“When you are not totally blind, and you are not fully sighted, you live in a world where sometimes you can see, if the lighting is right, and sometimes, not so much.” – Mary Hilard
“You are legally blind,” the doctor said to me, after making the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa, RP. “Your sight will never get better and probably will get worse.” I was 18 at the time. Being a blind person was not in my life plan, but over the next few years, huge changes in my life plan would take place.
The Ohio Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired, BSVI, sent a counselor to get me started in my new role as a legally blind person. He introduced me to the talking book program, which opened the world to me. He set up lessons in braille, which would prove to be an invaluable skill. He also arranged for me to have orientation and mobility training (O&M), with a white cane. But that’s where I dug in my heels. I went through the training, but I knew I was not going to use that thing. It was to me, the sign of defeat, the image of helplessness.
As I look back with my 20/20 hind sight, I see how foolish I was in rejecting the white cane. Many times, I would have been saved from embarrassing stumbling and fumbling if I only had used the tool that would allow me to not only travel safely, but also identify myself as a person who doesn’t see well. You see, that’s exactly what I was trying to avoid, looking like someone who can’t see, while in truth, I would have given the impression of a self sufficient individual if I had used it.
When you are not totally blind, and you are not fully sighted, you live in a world where sometimes you can see, if the lighting is right, and sometimes, not so much. People in your world are just as confused as you are. They aren’t aware that you can’t see, and sometimes they make rude remarks like, “It’s right over there. What are you, blind?” The white cane makes a statement. It tells the people in your world that you don’t see as well as they do. Becoming comfortable with making that statement is the key to success in using a cane. For me, it took a very long time.
I understood the techniques of using a white cane, and eventually, I became more comfortable with it, especially when I was around a group of other people who were blind. As a life-long dog lover, however, I chose to train with my first dog guide at age 37. By this time, I had lost most of my vision. Four dog guides later, I’m still convinced that a dog is the best for me. I can walk faster and with much more confidence, and I love the companionship. However, there are times when I leave my dog at home and take the folding cane down from the closet. When I attend conventions or other functions where there are a lot of people and dogs, I prefer to give her the day off. When I go to a movie or concert, I know she’ll be much more comfortable at home than jammed under a seat on a slanted theater floor. Even when I use my dog on snow-filled streets, carrying the cane becomes a useful tool in probing the piles of snow on the corners, to determine how to get over them without falling on my head. When I go out for a special dinner with a friend, a folded white cane in my purse comes in handy when it’s time to use a public restroom. In other words, the dog is my preference most of the time, but not all of the time.
I prefer a thin white cane that I can keep folded up until I need it, but there are several varieties to choose from. You can buy one that telescopes or one that is a solid stick. Some people prefer this type, because they are sturdier. You can even buy them with extra support at the bottom. There are several organizations for the blind that sell a variety of white canes, but it is a must that you receive proper training in how to use a cane.
I am a person who is blind, but my blindness is not always noticeable. Even when I am shopping with a sighted friend, and I don’t have my dog with me, I carry my white cane. That way, the sales associate will understand why I want to touch the product before I buy or why I ask what color it is.
But I don’t use the white cane just to let people know I’m blind. When I don’t have my dog with me, or a sighted guide, it’s the only way I can get around independently. On a cruise ship, in a hotel, or in an unfamiliar setting, the cane is an extension of my hand. I can feel where my next step will take me. I have visited homes where a flight of steps going down is placed in the middle of the room, a dangerous situation for a visitor who is blind. Here’s where the white cane is a must for me. I never thought I’d say those words, “It’s a must for me,” considering that when I started my journey as a blind person, I wanted nothing to do with the white cane. Now, my appreciation for it is proof of my acceptance, finally, of my blindness.
This blog was originally posted on Vision Aware – October 15, 2014.
To read more blogs written by this author, visit Vision Aware – Mary Hilard