “white canes” like sexuality or religion, things they could hide with effort, but at a deep cost to their identity or well-being. All of these create barriers based on social perceptions, not any real deficit.

***

The problem of prejudice can be attacked from two directions. The one I tried for most of my life focused on me—managing my appearance to avoid showing any disability or defect. That way is now closed to me, as it is and has always been closed to so many others who face prejudice and discrimination every day of their lives.

The other approach is to change the perceptions themselves, to move past the fear of being labeled and judged, and do what small part I can to show the world that naive, patronizing condescension of blind people is unwarranted and wrong. I still have to focus on myself, to develop my skills and abilities, but I must also engage actively with those who rarely come into contact with the world of the blind, to demonstrate what blind people can do, what they have already done, and to urge them to trust in the abilities of the blind.

This, I believe, is the better path, and it always has been. By working as a blind person to improve the lot of blind people, I serve not only myself, but the wellbeing of other blind people and of society at large. As you can see, however, I was not drawn to it by any special virtue of my own. It became my only option when the path of self-presentation closed. I was driven to advocacy by self-interest, but the process has taught me that it is always better and always necessary to advocate for the equal treatment and welfare of others, whether or not their trouble is also mine.

***

Luckily, advocacy for the blind has come a long way, in the hands of better and more qualified people than myself. Many pioneers have come before or are working now to improve the circumstances of the blind. Blind people want to support themselves, and to contribute to their families, their communities, and their society. They are advocating for themselves to be given that opportunity, and developing the tools they need to capitalize on it.

Since I have gone blind, I have met a host of bright and capable blind people working in almost every field: academics, scientists, engineers, coders, designers, filmmakers, woodworkers, tinkerers, lawyers, politicians, public servants.

More than ever before, blind professionals have set precedents that blind children and newly-blind adults can follow into almost any career or vocation. If blind people continue to receive educational and professional resources, we will grow our numbers in every sector of work and life. Blind people in the workplace will become less of a rarity. Someday, the intelligence and competence of the blind will be seen everywhere.

And when something is seen everywhere, there is no more reason to stare. 

 

19 thoughts on “Pride and the Fear of Prejudice: Reflections on Picking Up a White Cane

  1. Eric! Dang, you’re a good writer! Your blog posts are fascinating because they give an honest and very informative understanding of the transition you are going through as you go blind. I’m not surprised in any way, you’ve always been insanely driven and brilliant, but the voice you write with is spot-on. You struggle with a (now public) handicap but it by no means defines you. When I read your posts, I don’t feel like I’m reading a diary of someone who is fearful or angry. You have handled so much of your vision with grace (I’m sure you’ve had your moments). Thank you for sharing your blog and for writing often about this journey. Your advocacy surely has moved me! Can I please share your blog posts on my Facebook page?

  2. Thank you, Rebecca! That means a lot. Believe me, there is certainly fear and anger on this journey, but I try not to stop there for too long at a time. 🙂 Absolutely feel free to share wherever you like!

  3. Be bold and be strong. Banish fear and doubt. For the Lord yourGod will bless your coming in and bless your going out.

  4. Your blog is very real, honest, & informative. You can inspire others. Thankyou. My son has RP & total Deafness, so he has Usher Syndrome 1 (the most devastating.) Talk about isolation, & folks not understanding–wow. Can you imagine being Deaf-Blind for a day? Even for an hour, or a few mins? I’ve been to workshops where we had to simulate being Deaf w/RP. I tell you it blew my mind. We had to complete several tasks such as walking up a staircase, around to another floor, & back down the stairs; then we had to get a drink of water from the water fountain; we had to order food & carry a tray; next we had to sign our name on a form; we had to write out a check (practice only.) We had a few other tasks to try. Honestly, every single task we had to attempt was not easy, it was very difficult, frustrating, & challenging. The workshop I did was a very long time ago, over 25 years when there was no technology like we have today. It was at the HKNC in Sands Point, NY. I’ll never forget that awesome training. It made me aware of the daily struggles a legally Blind (& Deaf) person goes through. We’re all going through a journey in life. We can learn from each other & keep informed about technology, & trends in advancement to find out more about RP & Usher Syndrome, & retinal eye problems. My 2 beautiful nieces in their 30’s, have Staargardt’s retinal eye disease. I never heard about it until my nieces were diagnosed many years ago. Both live in NY & are doing well. One is married with a 3 yr old, & the other is gay living with her partner. Amazing legally Blind women. Love ’em. They both work, too. Well that’s all for now.

