Pride and the Fear of Prejudice: Reflections on Picking Up a White Cane | Eric J. Harvey

I am totally intrigued by the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of other blind people when they reflect on their acceptance and use of a white cane. I suppose it’s because I can relate to 99% of what they have to say. I came across this blog post, by Eric Harvey, and knew I had to feature it. Some of you may not relate to his perspective, but I suspect many of you will! 

Pride and the Fear of Prejudice: Reflections on Picking Up a White Cane | By Eric J. Harvey | Blind Scholar 

I need to get used to people staring,” said my wife, Kristin, as we walked up a busy sidewalk one evening, passing small clusters of shoppers and bar-hoppers.

“Oh, are they staring?” On some level, I know people do—I’ve thought about it a lot, in fact—but I don’t usually notice when it’s happening.

We walked on for a moment, passing a few more chattering groups. “It’s pretty rude, actually.” A little more edge in her voice this time—a hint of anger and offense on my behalf.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had my white cane out while we were walking together, but it hadn’t yet become normal and run-of-the-mill. It still hasn’t, really. I don’t need the cane in my own house, or my own neighborhood where I’m comfortable, but in unfamiliar surroundings, or at night, or in crowds, I can no longer get along without it.

So I have started using the cane. I resisted it for a long time—I carried it with me for a year before I took it out in public. When I use it, the benefits are real. I am calmer. I don’t feel the constant fear that I might trip over a curb or run into a bench or a sign or an unsuspecting pedestrian. I hadn’t realized how tense I could get walking until my cane let me relax.

Why did I resist for so long? It wasn’t the stares, per se, because I don’t notice the stares. I do notice other things. I notice people get out of my way. I hear children comment, or maybe just their parent saying “because he can’t see, honey—keep walking,” in a loud, embarrassed whisper. Sometimes, people are nicer to me. When I run into people, they apologize to me. People offer directions and guidance when I’m walking.  Panhandlers don’t see me as a mark, so they say hello and have a nice day and we each go on our way.

These are minor things, perhaps. On their own they would be annoying, tiresome, occasionally disheartening, but they are not on their own. They are just a few symptoms of a deeper and harder truth. When I carry my white cane, people see me differently. That thin metal stick blocks everything else from view and becomes the controlling factor in my first impression.

Suddenly, I am not just a man.

I am a blind man.

And that, my friends, is a hard move to make. I spent most of my life actively trying to avoid being labeled for my vision, and for the most part I succeeded. My eyesight has always been poor, but it hasn’t defined me. People have gotten to know me first, and my visual impairment after. In a few cases, I knew someone for years before they learned I had low vision. It’s not that I tried to protect the secret that fiercely. I never outright denied it, but if a situation never arose where I had to admit it, I didn’t feel obliged to. It cannot be hard to imagine why I would rankle at the thought that my visual impairment, that thing I had sought to hide for so many years, would now become the first thing any new acquaintance would learn about me.

Photo of Eric balancing a white cane on his fingersLooking back, it’s easy to interpret my reticence as vanity and empty pride. It’s easy to say I was foolish to avoid a useful and necessary tool just to maintain appearances.

But I’m not alone. Many people with progressive vision loss wait way too long to start using their canes. My first Braille teacher would lament the stubbornness of her students at length: they wait too long to give up driving, they wait too long to learn Braille, they wait too long to start using their canes.

She once told me of a man who insisted he did not need a cane full-time. He was perfectly safe walking without it. After all, he had only been hit by two cars.

So before you chalk my resistance to the cane up to ego or foolish pride, consider how many others also resist. Consider how strongly they resist. And consider the factors that lead them to resist. They are not illegitimate.

***

Seventy percent of blind people are unemployed. The reasons for this—the historical degradation of the blind, the problems of education and accessibility, and so on—could fill volumes, but none of them is absolute. None is immutable. With some adaptation and accommodation, most blind people are fully capable of earning their pay the same way any other person does.

This unemployment rate is not the necessary result of blindness; it is driven in large part by social perception of the blind. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University showed that Americans fear blindness more than any other malady: more than losing their other senses, their limbs, even their memories and their minds. Sighted people fear blindness, and they project that fear onto the blind. The victims of their greatest fear become the objects of their greatest pity.

And pity is not an emotion that expects great things. Pity patronizes. Pity belittles. Pity excuses. It does not inspire faith, or trust, or get you a job.

***

Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, a professor at Bowling Green State University who is blind, created a short video illustrating the difficulties that blind people have in job interviews. The interviewers are not antagonistic, but their view of blindness has been conditioned by naive assumptions about the difficulty of being blind and their participation in a blindfolded simulation. Throughout the interview, they ask the blind interviewee simplistic and demeaning questions that betray their rock-bottom expectations for her performance.

