by Jennifer M. Kennedy
From the Editor: Almost everyone who is a successful cane user has their story about coming to accept the use of the long white cane: what it was like before, what we did to avoid using it, and the tremendous difference it has made in our lives. With the tool as vital as a cane, one story isn’t sufficient. Each time we offer a story, we hope that it will reach out to someone who feels shame and dependence and set them on a path that leads to embracing real mobility and independence.
Jennifer Kennedy is the executive director of BLIND, Inc. (Blindness, Learning in New Dimensions), one of three training centers created and run by the National Federation of the Blind. BLIND, Inc. has a publication called New Dimensions, and here is what she says about the transformation of the cane from a tool that made her different to a tool that has made her independent:
Many blind people came together across the virtual spectrum and celebrated White Cane Awareness Day on October 15. It is a time to be loud and proud of the most common mobility tool used among blind and low vision travelers. For many of these people, carrying a white cane wasn’t always so easy. I am no exception.
When I first began losing vision as a teenager, I took a great deal of time in planning out my routes around the junior high school. The building was old with several flights of stairs, so it became imperative to either find the ones that were best lit or get ahead of the crowd before classes let out for fear I might hit something. I was told years later a few of my friends knew something was strange when I walked, but they grew accustomed to falling behind me just enough to not be cut off when they fell out of my line of sight. Less than a year later I was deemed legally blind, and that B word meant one thing: a white cane.
At first I began learning to use a white folding cane at the school for the blind. My instructor was rather progressive in that he had me wear sleepshades the first several lessons that he taught me. Since my local school district had not had a blind student in over a decade, I felt taking my freshman year of classes at the Ohio State School for the Blind would give me more resources in learning how I was going to live with this b-word thing.
Twice a week for a semester I went out with my cane, but after classes I folded it up, and it remained in my locker until the next lesson. After all, if you carried a cane in the school for the blind, you were ridiculed by your classmates and never encouraged to use it when traveling to track or swim meets. Grab your friend’s arm who saw better than you, for that could make up the deficit if you had field restrictions. That was the unspoken rule among all the students, and I never wanted to stick out in a place with my peers.
Upon returning to public school the following year, I could no longer keep that cane folded in my backpack. I used it because I had to, not because I wanted to. The hallways were far more crowded than those at the school for the blind. Even leaving class three minutes early didn’t give me enough time to switch books and not be taken into the tidal wave of fellow students. I also knew I needed to at least pretend to look like using a cane didn’t bother me. Since I knew most of the people in school when I was sighted, we were all going through an adjustment. I didn’t want my friends to think I couldn’t go with them to the high school football games on Friday night because they would need to escort me everywhere.
Tapping my cane felt awkward and loud no matter what I did. The back of my neck burned as I felt eyes boring into it from people behind me. I often switched to constant contact in a diagonal position to avoid being heard as long as possible. This position protected my left foot and upper right side fine, but it did little to give me confidence in my ability to move freely. I recall stepping in many puddles and kicking things to my right since that foot was completely unprotected by this static technique, and the cramping that my wrist got from the fixed pushing motion made using my cane that much more dreadful. The white accessory I had worked hard to avoid for so long was now required if I was to do anything alone. I accepted it, but I sure didn’t feel like it gave me any advantages. The cane was just a thing I had to deal with and move on.
Upon meeting members of the National Federation of the Blind, I began to see people who weren’t ashamed of the white accessory. Late night discussions led me to understand I had allowed the cane to define me for years, not me defining the cane’s meaning. I realized I needed to graduate to a cane that empowered me to move faster and more gracefully than I had ever dreamed.
Afterwards, I first tried a longer folding cane, irritating my itinerant instructor. She argued the hypotenuse of the angle for which the longer cane I had relative to the ground was incorrect. I flatly refused to switch back, citing the numerous trips down the curb I had taken prior to the longer cane. This was a recurring conversation for the remainder of the lessons I had with her. Even though I was accused of being Bo-Peep, the mobility specialist couldn’t stop me from doing what I wanted. Our lessons ceased sometime late in my first semester of college.
At national convention the next year, I attempted to straighten my slightly bent longer aluminum cane after catching it on a lifted sidewalk and jamming it into an arc. I quickly realized bending that type of cane resulted in two smaller bent pieces and was rendered useless. A trip to what was then the NFB Store resulted in my first fifty-seven-inch fiberglass cane. There were no more telescoping canes of that size left, hence the switch to a rigid cane. It only took that convention week to convince me I could be graceful and move quickly with a cane. I loved how light it was, how soon I found steps, and the ease with which I could get onto an escalator. Its flexibility meant if it caught, the shaft could bend and easily return to its straight line without missing a beat. The tapping of the metal tip sounded almost musical. I began to hear an opening before I was at the intersecting hallways of the convention center. My friends showed me all kinds of neat storage methods, eliminating the concerns I had about not being able to fold or telescope it in. and I couldn’t wait to start training with it at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in the fall.
Eighteen years later, I still use a straight fiberglass cane with a metal tip. I graduated to a fifty-nine-inch model to make up the difference when I wore taller shoes or had to move faster to keep up with my cane-travel students who towered over my five-foot stature. I have several telescoping canes and a folding one stashed away in various places in the event my straight cane snaps. Spare metal tips also have numerous hiding places in my bags, pockets, and backpacks, so I am never without the beautiful crisp echo it emits.When I grab my cane off the hook each morning, I feel empowered by the freedom it gives me, knowing how much faster I can react to the upcoming stairs, or quickly slide the cane into my fingers and skirt around the crowds that once prevented me from believing I could get from class to class at the same time as my sighted high school classmates. I feel proud to carry the cane developed by my blind brothers and sisters who know best for one another rather than what the mathematical sizing of a cane should be. In the words of Will Smith to Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Men in Black, “I make this look good.”