Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Other 1%

I was introduced to the white cane at the age of about eight. I was given one mostly for identification when crossing streets. I don't remember being taught any cane techniques, except how to properly hold the cane for street crossings and detecting curbs, but I was provided with a mobility cane rather than an identification cane. Some of my most vivid memories of O&M lessons involve standing at street corners, listening to traffic flow, being reminded to "open the gate" and reposition my cane when I was ready to step out and cross. Throughout elementary and high school I mostly used my cane to cross the street, and kept it in my backpack (if I brought it along at all) the rest of the time.

I have a good deal of travel vision. About 99% of the time, I can see a flight of stairs coming. It depends on the weather and lighting, of course, but most of the time I know that a flight is coming up, even if I can't see it until I'm nearly on top of it. I can see when to slow down, where the railing is, and whether the steps are ascending or descending. I may use my cane to check depth or confirm where the flight begins or ends, but I can see enough that the cane is simply for confirmation. I can also usually see cars when they get close—at least their type (car, truck, van) and colour, if not their details or the driver inside. Depending on the lighting, I may be able to see the colour of the traffic light, although typically I can't see this unless it's overcast or dusk. Mostly, I rely on traffic flow to determine when to cross a street, something I was taught from the time I was young. But I look both ways before I cross, just like everyone else. I just make sure to listen, too.

Sometimes, maybe often, I forget how little I see. I can walk around without a cane in familiar territory, even outdoor territory, and no one would have any idea that I was legally blind. Friends often forget, too. Or they are perplexed about what I can and can't see—which is understandable, given that what I see can change dramatically based on the environment. If the weather is overcast I may be able to see quite well (relatively speaking). But if it's raining, turning sidewalks and roads into a reflective surface and source of glare, my ability to distinguish objects around me decreases dramatically. During daylight my vision may be adequate to walk down a sidewalk with minimal reliance on my cane, but come sundown my vision is virtually gone and I switch to relying completely on competent use of cane techniques. Even the direction I'm walking can make a difference: with my back to the sun I can clearly see objects, but turn around and walk the other way and the glare from the sun obliterates everything. It's no wonder anyone watching me might get confused!

When I first began using a cane regularly in my late teens, I got some interesting reactions from peers who had previously seen me walking and even running around the high school without one. Did I really need to use that? I was walking with them. I was in familiar territory with no steps. They were probably just as self-conscious walking with someone using a white cane as I was using a white cane myself.

What they didn't see was me stopping dead in my tracks after sundown, calling to the friends I'd been walking with, who had suddenly vanished into the blackness along with the path and objects around us. What they didn't see was me trying to travel with sun shining in my face or glaring off glass windows downtown, where it obliterated everything in front of me with its brightness. What they didn't see was me travelling once I was out of familiar territory, where I hesitated at every curb and crack in the sidewalk to check, and where I jarred my teeth when I stepped down off unexpected drop-offs.

My first experience of wishing I had my cane and finding I didn't came in about grade ten. Our gym class used to run around a trail in the woods across the street from the high school. I had a note saying that I couldn't run, on account of the fact that I couldn't see rocks and tree roots at all due to the effects of speckled light filtering through trees. So, I was paired with a classmate and we were allowed to walk (although I'm not sure my teacher ever really believed that I couldn't run). On this particular occasion I somehow took a wrong turn and got separated from my partner and from the entire group. I tried to find them, but soon realized the class period was coming to an end and they had probably gone back to the school. This was all familiar territory to me, but as I stood on the edge of the busy road, trying to determine when to cross, I found myself wishing for my cane for the first time in my life. I made it across the street safely, but felt unsafe doing so.

Over the years since high school, I have become a full-time cane user. College and university brought with it solo travel in unfamiliar territory, night travel, and a growing awareness that no one else was looking out for me except myself. Even though I have residual vision, and use it frequently during my travels, these days I feel uncertain and cautious when I'm not using my cane. On the very rare occasions I do leave home without it, I find myself slowing down, staring at the ground ahead of me, not trusting what I see. Is that a crack in the sidewalk or a step? As a kid, I often used to slide my foot forward to check. As an adult, I feel far too conspicuous doing that, so I probe with the tip of my cane instead.

When I first began using a white cane, the fact that I had residual vision was a huge hurdle for me. I was terrified as a teenager that someone would accuse me of faking. It has not happened in nearly fifteen years of being a full-time cane user, but most people I encounter do assume I have no vision. They offer me their arm, or give me detailed directions about how many metres in front of me the bus stop is. I don't mind this type of assistance, but as a teenager I used to feel guilty that I could see, when everyone who saw me thought I was totally blind. In truth, anyone who is legally blind has a perfect right to use a white cane, but it's a decision that many people with low vision struggle with ... and some never get past that struggle.

I have, in fact, been questioned several times over the years about why I use a cane. Friends and acquaintances have sometimes seen me step up onto a curb without touching it with the cane first, or see me walking around some places with it folded up, and asked why I need it. Over the years, those close to me have come to see the value of the cane, both in my safety and independence, and no longer question me. But occasionally, I am still questioned, more out of curiosity than criticism. Recently, an O&M instructor (not one I was working with) commented that I didn't really need a cane—although she was surprised and quickly backtracked on the statement when I told her what my visual acuity was. When questions like these arise, especially from professionals, that old twinge of self-consciousness comes creeping back. Maybe I don't really need a cane. Maybe I'm just not using my vision well enough. Maybe I just need to learn to trust myself more. I can, after all, see 99% of the things around me when I'm travelling in good lighting. I've learned from talking with others that this feeling of uncertainty and self-consciousness seems to be an almost universal experience among cane users with residual vision, at least in the beginning. (Not just with using a white cane, but with any tool associated with blindness, such as braille or a screen reader.) Even after so long, I still find my mind tangled up in this line of thinking on occasion. I certainly need a cane in some situations like at night or in poor weather, but maybe I don't really need one all the time.

But then, every once in a while, I encounter the 1% of things I can't see, even in good lighting. My cane suddenly clangs off a signpost I completely missed, or drops off the edge of a curb I had no idea was coming, or snags in a tree branch across the path that I didn't know I should keep an eye out for. And it's these moments that I feel completely emotionally vindicated.

The other day I was walking downtown with a friend. It wasn't an unfamiliar area, but it wasn't an area I had memorized, either. It was slightly overcast, virtually the perfect lighting conditions for my vision. And suddenly, as we walked, I felt my cane unexpectedly drop off the edge of a step. I hadn't slowed down at all, so my forward momentum nearly pitched me down the short flight of stairs. I was so startled I actually cried out; I am so used to seeing obstacles and changes in elevation before my cane reaches them that the sensation of my cane detecting something unseen came as a complete surprise.

Then I composed myself and walked down the four or five stairs that I'd been clueless about a second earlier. As I did, I turned to my friend. "I didn't see these stairs at all," I said in explanation of my reaction. "And that's why I use a cane all the time—for the 1% of stairs I don't see."

Maybe I could get along relatively fine in most areas even if I didn't use a cane, albeit seeming a bit uncertain and clumsy to anyone watching. But I'd also probably have a lot more bruises, a few more broken bones, and possibly worse injuries for not taking advantage of such a tool.


  1. Thank you for your blog post, I found it really interesting :)
    I am a T1D who was diagnosed 10 years ago but I woke with a woman whose vision sounds similar to yours and is legally blind. She uses a cane when the sun goes down but not a lot during the day. Although we've talked about it a lot it was still nice to hear it from someone else's point of view, gave me some understanding on how it feels to her. :)

  2. Eye opening post! No pun intended!