Below is an essay I read at an event in Washington, DC for White Cane Day 2016, written from the perspective of a new blindness cane user.
It’s the ultimate statement accessory
No matter what you wear with it, it’s always the first thing people notice. You can’t leave the house without at least someone making a comment on it. And when you don’t have it, people will ask why.
The accessory I’m talking about today is not some necklace, a pair of shoes, or even a pair of glasses. It’s a blindness cane, or white cane.
I started using one regularly when I started college. I resisted it, because I wanted to pretend my vision wasn’t actually getting worse. After I became known as the girl who fell down the stairs, twice, during freshman orientation, I realized that I needed it more than I thought I didn’t. In the now two years I’ve used it, I’ve gotten so many bizarre comments, assumptions, and questions from people around me. Quite simply, people don’t know a lot about canes.
One time, an employee at a bagel place I went to with my friend pulled them aside. They asked why I could see when I had a blindness cane, and started asking how well I could see. My friend explained that I had low vision, and while I could see a little bit, it still wasn’t great. I found out about this after we left and while I appreciate how my friend handled it, I was a bit surprised at the employee’s assumptions.
Not everyone has to be totally blind to use a cane. Many members of the low vision community use canes to get around. A low vision doctor once told me that you can see 20/20 on the eye chart, but still be legally blind and need a cane to get around, and that’s okay. One does not have to see, or rather not see, a certain percentage to get a blindness cane. If they need it, they need it.
Do you really need a cane though?
I have other well-meaning people tell me about their friends or family members with low vision or blindness. They tell me how they get around without canes perfectly fine. That’s amazing, and I am always so impressed when I meet people who can do that. Sadly, I can’t tell the difference between flat ground and stairs. The cane really isn’t something I can go without.
Every person with blindness or low vision is different. It hurts when people start questioning how well someone can see. Another equally annoying thing is when random people approach me and start doing a makeshift eye test to see how well I can see. When you look like society’s view of normal, suddenly it’s hard to believe that you could be wearing such thick glasses and everyone turns into an eye doctor, trying to diagnose what’s wrong with you and if you really need that cane.
And while it is well-meaning, I don’t like hearing that I’m too pretty to have to use a blindness cane either.
Fighting stigma and answering questions
My best way of fighting the stigma of using a cane is to answer anyone’s questions or concerns about me using one in the most polite, appropriate way I can at the time, even though that may be difficult sometimes. Humor really helps, especially when the questions get to be bizarre or random.
Some odd things my cane has been mistaken for include a selfie stick, a lighter, a sword, a knife, a golf club, and a pair of mallets when it was folded up. My typical reaction is to smile and explain it’s a blindness cane and not whatever object they thought it was.
When little kids ask me why or how I use my cane, I tell them I don’t see well. For especially curious ones, I have them grab down on the bottom segment of my cane. Then, I move it around to show them how I feel different vibrations.
And for the strangers on the metro who ask if I can see them, I just say I have low vision.
While there are some days I wish I didn’t need it, I am glad I have my cane. When I first started using it I ran into former friends who told me I was exaggerating about my vision being so bad. I considered trying to go without my cane. But then when my cane alerted me to a pothole ahead of me, I realized how helpful it is and how much I need it. I can’t imagine going anywhere without my cane, except maybe face first on the ground or into a wall because I didn’t notice something. My cane has helped me see more of the world than I ever imagined, and for that, I am grateful.
So although it is a statement accessory that says I have low vision, I try to rock it the best I can. After all, I am not my disability or my assistive technology- I am a person who just happens to have a disability and uses assistive technology.