Reflecting on White Cane Day
Authors: Kathi Garza, Early Childhood Specialist, VI Outreach Program, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI)
Keywords: White Cane Safety Day, Blind Americans Equality Day, orientation and mobility, O&M, albinism, Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist, COMS, self-advocacy, empowerment
This article was previously published, in modified form, in the Winter 2021 edition of Albinism Insight, a national quarterly publication of the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH). A companion article will follow in the Fall 2022 edition of TX SenseAbilities.
Another White Cane Safety Day/Blind Americans Equality Day has come and gone, and although I’m relatively new to celebrating this special day with peers in the albinism and blind communities, I’ve grown to love it. Right before the pandemic, I was thrilled to bring my son to share in the celebration at TSBVI after the campus march. Each year, as we prepare to celebrate on my campus and in the community, I spend time reflecting on my journey and my relationship with my cane. I have to say, in social media terms, our status would be, “it’s complicated.”
Although white cane use began in the 1930s and has been protected by law since that time, the acknowledgment of White Cane Safety Day wasn’t until 1964. In an effort to raise safety awareness about the trademark tool used by those who were blind and visually impaired, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation to establish this special day on October 15, 1964. In 2011, President Barack Obama also named this day Blind Americans Equality Day as a way of honoring and recognizing the contributions of individuals who are blind or visually impaired to their personal and professional communities. Initially, the white cane was seen as a helpful safety tool that should be looked out for by the public, but today, the symbolism of this tool has expanded to represent independence for those who use it.
I never thought I’d need or want to use a cane growing up. Like many typically sighted individuals, I perceived the cane to be a tool for people who had no vision, not for someone like me who could see most of the time. I was born with albinism, a genetic condition characterized by a partial or total lack of pigment in the hair, skin, and eyes. I received the recessive gene from each of my parents, who did not know they were carriers. Albinism results in reduced visual acuities, sensitivity to light and glare called photophobia, and involuntary, rapid eye movements called nystagmus. Although I’m labeled legally blind, I rely heavily on my vision in my job, my home, and in the community.
Growing up, I didn’t receive a lot of services for my visual impairment, and when I did, it felt like torture because it pointed out my differences to other kids who saw me “doing just fine” in my honors classes. During middle school, I met with “some lady” who asked my mom about how I got around school, took me to a local fast food place, asked me to order a treat, and then asked me if I could give her directions as she drove me back home. As an adult, I’m pretty sure that was my orientation and mobility (O&M) evaluation. What “that lady” didn’t take into consideration was that I had already been in my school for almost two years, and I went to that same restaurant almost every Saturday with my mom and grandmother. I felt pretty savvy for having dodged that bullet for sure!
In my very small town, there were no options for public transportation. I didn’t have exposure to crosswalks, or even consistent sidewalks, for that matter. Everywhere I went was with my family or with friends. I mean, what could go wrong with a group of high school band kids running across a four-lane country road to get snacks before getting on the bus for the game? Don’t tell my mom!
When I went to college, I was so proud that I was able to navigate the campus independently. I remember tearing up when I made it from my dorm to the music building by myself for the first time. Reflecting back, there was so much I didn’t know that I might have benefited from. I didn’t even know how to cross a street. I didn’t know how to read a crosswalk signal or traffic patterns. I used to wait for others to gather at the crosswalk or look both ways and hope for the best. I struggled with the steep stairs at my university, which were all the same color and sometimes not the same distance apart from each other. I never went anywhere off-campus without a friend.
During graduate school, as I was learning to become a TVI, I had to take an Orientation and Mobility class where I learned some basic cane skills and terminology that I could apply to traveling more independently. During that time, I also began navigating airports and using public transportation more frequently, so I decided to buy myself a cane— one that was actually way too short—and started using it. A few years after I began using my cane, I consulted with a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) so that I could get a cane that was the right fit for me.
My decision to begin using a cane was an adjustment for me but also for my family. I was confused in my own mind about whether or not I really needed this tool since I often chose not to use it indoors. I wondered if people would think I was pretending to be blind. I wondered if I should pretend to rely more heavily on my cane so that people wouldn’t question me. I worried that my family was embarrassed to be seen with me carrying my cane and whether or not they thought I was trying to gain sympathy from others after having been raised “just like everyone else.”
Ultimately, I was able to accept my own feelings as valid and to understand that my family was entitled to their own feelings as well. I understood that they watched me grow up doing so many things they were told I might never do, all while not using many tools at all. To see me using something new likely made them feel as though they didn’t provide me with everything I needed to be independent. As a parent myself, I know how difficult it is to question whether or not you’re doing, or have done, your best for your children.
For the last 15 years, I have continued to journey through many of these feelings and have tried to cherish the empowerment and work through the discomfort of my relationship with my cane. I have always perceived that my cane is 90% for identification, a tool to help the public keep an eye out for me since I can’t always keep an eye out for them.
In early October 2021, I had the opportunity to grow a little bit in my thinking when I attended the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH’s) Adults with Albinism Weekend in Memphis. After arriving at the hotel, I completely ditched my cane because I wasn’t planning to use public transportation and would be traveling with larger groups of people. I was shocked to discover many points where I felt hesitant, unsure, or wanted to reach out for someone’s arm since I was on such unfamiliar terrain. This experience made me realize how much I really do rely on my cane for more than identification.
Although I’ve come a long way in learning how to use and accept this tool, I know I still have lots of room to grow. While I often wonder what the perspective of children with albinism growing up with canes from a young age will sound like, I wouldn’t trade this journey for any other. It’s impossible to say that I wish I had known about or been exposed to this tool as a young child because, knowing myself, I probably wouldn’t have been willing to give it a fair try. My personal opinion is that while having a variety of tools in your toolbox is important, true self-advocacy and empowerment come from knowing which tool to use at any given time and being willing to do so. I’ve learned so much by traveling this route, and although I believe I’m still a work in progress, I’m proud of where I am, with no regrets, about the cane anyway.