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Monday, 2 April 2012

White Cane Magic

I was given my first white cane when I was 12 or 13 years old. The powers that be suggested that I carry a short 'symbol cane' to let everyone know that I might need help crossing roads and finding my way in busy areas. I think I took the cane out with me once. I could see well enough to notice the stares of pity or mockery which I was getting from all and sundry. Adolescent girls are sensitive enough about their appearance; I was not ready to be an object of public scrutiny. I hated this cane. It was a tangible sign of the stigma of blindness which I was doing all I could to distance myself from. My aim was to 'pass' as a sighted person. I would rather appear clumsy, absent-minded, stupid, drunk than blind.

(Portrait by James Kent, March 2012)

But when my cataracts stared to impede my already very limited vision a couple of years ago, I was advised to use a cane at night for my own safety. Not a 'symbol cane' this time but a 'long cane' which I would use to sweep the ground in front of me, checking for obstacles, curbs, steps. I have almost no sight in the dark and so I reluctantly agreed. I began cane training with a lovely and very patient teacher who understood why taking the cane out always made me cry. Funnily enough, I was a natural apparently, and soon began using my cane, under cover of darkness, and only when alone, to get myself home from work or out at night.

About four months ago I realised something that I wish I'd known when I was 12 or 13. I discovered that blindness isn't a bad thing. Sure, it can be annoying in lots of little ways, but it is not a disaster or a tragedy. In fact it is an exciting and interesting way of being in the world. This liberating realisation made me see my cane in a very different way: not as a sign of stigma but as a magic wand. When I have my cane with me I feel like I am enclosed in a wonderful bubble of kindness. I use it most of the time now, day or night, with others or alone. People who probably used to think I was shy or standoffish now know that the reason I haven't said hello to them is because I have no idea who they are. Strangers who once tutted at me for being clumsy or not looking where I was going, now thoughtfully move to one side to let me pass. Some people say that using a cane makes them feel vulnerable. But it makes me feel much safer. I was walking through a decidedly dodgy area of Paris in February when a Parisian youth offered to help me across a busy road. A couple of years ago I would have been terrified by such an encounter, but with my cane I knew that if he tried anything untoward, a dozen passers-by would immediately leap to my aid.

Using a cane is not a sign of weakness or helplessness. It does not make me feel isolated or stigmatised. It is a liberating and eye-opening experience which has shown me a much nicer side of human nature. It has also given me the confidence to travel alone and to strike up conversations with strangers. I had at least three interesting conversations in Paris that I would not have had otherwise. It also functions as a reminder, to the world at large, that disability is not something to be ashamed of. I am proud of the way I look and I want everyone who sees me with my cane to think again about their own (mis) conceptions of disability.

1 comment:

  1. As an author who has a blind protagonist in his suspense fiction, your post is a gem that helps me explain why my character has no problems with using his cane. I have a paragraph in my novel where the main character follows the blind man and notices how his cane parts the crowd in the congested city streets like a magic wand. The paragraph was born from observation, but your touching account on how you struggled with the significance of the cane and the desire not to be stared at with pity, show a different attitude to what is both an aid and a symbol of 'disability'.