Thoughts on My White Cane and What It Means to Me

White cane with caution stripe used by people who are blind to help navigate through objects. Also a pair of blackout glasses.

October 15 is designated as National White Cane day. The purpose of White Cane Day is to bring awareness to people who are blind or have low vision and to show what the cane means to them and how it helps facilitate independence. White Cane Safety Day was signed into law in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he recognized the importance of the white cane as a staff of independence for blind people. The presidential proclamation said “the white cane in our society has become one of the symbols of a blind person’s ability to come and go on his own. In 2011, White Cane Safety Day was also named Blind Americans Equality Day by President Barack Obama. I feel strongly that my white cane affords me a degree of independence and is a tool that allows me to travel independently and navigate my world with respect and pride. I didn’t always feel this way though as there was a time when I felt ashamed and embarrassed to be seen with my cane in public.

I was born with congenital cataracts and developed glaucoma as a child. I had a fair amount of functional vision, allowing me to see colors, recognize people if I was close enough and read very large print or regular print that was magnified. I was fortunate enough, however, that my parents and early educators felt that my vision was at a level where it would be best for me to learn blindness skills. This meant going to a school where I had a teacher who was blind, who was a white cane user and a braille reader. Beginning in first grade, I was taught braille, and probably in about fifth grade, began to learn how to use a cane. As I had enough vision to ride a bike at that time, and get around my neighborhood and familiar places, there wasn’t much emphasis put on using the cane. In high school, I began to have regular lessons from an orientation and mobility instructor, who taught me how to use the Milwaukee County Transit System, how to find addresses and how to cross streets without use of vision. This was all very useful, as when I was 27, I became totally blind due to a retinal detachment.

Initially, this was a rather depressing time for me, leaving me with a lot of doubts about my abilities to live an independent life. Growing up, I knew quite a few people who were totally blind and who were pretty independent. In the back of my mind, I think I knew that I had a lot of the necessary skills; however, I lacked the confidence. At that time, I referred to my cane as a stigma stick, and I would generally prefer to have somebody lead me sighted guide, as I felt that this would not bring so much attention to me and was much easier. I remember a friend saying once, “you don’t need that stick, just let your friends know if you want to go somewhere and we’ll help you out.” Well, the thought was good, but I soon realized that sometimes I might want to go somewhere without my friends, that they weren’t always around when I wanted to go somewhere, and a couple of times I was left stranded without my cane. Once at Summerfest, a large music festival, a friend told me to “wait right here” and he’d “be right back.” This turned into what seemed like an hour, which led to extreme paranoia. I was in the midst of a huge crowd and had no way to navigate if I wanted or needed to get out of there. This led me to the decision that I would always carry my cane, no matter if I had somebody to guide me or not.

After a period of some confidence building, learning how to travel independently, gradually crossing very busy streets, getting lost and learning how to problem solve, I eventually got to the point where I actually enjoyed traveling independently and was pretty darn good at it. This took some time though. It involved a lot of nervous moments, confronting my fears and often escaping my comfort zone. But there is nothing like the feeling of independence, being successful at doing something because I wanted to do it. None of this would have been possible without having positive blind role models in my life, and without my family, friends and myself believing that I could be successful. Nor would this have been possible without the World War I and II veterans who became blind, and with their will and the ingenuity of rehabilitation professionals, who perfected the technique and the white cane itself. According to Wikipedia, the white cane can be attributed to James Biggs, a photographer in Bristol who went blind and used a black stick. He was told to paint it white so motorists could see it better. This reminds me of the time a motorist stopped and told me that I shouldn’t wear all black at night as he had difficulty seeing me, to which I said if you can’t see my almost six foot white stick then maybe you shouldn’t be driving, but that’s a different story.

I will conclude by saying that the transformation on the thoughts about my white cane, from initially feeling embarrassed in its presence and feeling like it brought unwanted attention to me, to the feeling that it provides me with the independence to do what I want, to go where I want and to live a successful life, has helped make the person I am today. I have traveled independently to many different states and several countries. I have gone to crowded events such as concerts or sporting events, often with other blind people. I have gone to beaches, climbed mountains and walked out on piers, only once falling off into the Chesapeake Bay I have crossed many busy streets, navigated train stations, airports and bus terminals. . Without my long white cane and the skills of independence, I would not live the meaningful life that I do today. I am very appreciative of my white cane, all of the many instructors and mentors I have had and all of those veterans who taught us the importance of using a white cane for mobility. I am also very appreciative of the orientation and mobility instructors and the many blind mentors who are teaching our blind children how to navigate life successfully and independently.

More on White Cane Day

What Cane Day 2015: Let’s Go Back to the Future with Slim, My What Cane

Celebrating White Cane Safety Day As an Individual Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired