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To the Girl With a Visual Impairment Who Is Self-Conscious About Using Her Cane

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“Excuse me, are you training that dog, or is she yours?” came a woman’s voice from my right side, a few seats over in the crowded airport terminal.

“No, she’s mine,” I replied, “I’m legally blind.”

“Oh, well you look so confident that I just assumed you were a trainer.”

I sat up straighter and smiled. I liked this woman. “Oh, thanks!” I said.

“I have my daughter sitting here next to me. She just turned 18 and has been talking to Guide Dogs for the Blind about applying for a guide.”

“Oh, wow, that’s great!” I beamed. “You will love working with GDB!”

The mother’s voice dropped a notch.

“Admissions at GDB told her she needs to be using her cane more often in order to get a guide dog, and she really hates using it despite all her mobility training and the fact that glaucoma is causing her vision to get worse and worse.”

I turned my attention to the young woman sitting next to her mom. I couldn’t tell if she was very small for her age or if she was just crouched so low in her seat that it created the illusion of a very small person.

“I used to have a love-hate relationship with my cane as well. Can I ask why you don’t like using yours?”

She lifted up her head and a small voice replied. “I feel like everyone is watching me. I don’t like people looking at me.”

Our boarding call suddenly came over the speaker, and my husband nudged me. I knew we needed to get on the plane if we wanted any chance of getting bulkhead seating.

“I know you need to be going,” the mother said hurriedly, “but can you just tell us if you like having a dog and if she’s made a difference for you?”

“Definitely. I feel like I can walk so quickly and confidently, and my trainers at GDB were amazing. You should definitely go for it!”

As our plane took off, I couldn’t stop thinking about this teenage girl and everything I didn’t have time to say to her, and how I wished I would have responded to her comment about everyone watching her when she uses her cane. Why hadn’t I thought to give her my email address or phone number?

That flight was months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about this 18-year-old. Maybe it was her timid voice. Maybe it was the way she seemed to make herself smaller. Maybe it was the worry in her voice about what others think of her. Maybe it was the familiarity of it all, a reminder of an old way of thinking that once shrunk my world.

Whatever it was, it prompted me to compose this letter to her, and to anyone in similar shoes.

Dear beautiful young woman, crouched low in your seat,

I know it can sometimes feel like everyone is watching you, especially when you’re holding a long white cane in front of you. And with limited sight, I know it’s easy to imagine that all eyes are on you.

After years of worrying about the exact same thing, here’s what I’ve discovered: No one is looking at you as much as you imagine they are.

It is true that some people may give you an extra glance, but in reality most bystanders are so consumed with their own thoughts and plans they aren’t even giving you and your cane a second thought (and the few that are have far too much time on their hands).

Whether you realize it or not, beyond your self-conscious exterior is a human being who is strong and confident. The one thing I wish I’d learned sooner in my life is it’s OK to allow this strong, confident person to show up in the world.

The world needs you. It needs your presence. It needs your strength. It needs your story. It needs the uniqueness that only you can bring.

The time and energy that is freed up when you are not preoccupied with what others think of you is astounding. I am not going to lie and say I never worry about what people think of me anymore, and I admit I occasionally get treated differently when using my cane or guide dog. But these are now secondary thoughts in my mind. My primary thoughts are concerned with what I can offer in this life.

And the beautiful thing about offering up yourself to the world is the world gives back. It gives back beauty. It gives back grace. It gives back strength.  Whatever you give, you will receive in some form.

So go out into the world with your head held high today, my young friend, and show us what you have to offer — because your disability does not define you. It is a mere shadow, cast gently by your side from the light that illuminates from a beautiful human being. You have more to offer than you can possibly imagine.  So go. The world is waiting.


Someone who has been there

joy thomas and dog
Joy and her dog, Roja.

Follow this journey on Double Vision Blog.

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Originally published: February 10, 2016
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