SUPER TRICKY STUFF: THE WHITE CANE AS A TOOL FOR EMPOWERMENT
I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit using a white cane is arguably one of the most challenging obstacles my students seek to overcome in regards to their vision loss. It’s sometimes considered an “sign of defeat” or a “crutch” because, all of a sudden, an extra tool has to be carried around in order to accomplish one of the most natural of tasks – getting around. But more importantly, it’s probably the most visible indicator of a visual impairment. Not only does one have to admit to a visual impairment by carrying a white cane, that admission also has to be made public. I’ve made it my career to try to convince youth with visual impairments to take back their independence by carrying around an overt reminder of their visual impairment. Super tricky stuff. During my short time as an Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist, I’ve found the task of encouraging my students to carry a white cane to ensure their safety is not an easy one. In school, students (especially those with disabilities) want to blend in, not stand out.
But, I want to make an argument for the white cane. One that elevates it from a symbol of blindness to a symbol of independence and empowerment. And I can’t think of a better time to do that than now – on the week of White Cane Safety Day. Yup, there’s a White Cane Safety Day celebrated every October 15th around the country. The white cane enables those with vision loss to travel with ease, on their own, unencumbered by a dependent relationship on others. Traveling independently with a white cane shows the public that individuals with visual impairments are capable of being self-reliant, productive, and active members of society. I can guarantee, when the majority of the public sees an individual using a white cane, the overwhelming feeling is likely respect rather than pity. It takes courage to put yourself out there, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. There’s something life-changing about taking acceptable risks and daring to push yourself out of your comfort zone. It leads to opportunities, and those opportunities can lead to increased self-confidence and personal growth. In my humble opinion, using the white cane (when one feels it’s necessary) is the bridge between isolation and freedom.
Knowing the types of thoughts and feelings my students might be grappling with as they work with me on their travel skills, I’d like to share some the messages I strive to communicate to them:
Be brave and challenge yourself. Challenge your opinions of those with visual impairments, including opinions you may carry about yourself and your abilities.
Be an advocate for others with visual impairments. Your visibility increases their visibility. It normalizes and changes perceptions.
Connect with others with vision loss. It can sometimes feel pretty lonely being visually impaired because you might feel like the only one. Find someone you can relate to and talk to them about your experiences.
Be gentle with the public. They might not always understand how to interact with someone with a visual impairment, but they’re trying their best. Take the time to educate rather than shame. It’ll improve their interactions with other people with visual impairments in the future.
Celebrate you! Yeah, you’re different and different is beautiful. You might not see it that way now, but I hope you will someday.
Remember, it’s OK to seek help. It’s the greatest sign of strength and allows the greatest opportunities for growth. This is something EVERYONE should understand. …and lastly…
When, and only when, you learn to use a white cane can you get a dog guide. Just sayin’.
As an O&M Specialist, my hope is that – in time – my students will come to know the liberation that accompanies using a white cane. I recognize this will take time and patience. The minds of the youth I teach are still growing and maturing. Their sense of self isn’t fully developed yet and it’s often informed by the opinions of those around them. I have to be mindful and sensitive to that and I have to be willing to go at their pace rather than mine. Above all, I want my students to know that I believe in them, regardless of where they are on their journey. The journey – through the triumphs and the pitfalls – is what makes us stronger.
Allison Cacich is a Certified Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialist in the Saint Paul Schools. She has been Louie's O&M Specialist for the past couple of years - and her mother worked with Louie in his early school days.