“Did you type this? Oh my gosh, how? I don’t see a single typo or anything!!”

“When you teach, how do you know where the students are?”

“I’m happy to walk you to your car. Do you need help getting down the stairs?”

They dismiss her legitimate achievements—an earned Ph.D., independent research, and ten years of teaching experience—and focus instead on her “impressive” ability to perform the simplest tasks. By the end, it is clear she was not interviewed as a candidate, but as a novelty.

In an online discussion of the video, a blind graduate student asked if this was really the experience she could look forward to when she entered the job market. Dr. Wells-Jensen replied that interviewing wasn’t quite this bad—she had heard all of these things in one interview or another, but she had never heard them all in the same interview. Small consolation, for those of us with our careers ahead, but it is the reality we must face.

***

Jobs and opportunities are not earned. They are not simply conferred based on met requirements of ability and achievement. Jobs are given. They are given by people, based on those people’s perceptions of the candidates.

Like it or not, the perceptions of others have a profound impact on our lives, and all of us—whether we acknowledge it or not—go to great lengths to manage and influence those perceptions.

I lived the first thirty-four years of my life with the ability to control how others perceived me. There was no part of my appearance or manner that instantly and inevitably lowered my estimation in the eyes of those I met. When I picked up the white cane, I took up the mantle of blindness, and the prejudice that comes with it. I could put that mantle down again, just by putting away the white cane. It was a symbol, the sign of my blindness, and while I could hide it, I did.

Increasingly, signs of blindness are always with me, in my body and my behavior. I’ve failed to recognize too many faces, missed too many offered handshakes, run into too many obstacles to think I can hide it now. The social benefits of keeping my cane zipped up in my bag have faded as the practical benefits of using it have grown. I am blind whether I carry it or not, and now I am seen as blind.

***

The main lesson here is not about white canes. I’m not just telling people to stop worrying and learn to love the cane. Everyone who loses their sight has to weigh the benefits of the cane against its costs, and decide for themselves when to use it (or when to get a guide dog!).

No, the lesson I’ve learned is about my fear. It was not baseless, and the thing I was afraid of is real, even if I couldn’t articulate it in the beginning. Social perception has deep and long-lasting repercussions in the real lives of blind people and it drives many of us who are going blind to resist tools that could help us in practical ways. Being hit by a car is a problem; so is unemployment.

But this is hard to see from the outside, and harder to truly appreciate. Even my Braille teacher, who worked closely with the blind and the going-blind, could not see the reasons why her students didn’t use their canes as early as they should have.

In this way, it is also a reminder to trust stories of prejudice and discrimination from others. My own white cane is an object I can pick up and put down, but many people are born with “white canes” in their bodies, characteristics they cannot hide that set them apart and mark them out from the rest of the population: sex, skin color, disability, and deformity. Others have “white canes” like sexuality or religion, things they could hide with effort, but at a deep cost to their identity or well-being. All of these create barriers based on social perceptions, not any real deficit.

***

The problem of prejudice can be attacked from two directions. The one I tried for most of my life focused on me—managing my appearance to avoid showing any disability or defect. That way is now closed to me, as it is and has always been closed to so many others who face prejudice and discrimination every day of their lives.

The other approach is to change the perceptions themselves, to move past the fear of being labeled and judged, and do what small part I can to show the world that naive, patronizing condescension of blind people is unwarranted and wrong. I still have to focus on myself, to develop my skills and abilities, but I must also engage actively with those who rarely come into contact with the world of the blind, to demonstrate what blind people can do, what they have already done, and to urge them to trust in the abilities of the blind.

This, I believe, is the better path, and it always has been. By working as a blind person to improve the lot of blind people, I serve not only myself, but the wellbeing of other blind people and of society at large. As you can see, however, I was not drawn to it by any special virtue of my own. It became my only option when the path of self-presentation closed. I was driven to advocacy by self-interest, but the process has taught me that it is always better and always necessary to advocate for the equal treatment and welfare of others, whether or not their trouble is also mine.

***

Luckily, advocacy for the blind has come a long way, in the hands of better and more qualified people than myself. Many pioneers have come before or are working now to improve the circumstances of the blind. Blind people want to support themselves, and to contribute to their families, their communities, and their society. They are advocating for themselves to be given that opportunity, and developing the tools they need to capitalize on it.

Since I have gone blind, I have met a host of bright and capable blind people working in almost every field: academics, scientists, engineers, coders, designers, filmmakers, woodworkers, tinkerers, lawyers, politicians, public servants.

