When you carry a white cane, a very visible marker of disability, you receive a lot of free information about other people’s lives, especially their medical history. Whether you believe that the white cane signifies impairment or independence, its presence is hard to ignore. Sometimes, it elicits a troublesome graveyard silence from onlookers – which is mildly irritating because I rely primarily on auditory cues to navigate my environment. Usually, however, the cane promotes a spontaneous socialization within its vicinity.
When walking with the white cane, perfect strangers have stopped to ask me all of the following (and more):
- “Excuse me, are you blind?”
- “So if you’re blind, what are your dreams like?”
- “Do you have fainting spells? Is that why you carry a cane?”
- “So…can you tell me why there’s braille on drive-up ATMs?”
- “Are you going to get a dog? You should get a dog.”
- “Do you read braille? *pointing to sign for women’s restroom* What does this say?”
- “Do you know Stan? He’s blind too. We were friends twelve years ago.” [Here, I am tempted to reply, “Stan? Of course! I’ve seen him at the meetings!” To date, I have been able to restrain myself.]
At times, the cane moves people to tell you things or offer advice, rather than asking questions. This is usually because you’re waiting for someone or you’ve stopped to check your phone. At any rate, you’re stationary – which means strangers can approach and offer more in-depth conversation. Here’s where the extra (unsolicited) medical information comes in.
- “My grandmother was blind too.”
- “If you want to know when to cross the street, you can wait six seconds after the light turns green and go ahead. I used to be a crossing guard, so I know.”
- “There is a blind guy at our church! He reads braille. He has a braille Bible and he brings it every Sunday. And he just…reads it!”
- “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time and I can see!”
- “Without my contacts, I’m like practically blind.”
- “For a blind person, you dress really well! I would never have known you were blind…”
I know that things often fall out of people’s mouths before they realize what they’re saying or how it sounds. Most of the time, these awkward, clunky statements are a person’s way into the conversation – as if they want to say, “Hey, I’d like to know more about you and your disability” but instead, they see a cane and blurt out the first association they can think of.
The cane initiates a lot of dialogue, provided that people understand what it indicates (If you guessed fainting spells, you don’t get the prize money this time!). The cane does a lot of the talking for me. It’s a shortcut for disclosure; when using it, I rarely have to kickstart the explanation of my vision.
In one case, I was sitting in a theatre, the cane folded at my feet. The guy in front of me turned around and said, “What are those on the floor – numchucks?” I replied, “No, that’s my cane – it folds up. I’m legally blind.” He responded, “Oh. That sucks,” and I answered, “Not really.”
Another time, I was standing at the service desk in a crowded bookstore, inquiring after a rare title. The clerk was extremely helpful and offered to walk me to the shelf where I could find what i was looking for. She came around the corner of the desk and I stepped away from it, my cane out. When she saw me, she said, “Oh!”
I cheerfully replied, “Surprise!” and she quickly recovered from her initial shock. She extended her elbow to me, offered to carry the stack of books I was holding, and complimented the flower in my hair. I concluded correctly that she had not been able to see my cane from her side of the desk.
I think that the cane’s presence makes people more comfortable discussing other disabilities around me. A cashier tells me about her autistic child; a colleague discusses her mother’s failing vision. In these cases, the cane represents disability as a canopy under which we can all relate.
Recently, I was talking to several people at a party – my cane folded and stashed in my purse – when one of the parents happened to mention that his son had Asperger’s syndrome. After an awkward pause, he quickly added, “But he is high-functioning. The doc says he has a 190 IQ!” Nodding, I said, “Oh really?” As I was fighting back curiosity, I noticed that the rest of the table had gone very quiet. I was not uncomfortable, but I could tell that a sense of unease had settled over the table. I can’t decide if the father or his audience was feeling the majority of the discomfort.
When the cane prompts people to share their family’s and their own medical history with me, they don’t attempt to minimize or verbally overcompensate for the disabilities they’re discussing. It is as though the cane is an emblem of safety – people who bring up their sons or daughters with autism don’t have to offer me a disclaimer. No one has to say, “My daughter has x but she is really good at y.” I imagine that the white cane is like a white flag, declaring a public acceptance of disabilities – even extending that acceptance to encompass other human quirks or frailties. (I am thinking of the bank teller who saw the cane and told me that she also ran into walls.)
I wonder how my party conversation would have changed if I had been holding the cane or checking the time on my braille watch. Would the dad have felt the need to assert his child’s value (a high IQ) if he wasn’t distinguishing his kid as the only disabled person in a room of “normies”*?
In an ideal world, we would not have to barter for acceptance by asserting our talents when we disclose our disabilities. In the same ideal world, people would not associate the word disability (and all the diagnoses that fall under it) with a life that is not a life, an existence of only suffering and failure. Clearly, we haven’t arrived at the ideal stage, but I am grateful that the cane, and other public markers of disability, opens a space in which we can discuss our humanity with frankness and fascination.
*Cheeky term for nondisabled people