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What to Expect When You Start Cane Training

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Every journey starts with a single step. This one starts with a cane too.

When I was 18, I loved the burn I felt from running up and down the bleachers and stairs of Hayward Field at the University of Oregon. It was one of my favorite workouts. Now, thanks to retinitis pigmentosa (RP), I hate stairs.

Day or night, I loathe ascending a new set of stairs. But, I really freaking hate going down them. When I approach stairs somehow each platform blends together and I can’t tell where they start or end. I’m terrified of falling. I descend stairs at a glacial pace each time with a battle in my head. One part of me wants to reach my destination and the other part is just screaming “Shannon, this is how we die!”

At 27 years old, it’s time for me to get my confidence back on stairs. Enter the cane.

This week I had my first cane training session. For those of you who may not know, cane training is a process by which an Orientation and Mobility specialist teaches a visually impaired person how to navigate using a cane and other hands-on techniques. I’ve been waiting for this session for over six months.

Note: please do not confuse cane training with Stick training. Stick is a blind sensai who teaches Daredevil how to fight like a badass in Marvel comics. Can I be a badass with a cane too? Please say yes!

I met my instructor at my house in Hot Springs. She traveled all the way from Little Rock to meet me here, and turned out to be one of the most encouraging people I’ve met. She’s been training individuals with vision loss since 1987, and my dog liked her. I trusted her quickly. That would become very important, because the next parts of the training involve confronting my fears.

Before going any further, you’ll want to know the type of cane I’m training with and how they work. Every cane has the same basic structure: a handle, a metal rod and a tip. Most canes are designed to detect objects in the path of the user and scan for steps. The tip scans the path, sending vibration up the rod and into the handle with every step. The cane traveler can feel for ground textures, slope and depth with the vibration from the handle. My instructor brought three types of canes with her for me to try:

Roller Tip Cane: This type of cane has a thick handle and a rolling ball or cylinder at the end of it. This cane is used when the visually impaired person wishes to glide the cane across the entire surface of the path in front of them. While this technique gives the user a lot of tactile information, it also gets stuck or jammed a lot during travel. My instructor calls it a cane with training wheels — lots of support, but sometimes embarrassing.

Pencil Tip Cane: This type of cane has a thick handle and thick rounded point. It’s used for travel using a two touch technique. This allows the visually impaired person to touch two sides of their path at a time, minimizing the risk of getting a cane stuck in a crack but also collecting tactile information. It’s the big kid bike of canes.

Identification Cane: This type of cane has a thin handle and a thin point. It’s also lightweight and small enough to fit in a purse. The identification cane doesn’t help the user navigate much. Its grip and tip are too thin to stimulate the hand with much vibration and tell the blind person what kind of surface is in front of them. It’s therefore used primarily as a marker to show others the user has vision loss.

Being an achiever, I chose to use the pencil tip cane for my training.

Cane travel starts with a weird handshake at the handle. My instructor said “you have to bond with your cane.” It involves placing your index finger on the flat side of the handle and then twisting your grip like you’re shaking a person’s hand. It reminded me of when I first learned how to hold a pencil correctly, awkward and uncomfortable. But I need to adjust to this. The index finger placement on the cane is really important, because it’s the most sensitive to vibration.

The next step of cane travel involves getting on beat. The cane and the traveler’s footsteps need to oppose each other. For example, when I step out with my right foot, my cane tip needs to be tapping the left side of the path in front of me. The opposition of the foot and the cane helps protect the traveler’s body on both sides of the path.

The traveler then hovers the cane from side to side, tapping right to left. My first few times walking like this were sort of like learning a new style of dance. It felt clunky and I’ll need to practice staying on beat. The hardest part was keeping my head up. Because of my fear of stairs and running into things, I have a habit of looking at the ground, not what is in front of me.

Thankfully, this first day was all done safely inside my house under the watch of the instructor and my dog, Colfax. (My cane only detected Colfax a few times.)

After I practiced walking, it was time for the stairs.

When a person detects a stair with a cane, they inch as close to the edge of the stair as possible. Using the cane, the traveler can measure the depth, width and length of the stair.

If going upstairs, the traveler positions the cane in front of themselves vertically. The tip of the cane touches the edge of the top of the stair, so as the traveler ascends, the cane touches the edge of the top of each stair until a platform is reached. (This method assumes the stairs are equal in depth and width.)

If going downstairs, the traveler positions the cane at an angle. The cane just hovers over each stair as the person descends, until a platform is reached. The traveler can tell the stairs are about to end when the cane collides with solid ground. If there’s any confusion while going down the stairs, the traveler can use the cane to detect if there’s another step and then move the cane back into position.

Sounds easy, right?

Not exactly. I did my ascent and descent of the stairs with a cane… with a sweaty hand clutched onto the handrail for dear life. It’s scary walking head-up into the unknown.

I ascended and descended over and over and over again, each time gliding more and gaining more confidence. I even started walking without pausing on each stair.

I still haven’t had the confidence to walk down the stairs with the cane without a handrail or the support of my instructor’s elbow. But damnit, I’ll get there with practice. Studies say practice, not loss of sight, improves the sense of touch in the blind.

Below is a video of me practicing cane training like a badass!

My next session is in a week; we’re going out into the neighborhood for training around traffic. It’s scary for a different reason — going public with my vision loss.

This story originally appeared on This DeafBlind Life.

Originally published: May 21, 2018
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