How the white cane marked my transition
I am just coming off 2 months of travel to events in differing capacities as professional reviewer, accessibility spokesperson, disability consumer, and general traveler. After two years of legal blindness, I am still feeling like an immigrant in a new culture. I retain strong memories of my past ways of work and interpersonal interaction, but I am now beginning to understand the culture of disability. This transition has been marked by my adoption of the Identity Cane as a frequent companion as I navigate my hazy world.
Description of the white identity cane
The Identity Cane is a slim white cane intended not for robust walking assistance but rather to let others know its carriers are visually impaired. There are a few issues here.
First, consider robustness of the instrument. Mine, costing about $20, folds nicely and is quite light. It is good for poking at curbs and sidewalk spots that look like holes or ridges. But it is not for tapping or waving, as would be learned in a mobility training regime. One tangle with a fire hydrant or bicycle and this pole will be a pile of sticks. However, compared to other physical gadgets that seem to break for no reason, this fold-up item is holding up well.
How the identity cane signals vision limitations
The Identity Cane is meant to be a signal to passersby, service people, and new acquaintances that you have vision difficulties where they might help you. The other day, at an intersection, another street crosser seeing my cane just stated loudly "ok, time to cross", not knowing whether I could see him or how much help I needed. Airport personnel are alert to the cane to offer assistance to find elevators or check-in counters. A white cane can also gain more polite and helpful responses when you ask a stranger "where is the Saint Michael Hotel?" while standing directly in front of its sign.
However, this little pole is no badge of invincibility. Drivers on cell phones are just as likely to run over you whatever you are carrying, although the cane can be waved to possibly attract attention. Airport T.S.A. check-ins are variable, with some monitors wanting to stuff your cane onto the conveyor or into a box or frisk for objects planted on the blind lady. To my surprise, nobody ever asked when I went through security with my soon-to-expire Drivers License in one hand and a white cane in the other. A cane can help remind flight attendants you might need extra help but it might also enlist an unwanted wheel chair rather than a walking escort, if needed at all.
The identity cane influences my own behavior
For me, the Identity Cane is an important reminder that I am partially sighted. I do not use it on my exercise walks along a regular route, but elsewhere it tells me "slow down, watch out for decorative stones that might send me to the Emergency Room, look for exit doors that might set off sirens, remember I can ask for help, never take a short-cut, generally behave like a person who cannot see everything".
Yes, it was really hard to get used to carrying the cane as an Identity. What if people think I am blind? Well, duh, Susan, remember your priorities – safety is paramount, energy is consumed by covering up, and relationships are hard enough without the ambiguity of a disability.
But it is not really that simple to clarify the cane’s meaning if you are partially sighted. Having covered up my condition for 5 years with an uncomfortable employment situation, I became very good at navigating and acting normal. Except when I tripped or ran into something. Then I looked clumsy. Or when I skipped an event that was hard to handle for transportation or dining reasons,, I appeared unsociable or shirking. This is getting into more aspects of the culture of disability, where adopting the cane is an admission of vocational difference, a more than symbolic transformation of identity that demands organizational change in work or community groups.
The white cane educates public option
Since low vision is a relatively rare occurrence condition the Identity Cane is a strong signal in the noise of everyday life. Never in my career had I seen a blind woman at a professional event, so my cane carrying at recent working gigs has probably been most unusual for other attendees. That is especially good for computing professionals to remind them that low vision is not just for their grandparents but also is part of the working conditions for someone performing the same tasks as them. If only it could also raise their curiosity to learn more about assistive technology, the afflictions of their students, the A.D.A. regulations they wish away, and the prevalence of accessibility issues.
For me, the Identity Cane is a badge of education, not only within my profession but also in the community that suffers from lack of low vision services. Visually impaired people may appear less often in public leading to a circle of ignorance. City fathers think "we do not need to pay for accessible street crossing when nobody blind wants to cross" — but no sane blind person would risk their life at the intersection. This makes the Identity Cane a symbol of activism as well as a protective measure.
The identity cane is a strong force in vision loss
In summary, the cane used only for Identity is a strong force for overcoming vision adjustment resistance, personally, professionally, and for the wider public.