By Michelle Friedman
The white cane is a mobility aid that allows people who are blind and visually impaired to navigate the world around them independently. The cane gives the user information about the world around them: what kind of surface they are walking on, what obstacles may lie in front of them, what drop offs may exist that indicate stairs or curbs, etc. For some people, the cane is a useful tool.
When I was in my early 20’s and still had some functional vision, I made the decision to take orientation and mobility training. At that time, I was working at Access Living, and I needed to take public transportation to and from work and then again to and from graduate school in downtown Chicago. I would get home after dark, an additional challenge since I had even less sight at night. But I used the cane only when absolutely necessary. I hated it and I used it as little as possible. Then, I still had some vision to rely on, so I felt fairly confident not using that cane all the time.
Fast forward about 14 years or so when I lost the remainder of my vision. Totally blind, I now needed to use that cane in a very different way. I had to rely on it completely. So once again, I took orientation and mobility training through the Lighthouse. An instructor came to my home and taught me how to use the cane to cross streets, take the bus, and orient myself around places I frequented like my neighborhood and the mall.
It was terrifying. Relying on this 4 foot, thin white piece of aluminum to get around outdoors in wide open public spaces with no sight at all was terrifying. I heard the horror stories of other blind people: For example, my braille instructor was crossing a busy street and found herself in the middle of it when a passing car knocked the cane out of her hand!
That was when I decided that using a cane to get around the world independently wasn’t for me. After all, at the time, I had 2 young children at home who needed a mother who didn’t get killed by a passing car or fall off the “L” platform or end up lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
So even though I knew then and know now how to use that cane, I choose not to. Instead I rely on sighted guides. These may be friends, family, colleagues, or hired helpers.
Admittedly I am very fortunate. Anywhere I want or need to go, I have people I can count on to get me there and help me navigate when I arrive. I can get to my meetings and social engagements easily. I have gotten more comfortable using uber; although as a blind woman, I still have pangs of vulnerability. Still, my life is such that I usually can find someone to accompany me to my destination.
Other blind people have occasionally criticized me for not using my cane to get around independently. I was once on vacation with my family visiting my sister and her family at their bungalow in the mountains. A mother of a young boy who was blind and getting around with his cane accosted me and told me that I was a terrible role model for other blind people. Imagine! But she knew nothing about me except that I was blind and not using my cane. At that moment, I stupidly stood there and tried to defend myself, telling the woman about all the things I do and have accomplished and justifying my choice to rely on a sighted guide to be independent. Today, I would never do that!
Most of the time (though not all of the time), my cane is with me in my backpack or folded up in my hand. Having it with me gives me confidence that I can use it if I need to. Sometimes I use it because identifying myself as a blind person gets me extra help or, in fact, some special treatment. I have been known to use it at the airport to get through lines faster and seated more efficiently.
Even though I don’t use my cane very much, I am still independent -at least as independent as people are who do use canes. I go where I want to go. I make my own decisions. I go where I want, when I want.
My cane is there when I need it, so I guess I love it. But I also hate it.
The minute I unfold the cane and stick it out in front of me, something comes over me. It’s hard to explain: I just feel “less.” That feeling comes from the fact that some people see my cane first and not me and they make assumptions. I want people to see me, know me, talk to me, value me and realize my capabilities, not my disability, which my cane represents. I don’t want sympathy; I want respect. I don’t want to feel invisible because my cane has gotten all the attention.
I don’t really know if people feel that way, but that is the feeling that comes over me.
I feel judged. Sometimes when I am walking through an airport, say, with both my cane and holding the arm of a companion, I also feel judged. People may see a person with a cane walking around by themselves and wonder why I need both an arm and a cane. The fact is people who use canes without needing a companion at places like the airport most likely retain some sight. I have none. So I cannot rely solely on a cane to navigate places like airports or malls.
I admit it, I love my cane when it gets me out of long lines at places like the airport. I don’t mind it when it gets me a seat when there isn’t an open seat otherwise. I do love the security of knowing that if I need help for any reason, my cane identifies me as a blind person, and I can ask and get help more readily. I also appreciate that when I use it, people tend not to run into or bump into me (or at least they tend to be embarrassed if they do!)
I just hate my cane because I hate the assumptions people make about me personally when they see it. I hate that they see it first and me-the real me, second. I want them to see me as a capable, competent woman, wife, mother, grandmother, community leader, disability rights activist, speaker, occasionalwriter, and someone with value and purpose. My cane is a tool, not a crutch.