(Portrait by James Kent, March 2012)
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.