Today is White Cane Awareness Day, a day to celebrate a tool that, despite its simplicity, remains one of the most powerful for independent living and travel among the blind.
I got my first cane in 2015. It came with my Orientation and Mobility training, provided free-of-charge by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when I registered as legally blind. I will always be grateful that I went blind in Massachusetts, because the state-run Commission for the Blind provides excellent services and training for blind residents who want to keep working or re-enter the workforce. They gave me assistive technology and Braille instruction before I even needed them, so that I would be prepared when I did.
Also there, and also before I needed it, I received training in proper cane technique—when I’m in motion the cane is in motion, skimming the ground or tapping in front of my hind foot. I learned how to make sure an area was clear before I stepped up or down a curb, and how to navigate staircases, using my cane to sense the beginning and the end. I learned how to read the traffic patterns so I could gauge when it was safe to cross, and how to aim so I would end up on the sidewalk instead of the middle of the intersection.
I walked for miles through the chilly autumn air, wearing a blackout blindfold. My instructor followed a few steps behind, sometimes offering correction or advice, but mostly letting me find my own way using my cane, my ears, and my memory as guides.
It was challenging, sometimes frustrating, but I’m glad I got that training when I did.
In 2016 we moved to California, and the cane didn’t leave my bag for a year. It’s not only that I avoided using it. I knew our neighborhood and felt safe enough walking most places without it.
But throughout that year I had the growing realization that I should probably start using it more often, especially at night and in crowded places. Yet that thought also filled me with that potent mixture of pride and fear familiar to many of us who are losing our sight. It is one thing to learn how to use a white cane; it’s quite another to need to use it.
In 2017, I wrote a long reflection on the emotional struggle, the pride and fear that keep us from carrying canes and the reality of prejudice and discrimination that justify that fear. It is hard to so openly wield this signal of blindness, especially since most of us have tried for years to hide our fading sight from others.
But pragmatism has won out, as it usually does. Over the last year, my cane use has gradually increased. I carry it most of the time now, outside the house and a few short routes nearby. I wouldn’t imagine going somewhere new and unfamiliar without it.
In many ways, it’s surprisingly comfortable. I’m sure people stare, as Kristin pointed out last year, but I don’t notice that. Mostly I notice the stress that it removes from my walk, since I don’t have to stay on high alert for trees and people that materialize in front of me, or obstacles that leap from nowhere into the path of my shins.
My three-year-old daughter takes it in stride. Sometimes she tries to take it in hand, too, but I think we’ve mostly broken her of that habit. She knows it’s “daddy’s stick” and asks for one of her own. I might buy her one.
There are a few funny things. If I’m walking with friends and take my cane out, they often start giving me tips and information about the environment.
“There’s a curb coming up.”
“Trash can on your right!”
It’s ironic, because I took the cane out to get exactly the sort of information they are now providing. It’s like the cane primes them, reminds them that I’m blind, and prompts them to offer advice, just when I stop needing it.
Every year, I’m sure the cane will become more comfortable, more indispensable, a more natural extension of my arm and my sensory field. My white cane is part of my life now, necessary for the basic functions of life. When I think of it these days, I don’t fear the message it broadcasts to the world; I simply appreciate its utility and the freedom it brings.
I know that the cane is still a marker of my blind identity, and that that identity will certainly create difficulties for me in this life, but that’s not the cane’s fault. It’s just doing its job.
Happy White Cane Day, everyone!