When it comes to being blind the use of a cane for mobility purposes has been around since Biblical times when they used a staff or perhaps a stick. The more modern cane, the one we have become accustomed to is the invention of a photographer from Bristol, England, James Biggs. It seems that Mr. Biggs suffered blindness due to an accident and was concerned about being visible to his fellow citizens and painted his stick “White.” That was in 1921 and within 20 years the trend progressed and today the white cane is a recognized universal symbol for the blind.
The reason that I am writing this is I have read this question several times over many years on many forums, “When should I begin using a cane?” First, it is important to understand that not everybody is born blind. Those born blind learn to use a cane as a matter of necessity. However, there is an entire group of people in the blind and visually impaired community who lose their sight over time due to diabetes, accidents, illness or degenerative eye diseases, I fit into that category having lost my battle with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) many years ago. Like many, I struggled with when to incorporate the cane into my life.
The first thing that you have to do is see the cane as a tool. This tool is a multi-purpose tool, it serves as an early warning system to enable the blind as they navigate the world. However, it is also a tool in the sense that it is a symbol to others that you suffer from sight loss. In the early days, when I existed in the halfway world, blind but not totally blind, I often embarrassed myself by running into everything outside my peripheral visual field. Trash cans, wet floor signs, little children were all targets for me to run into. This caused embarrassment to me as well as stoked a bit of anger in the parents of the children I mowed down. My refusal at that time to use a cane was part of a denial process that I was dealing with at the time. I wanted so badly to hold on to what sight I had but soon realized it wasn’t the sight I was desperate to hold on to, it was pride that kept that cane from my hand. I say pride because carrying the cane meant that people would see me as blind, they would see me as weak or less than. From that moment forward, like most things, I took my sweet time employing the cane. At first, I simply carried it around fooling myself into thinking people would see it in my hands and immediately understand. How wrong I was. This ignorant view was quickly dispelled one day while visiting Las Vegas. Someone mistook my cane for a magic wand and asked if I was a magician. Puzzled at first, I finally figured out he was talking about the neatly folded cane I was carrying around with me. There I stood, holding the tool that could clear a path for me, ensure that I wouldn’t bump into everything and everyone and serve as a signal or symbol of visual impairment but rather than use it I was merely carrying it around assuming something and we all know the old axiom of the word “Assume.”
It was after that trip to Las Vegas that I decided it was time to deploy the cane, get trained, get some of the freedom back that I had given up. This meant being honest about why I had not up until that point unfolded the cane I carried like some trendy accessory. It meant I would have to swallow my self-perceived pride. I say self-perceived because the truth is, nobody else cared except me. Now mobility training is a serious business, using a cane is like anything else in this life, there is the proper way, the one in which we read the instruction manual and seek out experts in the field and then there is the “I can figure it out” way of doing things. Being stubborn, I opted for the latter, since that time I have learned better to engage those who are experts. I strongly recommend the use of the services available out there to properly train you because if you don't, I just want you to imagine handing a monkey a cigarette and a loaded handgun. Trust me, he won’t be Dirty Harry, he will hurt not only himself but everybody around him. But back to the cane. Using the cane has set me free in a sense, given me a level of comfort in public that I had lost. Along with not being a magnet for everything in my path, I now navigate the world just fine. Be patient as you learn, give yourself a break, understand that you are learning a new skill. Sure, there are stumbles, trips and the occasional goofs but show me a fully sighted person who doesn’t trip over their own two feet or miss a curb every now and then.
In the end, most of you asking this question aren’t asking because you really want to know. In a weird twist of a fate hoped for, you are looking for that lone person out there who will tell you that you are fine, you’re not there yet. The truth is that you are asking because for the first time on your path to sight loss you are being asked to use a tool that you see as a big old sign that screams, “I’m Blind!!” and you are confronted with dealing with it. Deal with it, change is inevitable. Adapting is preferable to disaster and embarrassment and freedom beats living isolated any day of the week. Once you accept the cane as a part of your life the world becomes a kinder place filled with other tools aimed at making your life easier. Taking that step opens the door and perhaps leads you to the use of a guide dog, or learning echo location or as I have now discovered, AIRA glasses. There are many tools out there to augment the reality of the blind, allowing them to lead a life on a more even playing field, but it all begins with accepting the cane, the simplest of tools, the symbol that tells others you are out there, on the move, living in the world.
I know that there is a stigma that exists, but I have learned that it isn't the judgements of others, it is a stigma that is self-imposed. Being blind does not define me, instead, I define who I am and as I venture out in this world and interact on a personal level or even on a professional level. I have learned that people respect me more because I don't let the loss of my vision define me, I don't allow the tools I use to augment my life to define me. I define me, I let my work and my interactions in the world serve as my proof that I belong, that I have something to offer, that my cane represents my ability not my disability. So, if you are one of those people out there who have asked the question or are itching to type the question, “When should I use or get a cane?” My answer is that if you are asking and you have read this, the answer is NOW!
Photo of silhouette with a white cane ascending stairs with a colorful sunset as a backdrop