One of the reasons that makes me qualified to ask this question and offer an answer is that I asked myself this same question when I got my first cane. When I asked the lady who sold me the cane in the local agency for the blind, "How do I use it," her answer was, "Any way you like."
I was in my last year of high school then, losing sight slowly but steadily, and we all know how high school students hate to look "different." As I walked with my parents across the street back to the car, I pondered the more basic question, "Why use this cane at all?"
Through the National Federation of the Blind I learned that there are two major schools of thought about what it means to be blind. One philosophy of blindness held by most people, including many blind people, says that blindness is a disaster, a catastrophe. I tell you frankly and up front, if you decide that blindness is a disaster, it will be for you. It will dominate and ruin your life. It will limit your thoughts, your relationships and your achievements.
The NFB taught me the other philosophy of blindness, that blindness is a physical characteristic, that with the right approach and with the right kinds of training in dealing with the situations you meet in your daily life, blindness can be reduced to a matter of nuisance value. Some nuisances are bigger than others, but blindness no longer has the power to dominate and ruin your life. But this learning was a few years in the future, so back to my late teens.
I don't know anyone who wants to be blind. I hated to admit that I was blind, because it was a change in my self-image. I still had that majority view of blindness, that it was a terrible thing. I knew that the white cane identified me as a blind person, and I only thought of this negative purpose.
The cane has a functional purpose, and that is what most of the rest of this booklet is about. I started carrying the cane because I was losing more sight and running into too many things. I just held it out in front of me with an occasional swing to the side to check for landmarks. A few months later, I met a blind veteran who used a long cane and had good travel skills. He taught me enough to keep me going in limited situations.
Another way to think of the cane is as a magic wand. If you know anything about magic tricks, you know that the magician must practice for hours before going on stage for a performance. The magic tricks that you perform with the cane, threading your way past obstacles and finding your destination, come with hours of practice. I will tell you how long it took me to learn, and it was well worth the time and effort. Now to return to the question of looking like a blind person.
The better I grew as a cane traveler, the less it bothered me to carry a cane. The better I grew as a cane traveler, the less people asked if I wanted help. The better I grew as a cane traveler, the less it bothered me when people did offer help. I knew where I was going, and it showed. I looked like a capable person. A skillful blind traveler draws attention in the same way that a beautiful woman or handsome man draws attention. People notice, admire for a moment, and then go on their way as you go on yours. But I would have found all that hard to believe at the beginning.
There are times when it is appropriate for people to know that I am blind.
The cane is a silent explanation when I enter a bank and ask where the end of
the teller's line is. I give all my attention to traffic when I cross streets,
but I want the driver approaching the corner to know that I am blind. I try
not to "wave the white cane" when I could do things for myself, because
that works against opening opportunities for achievement in other areas of my
life. But that is another chapter in the philosophy of blindness.
Let's turn away from cane travel for a moment and consider swimming. To a non-swimmer or even an impartial observer who is standing on the ground, the idea of swimming is foolish. They might say, "Humans can't do that. We don't have air sacs along our spines like fish. Our only air sacs expand and contract with every breath."
Have you ever seen or been a non-swimmer in the water, the way they thrash around? "Water is too thin. It will not support you, and you will soon drown." Even if the observer sees someone else swimming, the response is, "Maybe they can do it, but I couldn't. And who would want to do that, anyway? I can go all the places I want to go my own way."
The only way to learn to swim is to actually get into the water. Yes, at first you do thrash around, and sink, and come up coughing with your eyes and nose full of water. It takes a while to learn how to relax the right way to let the water support you. Much of the skill in swimming is in learning to cooperate with the water and to use its properties to help you do what you want to do.
In every society there are skills that people are expected to learn and to perform well. Up until a hundred years ago native American men and boys were expected to be skillful in the use of the bow and arrow. Allowing for individual variations, I am sure that most of them were skillful.
Since everyone eats, lots of people need to cook, and cooking is a skill that many people can learn to a satisfactory degree. There is another factor involved in cooking, just as there was in the use of the bow and arrow: separation by gender. Women were not expected to shoot the bow and arrow, and, even now, many men are not expected to cook.
Early in my career I worked in a recreation center. Near closing time one day I remarked to one of the boys that I had to go home and cook my dinner. To him, that was a ridiculously funny idea, and all he could say was, "Cooking is women's work!" It was no good telling him that I lived alone and had no one to cook for me. This time, at least, it had nothing to do with my blindness.
There is one thing that all American adults are expected to do, and that is to drive a car. There are a few parallels between any two forms of transportation: noticing surroundings, keeping track of turns and distances, and planning your destination and route. Everyone is expected to do these things. They are basically the same if you are going from one room to another, or from one city to another. The necessary skills are within everyone's range of abilities. I base my opinion on the fact that so many blind people do travel successfully. It takes training and practice, but that is to be expected.
People who can see are used to looking at everything they do, and so they think they have to look in order to know and to do anything. The National Federation of the Blind is in the process of teaching people that it is not so. We expect blind people to learn how to do many things. We lead by example, and offer help along the way. "Here is a cane. Tap it back and forth in front of you as you walk." The cane, itself, is a simple thing. As you step Most of what you need to know is in your head, and that is as good as it ever was."
There is one essential thing that the student must bring to cane travel, and that is the willingness to try. Are there doubts? I had many doubts. Are there fears? I had my share of fears. Is there confusion? I had handfuls of confusion. Are there questions? I had a list of questions which I asked at the wrong times. But along with my doubts, fears, confusions and questions I brought a willingness to try. Many times I repeated lessons, but I kept trying. If you have come this far in the booklet, you can make it the rest of the way. From here on, you need take only a small step at a time, so give it a try.