More than ever before, blind professionals have set precedents that blind children and newly-blind adults can follow into almost any career or vocation. If blind people continue to receive educational and professional resources, we will grow our numbers in every sector of work and life. Blind people in the workplace will become less of a rarity. Someday, the intelligence and competence of the blind will be seen everywhere.

And when something is seen everywhere, there is no more reason to stare.

A headshot of the author Eric HarveyOriginally published July 11, 2017 on Blind Scholar. For more insightful blogs by Eric, be sure to visit Blind Scholar | The personal blog of Eric J Harvey

6 Comments on “Pride and the Fear of Prejudice: Reflections on Picking Up a White Cane | Eric J. Harvey

    • Hi Darian….
      I totally agree! And that’s why I wanted to republish it on my blog. I like reading other people’s perspectives about the adjustment to, and eventual use of a white cane. Thanks for your comment! xx

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      • I didn’t start learning to use a white cane until I was almost 8 years old. At first I only used it just going to and from school and only used it to a minimum. Later on in my school life I was encouraged to use the cane more even though I pretty much knew my way around the Primary school I was going to at that time and yes I use it all the time now as I’m vulnerable without it. For years I’d leave my cane in the car and only get it out when I was going to and from school as I was sure the car wasn’t going out or if it was going out I’d take the cane out of the car. Although I’ve been blind since birth fact is I use a cane and nobody’s really too worried about seeing the cane. I often find I don’t need to disclose blindness as I’ve theorised that there’s no need to disclose as people will see the cane and that’s how it’s been. I used to have toddlers ask my mother why my eyes were closed and my mother would say that my eyes were broken. I was then encouraged to wear sunglasses which has broken down the barriers a lot. at the same time I was also encouraged to wear a name badge just so that people could call me by name and not just say “hey you” some people disagree with this but every culture is different and what happens in the states is completely different to what happens in Australia. I also wear a visually impaired person badge as whenever I go shopping I put my cane in the trolly and my mother had concerns about a person who rode around the super market in a mobility scooter might run me over so wearing a badge would make people understand that if I’m not carrying the cane they could still understand that I was blind. I sometimes wonder between finding love and finding employment what is more difficult well as far as I can see they are both difficult in their own way and they’re difficult whether we are blind or not. unemployment is hard whether we have a disability or not.

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  1. Wow. That opened my eyes. I was diagnosed ten months ago registered as sight impaired nearly five months ago and finally started cane training four weeks ago and have been chomping at the bit to have my “wand of power” to help me get out and about. For me maybe it was a different way i viewed the world after buying a book from the school book club about Helen Keller. On the back cover was the alphabet in braille. Reading the book I read about courage and determination. I was impressed not with “poor girl being deaf and blind” but wow “i wish i could have some of her courage” (i was an 8 year old, short sighted “specky four eyes” who loved almost all school lessons and dreaded play time as that was when i was bullied for being a book worm and my lack of sporting prowess). In senior school my school were joined up with a “charity” that went into peoples’ homes to read to them. As a fifteen year old i went to an elderly gent and read his newspaper, or book, or letters to him (& wondered why he didn’t have access on cassette for his books at least and asked him – he didn’t want to use a newfangled contraption). He was house bound but in my mind it was age and being frail that kept him in not his sightloss.
    As i saw people out with their guide dogs, or white”sticks” i always saw people who were determined to live life to the full. I never presumed they needed help but would converse with them just as i would anyone else.
    Now I have my cane and I’m learning to use it. I have had few negative experiences, mostly positive. Just a week ago i was crossing a busy road (in the UK some of our crossing places have an “island” halfway so you cross one lane of traffic at a time). I was aware of someone stop behind me as i crossed to the island and stopped to see if i could detect any car blurs ready to cross to the other pavement (footpath) the gent that had paused called out the road was clear. That contrasted with the previous week when crossing the same road at a different point i had crossed safely to the island was crossing and stepping onto the pavement when an adult on a bike on the pavement zoomed round the corner forcing me to step back into the (thankfully clear) road. Wished my cane was a wand at that point as i certainly had a spell in mind that would have slowed him down 😉
    Of course I haven’t applied for a job (not much use for a blind cleaner) so I cannot comment on that but i recently had an hospital appointment where the location for the clinic was shifted was offered an escort to the new location just needed to be told the number of entrances. Got a bit muddled leaving the clinic asked for directions again was offered an escort but reassured the willing helper i knew my way when i knew the right direction. Maybe I’m lucky and just live in an area of mostly nice people who accept differences in others.

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  2. I went through something very similar. When I first got my cane I was angry and upset, but you learn to overcome.

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  3. Great read. I’m an O&M and so many of clients are going through the same thing.

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