Before last year, I never heard of White Cane Safety Day. I knew blind people walk with long white canes because I saw it in the movies. I figured if you went blind it was lights out and you saw nothing but darkness. I’m ashamed to say it but I imagined Ray Charles and Helen Keller because they were the only context I had for understanding visual impairment. That is, until my mother went blind.
Ok, maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic. On rare occasion someone goes to bed sighted and wakes up blind but for most people the process is gradual and individual. The experience is as unique as the person but if you want to get a glimpse of what the world is like through the eyes of the visually impaired, check out the vision loss simulation site online. Mom actually lost her sight over the course of six years to a combination of diabetic retinopathy (tiny ruptured blood vessels of the retina aggravated by diabetes) and glaucoma (damage of the optic nerve). She had seven eye surgeries and countless very scary injections in her eyeballs trying to preserve what sight she had left. Her eyes continued to deteriorate and she didn’t have any resources to compensate for the vision that was already gone forever. Then she found Arizona Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ACBVI). This meant interaction with the blind community. It meant spending time with people who really could understand how she felt. It meant learning to navigate life without vision but most importantly it meant independence and a renewed sense of self-esteem.
There are a lot of things that sighted people take for granted. When a sighted person walks through a parking lot and there’s a speed bump, they don’t fall down. Sighted people look at the height of a curb and know how high to step without ever thinking about it. Sighted people reach for the doorknob and find it instead of misjudging and jamming their finger tips on the door. Once they open that door they pass through without clipping their shoulder on the jamb. Coffee tables and other low furniture are not dangerous to sighted people. For the blind and visually impaired these are a few of the thousands of obstacles they navigate in a day with the help of their white cane.
Regardless of how or to what extent someone experiences vision loss, learning to get around independently makes such an impact to the life of a visually impaired person. Still, when she first got her cane Mom felt self-conscious. She told me, “So many people were like me and didn’t want to use the cane at first because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. When you don’t use it you draw more attention to yourself and look even more blind because you’re groping along and watching each step. Your cane gives you the confidence to walk with your head up and move along at a normal pace.” Now Mom has fancy computer programs, talking e-readers, a high contrast large print clock, a template to help her fill out bank checks and even a talking crock pot. All of these assistive technologies are enormously helpful but none are more important than the white cane.
President Johnson recognized the importance of the white cane to the safety, independence and mobility of people who are blind and visually impaired. In 1964 he set forth a presidential proclamation designating October 15 as White Cane Safety Day and it has been celebrated across the US every year since.
I believe White cane Safety day is worth celebrating. I’m not the only one who thinks so – check out this visually impaired pedestrian crafted from rice krispy treats I found on Pinterest. While I probably won’t go the food crafting route, I really do love the creativity and the thought behind it. I will celebrate White Cane Safety Day by taking time to consider the achievements and challenges of the blind community and remembering to be thankful for the many rich blessings I sometimes take for granted. How will you celebrate? What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced and overcome with the right tools and support from people who care? Please share your experiences and opinions in the comments.