(When I do use my cane do I act more blind than I really am?)
I was seventeen years old and on a family camping/fishing trip. I was baiting my fishing hook when my step mother noticed me and told my dad to go help me with that because she was afraid I was going to put the hook through my nose. At that point she promised herself that she was going to make me a doctor appointment as soon as we got back home. Long story short, I was diagnosed with Juvenile Macular Degeneration now called Stargartz. I was not introduced to the white cane until I was well into my fifties, and when I do use it I often wonder if people watching me might think I am a fraud and that I really don’t need to be using it.
Thinking back I was probably losing my vision slowly about a year before my diagnoses. I was starting to have to get closer to things to be able to see them clearly but not significant enough to really pay it much attention. I was blessed with the fact that at such a young age and the slow progression of my vision loss I was able to adapt very well, but I did have some struggles with things I couldn’t do and some things I should not have done.
I continued to drive a car for about fifteen years, I had a couple of minor fender benders which I can now say were both directly attributable to vision loss but at the time I was in denial. I had many more close calls but I was still in denial about my vision loss being a problem. I tried to go to college to study accounting, but when I could not see to read the books I gave that up; at least for the time. I bought a motor boat for water skiing; this was a lot of fun but I did have some close calls with this also, fortunately no major mishaps before I gave it up. I went to work at Beech Aircraft. I primarily worked in the warehouse counting parts and reading part numbers. I kept this job for thirty two years ten of which I was a full time union official. During periods of layoff I worked for two years as an accountant at KU Medical School handling payroll, accounts payable, and all of the petty cash accounts. I worked for a year as an Emergency Medical Technician on a nonemergency ambulance service. And I worked for a little more than a year as a manager at a McDonald’s restaurant. While working at Beech I also served as the Chief Financial Officer for the local lodge of the machinist union.
Enough of my background story; let’s get on with how I was introduced to the white cane and my experiences with it and without it. Many people who read this article probably know Roshunda. I had known her for a few years before she introduced me to my first white cane. She called me one day and said she wanted to come over and tell me about this new place she had found that was helping her cope with her vision loss. Of course I had her over and listened to her story but I was not interested in it for me, by this time I was in my early fifties and was getting along just fine. Turns out the place she wanted to tell me about was Envision. I knew about Envision I told her, they have a store where they sell magnifiers and talking phone and some other things and I had been in there a couple of times. We talked for a while and before she left she wanted to gift me a white cane. I assured her I did not need it but she was insistent. That cane found its way to the top shelf of my closet where it stayed.
Sometime later I had a need for a new talking phone so I went to the store at Envision. This time there was a different person working the counter than who I had seen there before. She actually worked up on the second floor. At that time the store was located just inside the doors on the first floor. She wanted to introduce me to some of the other services they had to offer and enticed me by saying that I could probably get what I came after for free through a grant. I made an appointment and got to meet Dr. Fletcher along with Karen, Andra, Terees, and others. I cannot say enough nice things about all of these people and what they do, but this is about the white cane so I will skip to Michael who was the Orientation and Mobility person at the time. Michael introduced me to my second white cane and provided me with some formal training on how to properly use it. I still would not use the cane very much, but thought maybe I should try to use it whenever I was using Para transit or the handicap parking decal both of which Michael helped me obtain.
I increased my activities with Envision including attending Adult Support Group where I met Bonnie and Hannah, some more wonderful people doing wonderful things. Then Roshunda tells me there is another group we should also be a part of, The National Federation of the Blind. My response was but are we really blind enough to be a part of that group? Her response was oh yes! She had already been to a convention in Florida and we will be just fine. So we both went to our first meeting of the South Central Chapter and we met some wonderful people there who were living life and doing everything independently some using canes and some using dogs. There were blind people there who were retired, some full time gainfully employed, some attending college, and one who was the chapter president studying to be a pharmacist. That one still blows my mind! I am so proud to know her and I applaud all of her accomplishments. I had gone to the meeting with cane in hand thinking that if I am going to an NFB meeting I should at least look the part. I soon put it away again though. This group did not require me to use a cane to be a part of their group but assured me that I was plenty blind enough to join the NFB. I have to say though, watching this group of blind people navigate using their canes was quite inspirational. This still did not mean I needed to use my cane more because by all accounts I could see everyone was still blinder than me.
I gradually started using my cane a little more than just when I thought people were watching me use Para-transit or a handicap parking stall or to make sure I get the extra help I might need in an airport to find my gate or where to find public transportation at the airport. Eventually I tried to use the cane even more in public if for no other reason than to identify myself as visually impaired in case a need a little help with something visually or just in case I walk too close to a stranger in the grocery store and invade their space they won’t be near as offended as if they think I am just being rude or obnoxious. One time at a casino I was trying to use a ticket cashing machine and was getting too close to it trying to read the instructions. Security surrounded me like I was trying to do something to the machine. My cane might have come in handy that day (only to show that I am visually impaired).
Now that I have established more reasons to use my cane more often there is another stigma that worries me. Do I act more blind than I really am when using the cane? Should I act more blind than I really am when using my cane? I will tap my cane down the isle of the Para transit but acting like the cane will help me find the steps as I disembark the bus, but I know exactly where the steps are and can see the layout of the bus just fine. But is someone watching me? Am I using proper cane technique as I walk the isles of the grocery store? On long store outings I might get lazy and forget to sweep my cane in front of me, I might start to just push it in front of me or start picking it up and setting it down beside me as I walk. Is somebody watching me? I might go off and leave it at a restaurant or someplace else I was sitting. Is somebody watching me? I required an escort to get to my gate at the airport and after they leave I need to go to the restroom by myself. Is somebody watching me? If I am in a public place and I drop something and I am able to reach down and pick it up without a problem finding it. Is somebody watching me? Someone offers a greeting a: hello or good morning” or is offering some help with something, as I answer I look up and make eye contact with that person. Is that person watching me?
I do not have any formal education in blindness training or extra initials behind my name that says I am an expert but I am living the life of a visually impaired person and so I do have an opinion about the two questions in the title of this article, and that answer to both is YES. As I said earlier I lived a lot before I was ever introduced to the cane and even then did not fully embrace it for a long time, so I am still trying to form the habit of taking it with me wherever I go but I do still forget it sometimes. I want to try to take it everywhere though because I never know what I might run into that would make navigation easier with it. My cane is particularly helpful in public places where I am around people who will think I am just rude or antisocial when they cannot tell that I am blind. As far as acting more blind when using my cane to navigate steps or other obstacles that I can see, that is OK too. I am practicing my cane skills and good sage traveling technique. After all I never know when my cane will help me by detecting something I did not see. I have stumbled sometimes when there is a step but no color contrast or other markings such as handrails to indicate a step exists.
When it comes to wondering if someone is watching and maybe thinking is he really blind enough to be using that cane? I have decided that I must do what comes natural to me. If someone questions my blindness I am not to fault tem after all as this article is all about, I questioned it for myself as well, instead I will seek the opportunity to have a conversation with them and educate them as I have been educated throughout this process of accepting and using my cane. Blindness is not a one size fits all where either you are blind or you’re not. What I like to tell people who raise the question is that blindness covers a large spectrum form legally blind to totally blind and all points in between, as well as people with center vision loss, those with peripheral vision loss, those with night blindness or color blindness, those whose vision randomly comes and goes, and other characteristics I am not aware of. And many people who are considered blind have more than one of the characteristics.