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7 Insights Into the World of a White Cane User

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It’s 5 p.m. in a crowded hallway after a professional speaking event. As I cautiously move forward trying to navigate with my limited vision and my white cane, I am startled when a woman accidentally kicks the cane out from under me.  In a busy setting it isn’t entirely unusual. Instead of the typical social nicety of an apology however, the woman turns toward me, hesitates and awkwardly says “whoops!” In this moment it is evident  she has no idea how to respond.

Fast forward a few months and I’m out with some friends when one asks me a bit tentatively, “What does the cane do?” In the spirit of bridging the knowledge gap, allaying any awkward feelings, and with White Cane Day soon approaching I want to share with you the top seven secrets white cane users want you to know.

1.  Who uses a white cane?

While in pop culture the white cane is synonymous with total blindness, in reality most users are not completely blind. About 85 percent have some degree of vision. That vision may be light perception only or all the way to some usable vision. The cane gives us the ability to travel safely and independently.

2.  How does it work?

The principle is simple; the tip of the cane alerts us to obstacles in our path, uneven surfaces, changes in surface such as ice, and steps. Some users will tap from side to side in an arch while others will roll the tip in the same arch.  While we are trained in these standard forms, most of us have our own variations to suit our needs.

The cane has another function as well.  It’s meant to alert the public that we are blind. This makes travel safer for us as well as the sighted world. If you see a white cane user, please give them the space to continue safely navigating.

3.  People sometimes get weird when they see the cane.

I was walking down a boardwalk a few months ago when a little kid was very curious about the cane.  He asked his father a number of times what it was for. The father responded with, “Come with me down to the ocean and I’ll explain it to you.” I could hear the embarrassment in his voice.  In that moment the father, though meaning well, took a simple question and made things weird. If someone is using a white cane they don’t forget they are blind and you won’t offend them by answering your child’s questions about it. This is important because as long as we as a society continue to make disability taboo, we are making things more difficult for the disabled community.

Staring is another aspect of the “weirdness” we experience regularly. Whether one is sighted, low vision, or completely blind, no one likes being stared at as if they were an oddity. I get it, there aren’t a ton of us around so the white cane gets attention, but try to keep the staring to a minimum.  Most of us know you’re doing it, especially if we are with friends.

4.  The cane is a part of us.

When we are taught how to use the cane we are usually told to think of the cane as an extension of our pointer finger. When using it, our attention is split between what we are sensing in the tip and everything else going on around us. It is as if the cane is an extension of us. It is what allows us to “see” when our eyes do not. Keeping this in mind, please do not touch the cane without asking, and if you happen to bump one, treat the incident in the same way you would if you bumped into a sighted person.

5.  Some blind people won’t use canes.

Despite the benefits of the cane, there are still some blind people who will not use it because they are afraid of how others will see and treat them, or they are embarrassed by their impairment. In rare cases, family members guilt them out of using it because a sighted relative is embarrassed. While the positives outweigh the negatives for many of us there is, no doubt that the white cane does change how some people interact with us, and it is too much for some blind individuals.

6.  Not everyone uses their cane full-time.

Just as there are varying degrees of vision among cane users, there are also differences in usage. For the most part we do not use the cane at home or in a familiar home.  If we are new to the environment or there are specific obstacles that cause difficulty such as stairs, we will use the cane in a home. Even beyond that, some cane users will only use it in certain situations such as when in busy environments or at night. It is highly dependent on the user’s level of vision and specific needs.

7.  Not every cane is the same.

White canes come in a variety of materials including aluminum and my favorite, graphite. They can be rigid or folding. There are also a number of tip options to suite the user’s preference as well as their need. Some tips are great for heavy urban use while others are designed for hiking in the woods. Depending on the tip, we can go through four or more a year. Canes traditionally are meant to come up to the user’s armpit, but those of us who are fast walkers may prefer longer canes.

Even with all of the choices available, white canes have one thing in common; they are designed to comfortably give us back the tactile information that makes travel safe. White canes are not interchangeable with other canes, as those other canes won’t give the same level of feedback.

The simple white cane gives us the freedom to travel independently, whether to complete daily errands or around the world.  When you come across cane users, remember we are people first and there is no need for awkwardness. The cane, while an essential tool and an outward symbol, is not the sum total of who we are.

Getty image by Andrey Popov.

Originally published: September 5, 2018
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