The White Cane: Symbol of Dependence Or Independence

Editor’s note:This is last in our series of posts in honor of White Cane Day. Our guest blogger, Kendra Farrow, CVRT, graduated from Western Michigan University with her Master’s degree in blind rehabilitation. She worked as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist for fourteen years. Her experiences included organizing transition programming, leading activity and support groups, conducting community education on blindness and low vision, and providing one on one instruction with consumers in their homes.

Currently Kendra works for the National Research and Training Center (NRTC) on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State University(MSU). In this role Kendra promotes the use of best practices in provision of services. She also conducts program evaluations and assists in a variety of training opportunities offered by the center.

Kendra using white cane on sidewalk

Growing up with limited vision has given Kendra a wide range of experiences which she draws on to encourage and motivate those who face similar challenges. One of Kendra’s most cherished memories is of a consumer who was 101 years old and referred to Kendra as her “blind Mentor”.

Reviewing My journal on Going Blind

“It was really hard to do it, but I put the white cane in my hand and walked down the street. I found that the idea of thinking about it was worse than actually doing it.”

The sentences above are from my journal and I recently reviewed some entries I made during the time I started using a white cane for the second time. The feelings and questions I had are not unique: “How do I know when my vision is poor enough to use a white cane?” “Is it really making me more independent?” Finding my way through the thoughts and struggles related to this topic is a journey and each person needs to find their own way through the maze.

Advantages to Using a White Cane

Although there has been little recent research to tell us the number of persons with vision loss who use a white cane, we do know that there are surprisingly few who do. Here are three primary advantages I have experienced:

  1. Increased confidence to travel independently
  2. Ease of interactions with the general public
  3. Increased safety during travel

Reasons Why People Don’t Use a Cane

Why then are there so few who choose to use one? Here are three reasons that I have heard.

  1. “The white cane will make me a target for those who want to take advantage.”
  2. “I don’t want others to know that I am losing my vision.”
  3. “I’m not blind enough to use a white cane.”

Didn’t Use a Cane Initially

I have been legally blind since birth, and some might argue that I should have always used a white cane. However, I have only used one for about 25% of my life. When I was younger, my vision was much better than it is today and I traveled with no difficulty during daylight hours. But after dark, I did have difficulties. I didn’t recognize it as a mobility issue and no one ever talked with me about using a white cane. The only people I knew that used them were those who seemed to see nothing at all.

Requested White Cane Training

When I finished college, my vision had deteriorated. During this time I was also planning to relocate to another state. It concerned me to be crossing intersections and, in general, learning a new town with my limited sight. So, I requested white cane training. I found that holding my head up while walking was the greatest advantage. Now the cane told me what was in front of my feet allowing me to use my limited vision to scan ahead and look around at my surroundings. It was new, but not difficult for me to use it. I made a promise to myself that if I started using it I would use it every day, not just intermittently; and I did, for a while.

Using a Cane Full-Time

Since I was in a new town meeting all new friends, I didn’t have the transition of explaining why I now used a cane when I didn’t use one last week. A lot of people start out using a cane for only certain activities. Personally, I feel that committing to using it full-time is easier. Others do not seem to wonder why you use it one day and not the next. The fewer conversations you have to have on this topic the better.

Ambassador to the Sighted World

Beginning to use a white cane is emotionally difficult. The label that others give us goes from “vision impaired” to “blind” whether we like it or not. The white cane automatically makes people think we can’t see anything, when in reality many people who use it have some functional vision. I was still wearing prescription glasses when I started using a cane and I know that several people inquired as to why I wore glasses and used a cane; it was sending a mixed message that they didn’t understand. Carrying a cane makes you a kind of ambassador to the sighted world; and I try to be kind to people, even if their questions or comments are insensitive.

People Are Helpful

What I have not found are people who want to take advantage of me because of my limited sight. In fact, I was initially surprised by the helpfulness of others. One day I was going to an appointment and the front of the building was a line of glass windows and doors. I followed the front of the building first one way, and then the other, but I couldn’t find the entrance. A lady who was in the waiting room on the other side of the window came out and helped me figure out how to get inside. The light bulb came on. In this case the white cane solved my dilemma and I didn’t feel stupid because it was OK that I was blind.

Symbol of Dependence or Independence

I wonder how that same lady would have viewed me if I hadn’t had a white cane. Would she have offered assistance? Others knowing we have significant vision loss is not always a bad thing; in fact it could be helpful. I cannot think of any positive conclusions one might draw from observing the low vision traveler who is having difficulty but not using a cane. If a person does not recognize a friend when they pass by on the sidewalk they might think the person is being rude. If you bump into an object or doorway they might think you are clumsy or drunk. If you go back and forth at that glass window, they might think you are confused, have memory deficits or worse. Are any of these labels better than blind? Is it worth it to put myself at risk of tripping over objects, or falling off curbs if I can be safer and more confident?

Step back and picture these two scenarios: one is the traveler with low vision who bumps into things, can’t find the door and walks slowly while looking at their feet. The second traveler with low vision who uses a white cane and is moving at a normal pace with their head held high. Which one is more independent?

Stopped Using a Cane Temporarily

Several years after beginning to use the cane I had surgery to remove a cataract. It improved my vision so much that I decided to stop using the cane. But as time progressed, the vision again began to decrease. It was harder to think about beginning to use the white cane the second time. I knew people would ask questions and I would again wear the label of “blind.” Since I worked with many who faced similar decisions, I wanted to keep track of how this decision affected me; but I was also curious how long it would take me to readjust to my new reality. I have been posting excerpts from my journal from my readjustment, along with thoughts about using a white cane. You can find these ongoing posts at MSU NRTC Facebook page.

Discussing the White Cane

Do you feel the white cane symbolizes independence or dependence? Should a person use a white cane all the time or just for certain situations? If you use a cane, how have you addressed questions people have about its usage? Please share our comments in the section below and let’s talk about the use of the white cane.

Other Posts in This Series

Using a White Cane Gives Me Confidence and Safety

How I Accepted the White Cane

My First Mobility Lessons

Celebrating White Cane Safety Day