Long before I decided to begin using a long white cane, I recognized that my eyesight was declining and impacting many aspects of my life.
Among other things, my condition, RP, steals the light-gathering cells in your retina. Meaning, where others could easily see to navigate, either inside or out, I struggled. As it worsened, I hesitated going out alone at night. I hesitated going out with people who didn’t know my sight challenges. Even on a sunny day, if a shadow wasn’t being cast by steps, I could go flying down them. I really needed to start using a white cane. But, like so many in that situation, I held off.
The big wake-up call happened at age 45 when I failed the vision test for my driver’s license. A follow-up visit to my eye doctor sealed the news. He pronounced that I now met the terms for being legally blind. As I sat dejected in the exam chair, he recommended I contact service providers who, among other things, could get me the white cane training I’d need.
For months, I vacillated between thinking of following the doctor’s advice and holding off. I couldn’t verbalize what kept me from taking his sensible advice. I knew no blind person to whom I could talk about this.
In my case and maybe for others, my reluctance was really based on fear. No, I wasn’t afraid of the cane itself, it was fear of what people I knew would now think about me when I appeared with a white cane. Fear that I’d no longer be seen as the competent guy that I knew I was. Fear that coworkers or supervisors might start treating me differently and maybe start questioning my work. Fear that friends would feel sorry for me and want to be overly helpful. Maybe I was just uncomfortable at the thought of beginning to present as a blind person.
Then there is the thing that guys might not talk about. If you’re at the age when you’re hoping to go out on dates or find a partner for life, a guy is likely to think his chances are slim if he advertises his disability.
On that point, significant vision-loss wasn’t a factor until after I married. But before we were engaged, I told her of my retina condition. I explained that already, I was uncomfortable with night-driving and it would probably get worse. Her response was simply, “Well okay, then let me start doing all the night driving”. And that was all there was to it. I’m a lucky guy.
During a period when I was open to the idea of using a cane, I learned there was a local chapter of a national blind organization in my city and they had an upcoming meeting. Meeting and talking to both vision-impaired and totally blind members over a period of months, gradually got me over the hump. I obtained my first folding cane and started learning proper travel techniques.
As I practiced with the cane on walking trails, it was obvious how helpful the cane was. No more tripping on uneven pavement or stepping into water-filled holes. Those coming towards me assumed I didn’t see them and gave me wide berth. Past concerns I’d bump into people, happily vanished.
I worked in a large government complex downtown and had a responsible job. Even as my vision declined, I was able to successfully travel inside and around the buildings. I never ended up pulling my folding cane out of my shoulder bag at work. I did use that cane to get to the bus from home, from the bus to the building and then reverse it all at the end of the day.
I did use a cane when I became involved with new volunteer organizations. I did use it whenever we traveled by plane or train. Beside the benefits I’ve already mentioned, a bonus was if I stepped into a confusingly designed or poorly lit public restroom, some helpful guy might be in there and offer some useful directions. If I accidently bumped into someone, my apology and the sight of my cane always prevented any misunderstanding.
This isn’t a blog on where to go to get assistance. Dear reader, you could be living anywhere. But, you might reach out to those in your community who work with seniors or contact your local or state library. If you have access to the internet, search for the word “blind organization” and the name of your state. If you have such a thing, consult your phone book.
My relationship with my white caned totally changed when we moved to a new city. I decided I’d use my cane from then on. Now everyone who knows me here, knows me as a cane user. Perhaps it is being older, but I now am proud to walk throughout my community showing that blind people can safely travel independently and are otherwise, no different than anyone else.
I admit that I am not the person who can preach to anyone about boldly stepping forward to start being a cane user as soon as it would help. I can only say that once I got and learned how to use my white cane, many things I feared did not happen. And at the same time, challenges I previously faced greatly diminished or ended.
If low vision is making you uncomfortable going around independently, I’d urge you to reach out to any of the many organizations that exist and are anxious to help you.