Future Reflections Special Issue: Low Vision and Blindness 2005
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by Peggy Chong
As a very young child, I was aware that I did not see as well as the other kids in the neighborhood. It was well-known that the family down the block was made up of a mother and several of her children who could not see too good. Congenital cataracts run in my family.
While I was growing up it was stressed that I should try to fit in, to be like everyone else. What I was being told was to “look sighted.” A graphic example of this was in church. We were always told to sing along using the songbook, even though my sisters and I could not read it. If I would try to read it by putting the book up to my face, a hand would come over and move the book down to the sighted reading distance. So, I pretended to read the songbook, to be sighted.
In my teens I knew that this was not going to work if I wanted to get ahead in life and be happy. I had met blind adults who were working, buying their own homes, and raising families. I wanted to have the same happiness I saw in their lives.
A counselor from the state agency for the blind recommended shyly--and outside of my Mother’s earshot--that I get a folding cane just for identification purposes. She did not get me one or tell me how to use a cane, so the topic was just dropped.
In my late teens I bought a cane and started carrying it to places when I did not know my way around. One of my sisters was about three at this time, and she asked my Mother, “Why does Peggy have a cane?” My Mother’s reply was loud and meant for me to overhear. “She is pretending to be blind.”
That hurt a lot. My Mother was blind. In fact, she had less vision than I did at the time. But she did not want to be blind or have anyone think that she might have difficulty seeing. She always traveled on my Dad’s arm. Mom would not go shopping without a sighted person. This was not what I wanted for myself. But her comment hurt so much that it was very difficult for me to take my cane from the corner where I parked it when I got home.
For the next ten years or more I would only take my cane when I was traveling alone, or to a place I did not know well, or where I was sure no one would see me who might tell my folks.
When I used my cane, people treated me better. They did not get mad when I asked them to show me where something was in a store. Bus drivers were friendlier when I asked what number route that bus was. I felt less frustrated after trips I made with my cane. But because I am a “high partial,” there was this little voice inside of me that echoed my Mother’s words: “You’re just pretending to be blind.”
I started to do some soul searching. Why did I resist taking my cane shopping when I knew it would be helpful? Sales clerks did not follow me around like I was going to steal the place when they saw me looking closely at things. I could get clerks or other customers to read the packages for me if I was carrying my cane. There was no need for lengthy explanations when trying to get a person behind the counter to read me what was on the menu that hung right behind them in a fast food restaurant.
I also took a look at what others might be thinking when they saw my cane. It became obvious to me that there were many conflicting emotions about blindness tied into the symbol of the cane. I found it fascinating to discover that the most negative feelings were held by blind people who did not use a cane, like my Mother and sisters. The blind people that did use a cane felt good about their cane. They felt good about themselves. But most importantly, they were the blind people out there doing something with their lives! They were the happy, successful blind people.
Then in 1992 I decided it was time to get some real training as a blind person. I spent nine months at an NFB training center where I had classes in computers, Braille, and of course, cane travel.
After graduating from BLIND, Inc. in Minneapolis, I wondered how people would treat me now that I had decided that I was going to use a white cane all the time when I went out. My daughter, who had just gotten into her teens, said that it was “weird” to see me with a cane all the time. But it didn’t seem to make that much difference to her for very long. Now she finds my white cane helpful. Now, when she meets me at a restaurant or large room somewhere, to save time she just walks in and asks if there is a blind lady in there.
My blind friends thought the cane was great and gave me lots of encouragement. Most of my sighted friends took it with a grain of salt. The only sticky point left was my family.
My one sighted sister and her family got used to the idea in no time. I talked to her children about why I used a cane, and it was accepted with only a few questions.
The rest of the family were different. Some of my aunts did not understand. They felt that my Mother had gone this long without using a cane, surely I could go without one, too. They were embarrassed.
I have three other sisters who are also legally blind. They are uncomfortable around my cane as though it will give them some incurable disease. But when my cane can benefit them, well, that is another story.
We all attended a cousin’s wedding a few years back. The wedding was held in an old church with long, narrow, and dark halls and many stairs. As I got there before many of my family, I was toward the front of the church, and they were near the back. As we all do at weddings, I stopped a minute or two to talk to relatives I hadn’t seen in a while. When I got to the back of the church, at the top of the stairs, there were my sisters. I stopped and looked at them for a minute; there was a lengthy pause. I asked what we were waiting for. One of my sisters replied, “Well you got the cane. You go first.”
My Mother was diagnosed with cancer not long after that. If she saw the cane she always found a way to make some comment about me trying to focus people’s sympathy on myself. I didn’t need any more emotional upheaval in my life at that time and thought she didn’t either, so I did not use my long, straight cane when I visited her. I took a folding cane and put it in my purse.
That is when I noticed just how much I had gotten to depend on the cane. Over the years my eyes have become more sensitive to light. Many times I will close my eyes when I walk outside in the bright light. It was difficult to walk with my eyes closed when my cane was parked in the car. I walked slower without my cane. Stairs made me nervous. During this time I carried a folding cane to avoid hurting my Mother. I also became convinced that a straight cane was a much better way to travel. Folding canes, fold! Usually right in the middle of a six-lane intersection, or when I am carrying many things and truly need it to find everything in my path. Now that I’m back to using a straight cane, a folding cane is still in my purse or suitcase just in case my straight cane breaks or if I am traveling on an airplane. But that is about all the use I have for a folding cane.
Mom’s doctors all knew I was blind. I found that they gave me more thorough information than they gave my sisters. I have often wanted to ask the doctors why that was. My Mother was in denial of her cancer. Did the doctors assume that Mom’s denial of her cancer was related to the denial of her blindness? Did they assume that my sisters, who are also blind but try to hide their blindness, also would not want to deal with Mom’s cancer? When I went to the doctor appointments or to the hospital, I found the doctors and nurses eager to talk to someone in the family about her condition, test results, their suggestions, and recommendations. The rest of the family reported that no one talked to them. Looking back, I believe that my cane told the medical professionals that I could deal with life’s frustrations successfully and move on.
Since it has been over five years now that I have used my cane almost everywhere, my family knows it is not a phase. I know my cane still makes some people uncomfortable, but this is my life. I need to feel good about myself in order to lead a happy life. If, once in a while, someone is uncomfortable around my cane I figure they will either get used to it, or they are probably not going to be very important in my life for long, anyway. My cane is here to stay.
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