  5. Thank you. Perfect timing. I have RP and am at the exact point of needing my cane all the time except for home and a few other places ( and that list keeps getting shorter)
    I’ve struggled with all that you mentioned and agree with your insights.
    I worked in IT for 10 years as a legally blind man hiding my disability until the day I went on long term disability. I had to turn down jobs I was qualified for due to mobility issues. I resigned myself to desk work because I desperately wanted to protect my image due to fear. I remember confiding with HR and basically being nudged in the direction of ” keep it hidden until you can’t any longer ” all the while feeling the judgement of “it really can’t be hat bad if you can hide it so well”

    Those of us with RP ( and probably other visual impairments) are continuously having our struggles minimized when we are vulnerable, whether by good intentions or ignorance, this only fuels our insecurities and reinforces our thought process of protecting our image and diminishes trust in people.

    Thanks for your vulnerable and insightful words. It was very helpful, encouraging and perfectly timed.

    Best Regards,
    Nick

    1. Glad to hear it was helpful, Nick! Are you connected with any blindness orgs or rehab agencies? With some training you could be able to work in IT again. If you’ve already got a plan, great! If you ever want ideas/links to resources, let me know!

  6. Eric, your article is spot on and very insightful. My highly successful, educated, and yes, legally blind, husband was recently laid off for all the reasons you cited. The discrimination is real. The first step to overcoming the problem is recognizing it. Thanks for your work – one step at a time.

    1. Thank you for the comment, but ugh—that is disheartening. I am coming to grips with the fact that I will probably have to chart an unconventional path through life, but I hope that it will lead to good places. I wish you and your husband the best as he seeks out new opportunities.

  7. Eric, I’m not sure if you remember me, but I’m friends with James and Briana Moore (we met at Thanksgiving back in New England!) and I’m friends with Kristin on social media. She posted a link to this on her Instagram. Anyways, this is an amazing read! I’ve just completed my first year in my PhD program and was constantly concerned about dealing with prejudice for being a new mom with all the responsibilities, conflicts, and problems that entails. I don’t want to compare this to your “white cane,” but I certainly understand when you explain how people keep certain details hidden for fear of social repercussions (the academy still isn’t super friendly to parents, as I’m sure you know, too). And as I continue in my program, helpful writings like this one keep me focused on what’s important (my work) and what isn’t (everyone else). Thank you for sharing. I hope our families’ paths cross again soon 🙂

    1. Hi Katherine, great to reconnect! I hear you on the kids thing, since I’m also lead parent of an almost 3-year-old. Just keep swimming, as Dory would say. What is your Ph.D. in, by the way?

  8. Thank you for your powerful message. I am a low vision rehab doctor and I am always searching for encouraging ways to help patients consider initiating cane use when it seems appropriate. Your article was so rich with many themes, I hope to share it with patients but maybe more importantly sharing with all my fully visual friends to help them reduce that discrimination.

  9. Thanks for sharing your experience with being comfortable with the cane. It is too bad that more people don’t see that they to, while not adapting to a cane are often struggling with being accepted because of their background, etc. I have find it interesting when asked what I do and then say that we have been involved in missions our whole career, there is a silence and then often the comment: “That is nice.” As you said, interacting with someone outside their comfort zone is threatening and the challenge for each one of us is to be aware that we seek to accept and consider the person for who they are rather than the outward appearance or background. Again, appreciate your helpful and stimulating comments.

  10. Eric – Well written!!!! There is such a need for voices to advocate for acceptance and you nailed it in this post. If we can lay down our preconceived ideas and just get to know someone, we can discover their contributions to this world, and usually their contribution to us personally. Write on friend!

  11. Eric,

    I love this article. It is incredibly well written.

    Venturing out in public with my white cane has indeed been an adventure in processing for myself the responses of others. I came to the conclusion it was their own fear they were projecting onto me.

    Going through my own inner fear and struggles to accept using the cane was difficult enough. I was not at all prepared for how those around me would respond.

    Thank you for sharing your fabulous insights.

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