The Vision Rehab Podcast is a short monthly podcast about topics and issues related to vision rehabilitation therapists and vision rehab. You can also listen on your smart speaker, just ask for, “Vision Rehab Podcast.”
Hey everyone, today we’re going to talk about blindness and white canes… hey, where did everybody go? There was a great essay in the NY Times in 2014 by Rosemary Mahoney, titled “Why Do We Fear the Blind?” In it she mentioned reading a survey that found Americans reported feeling more afraid of blindness than diabetes, cancer, or heart-disease. So it’s no wonder that announcing that the topic is going to be blindness and white canes is one way to clear out a room.
October is White Cane Awareness Month and it’s a great time to remind drivers to yield to pedestrians with a white cane, and just bring a little more recognition to the white cane as a tool for independent travel. So now that everyone’s left the room, I can share a personal story that’s pretty embarrassing and I hope, a bit educational.
When I first learned of my own eye condition over 25 years ago, I too was, feeling very fearful of losing more vision and possibly becoming blind, like the survey respondents in Mahoney’s article. Even though I’d always been very near-sighted, I didn’t identify as someone with low vision or blindness and knew nothing about blindness except that braille was used to read and white canes were used to walk.
About this time, I joined my son’s Jr. High field trip to the Boston Museum of Science. As I walked up a long flight of stairs to the second floor, I saw a man with a white cane across the room tapping it as he walked toward a corner of the room. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that because he had a white cane , he needed assistance or might get tripped up by the corner. I froze on the stairs, thinking the right thing to do was to be a good Samaritan and run to his aid, to guide him through the corner or wherever he was going. Instead, I couldn’t move. I was so afraid that this might be me in a few years. I turned away and went up the stairs. For some time, I thought of this encounter and what a wimp I was not to help this man.
It was not until 10 years later when I started learning more about vision rehabilitation and the professionals that teach orientation and mobility, that’s the fancy name for traveling independently with a vision loss, that I began to realized how skilled white cane users are at getting around with a long white cane.
The man with the white cane I saw in the museum might have been an employee, who could have easily given me directions to the exhibit I was looking for on the second floor. My point here is that my first impressions, I am embarrassed to admit, when I saw the white cane was to assume this man needed help. It never occurred to me that you could travel around, wherever you wanted to go, with limited sight, or no sight at all, if you know how to use a white cane, and that there was a high level of skill to it. I had no clue there were professionals who teach this skill. In fact, most people who use a white cane have some functional vision and use the white can as tool.
So, if you’re wondering how to get started learning more about traveling more independently with a white cane, find an orientation and mobility specialist in your area. You’ll find them most often at a state or local agency providing services for visually impaired or blind clients—and by the way, there’s usually no charge for these services. To find an agency in your area, just call the APH ConnectCenter at 800-232-5463. You can also look up your state in the VisionAware Directory of Services at VisionAware.org.
It’s always best and safest to get started with a professional instructor, but if that’s not possible, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) offers free canes and can tell you how to choose the right size. Just call them at 410-659-9314. You’ll find some great tips and videos on how to get started from Mike Mulligan’s website BlindOntheMove.com. Mulligan is a certified orientation and mobility specialist.
So, the moral of my sad tale of misjudgment is that I didn’t have a clue about how a white cane was used, and all the skills you develop with it. So if you’re looking to gain some independence when you’re out and about, reach out to an orientation and mobility specialist, to see if a white cane will work for you.