Ironically, visual impairment is often an invisible disability. That is until you use a white cane.
Thinking back, I recognise how many coping mechanisms I had developed to compensate for the absence of a mobility aid like a white cane. From my slow penguin shuffle walk, to my tippy toe taps to feel my way down the stairs, I was constantly trying to adapt to the absence of something I really needed.
Part of the reason I resisted a white cane for so many years was that it was such an obvious symbol of my disability.
I had been given a symbol cane as a teenager. A symbol cane is a short cane that you hold to indicate you have a visual impairment. It isn’t a mobility aid and in my honest, and slightly controversial opinion, it’s a bit useless. They’re like a longish white conductor’s baton, and so most people don’t really seem to understand what they are.
As a teenager I massively resisted using the symbol cane, the only concession I would make for my mum was that I would get it out at road crossings. However, I was relentlessly teased about it by my school friends so it was shoved at the back of my wardrobe for 10 years.
18 months ago I once again tried to use a symbol cane. The anxiety of commuting through central London was causing me near daily panic attacks. I was desperate and the stupid little white stick was all I had. It made a bit of a difference, some people did move out of my way, if they bumped into me I could at least show them the stick and they would be more understanding.
It was a big decision to become a cane user and it was overwhelming sometimes. There was a lot to learn! From how to hold it properly, to the width of the arc, the rhythm and pace I had to adopt, as well as learning how to interpret the information through the vibrations and sounds. Luckily, I had lots of support from a fantastic orientation and mobility specialist who equipped me with all the tips and tricks of the trade.
Although my cane almost immediately made a huge difference to my confidence and independence, embracing it wasn’t easy.
After so many years of ‘able-performing’ or pretending I didn’t have a disability, suddenly I had this great big long white symbol of my blindness.
I had to constantly explain why I suddenly needed a cane to colleagues, friends and family. There was also the shock of dealing with all of the new experiences of being visibly disabled in public (yes I mean the grabbing). I was tempted to go back to my penguin shuffle and just hope I didn’t have a bad fall on the way to work.
Sometimes I felt defined by my cane. I was “the blind lady” rather than Amy.
I decided the solution was to show my personality through my cane. I stumbled across the idea to personalise my cane during training.
The long cane is held out in front of the middle of your body and swept from side to side. However, my arm kept drifting and I was missing information on my left side. I came up with the idea of attaching a pom-pom to my cane elastic handle. If my cane drifted too much to one side, the pom-pom started bouncing off my leg and I knew to correct myself.
Soon I’d perfected my cane sweep, but everyone loved the pom-pom so much I kept it. Now I have a whole collection of cane accessories! From glitzy pom-poms, to fluffy birds, rainbow puffs, Christmas decorations and even a plush narwhal, my cane always has something bright & tactile hanging from the handle.
My cane even has its own bespoke stripy pink carry case, made by a friend. As I currently have pink hair, I’m trying to co-ordinate my cane accessories to match!
My first, and current, cane is RNIB standard issue. It’s a bit chunky and old fashioned compared to the swish light ones my friends have. I imagine it’s like the slightly rubbish first car you learned to drive in – you know there are shinier faster models, but you are comfortable with your old reliable banger.
My accessories have given my cane a bit of character, while still being the obvious symbol of visual impairment. Some people like different coloured canes, and one day I do fancy getting a cane with a coloured handle. However, I work in central London and regularly travel through busy crowds. I need people to notice my cane and understand quickly what it means.
It’s been a complicated journey, but now I’m proud of my cane. After all, it’s the symbol of my independence and confidence.
Plus, it looks pretty cool…
This blog was inspired by a piece originally written for #WhiteCaneAwarenessDay & posted by London Vision https://www.londonvision.org/blog/cane-an-extension-of-my-personality