Editor’s note: White Cane Safety Day, remembered annually on October 15th, is a day for recognizing the achievements of individuals who are blind or low vision and a day for celebrating the white cane, a tool enabling independence! Alexis Read shares her story of accepting the use of her white cane.
Imagine growing up in a rural area with a congenital eye condition. You are fortunate to have had the same teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI) from the age of 15 months until high school graduation. Now imagine that you only have orientation and mobility instruction every three months. Your instructor must travel 6.5 hours to provide this training. When he arrives, you are provided two days of instruction with perhaps two hours of instruction each day. Growing up in this environment could challenge anyone to accept the white cane.
I grew up in Williston, North Dakota, which is a very rural community. Williston is located in the western corner of North Dakota, about three hours from the Canadian border and 6.5 hours from the state school for the blind in Grand Forks.
Growing up, I was mainstreamed in public school. In order to receive intensive instruction in the Expanded Core Curriculum, I attended the state school for the blind for short-term programming. I began attending these programs in the summer of 1990. Each program was one week in length, usually from Sunday to Saturday. Based on the description of orientation and mobility in the registration brochure, I thought it would be a fun class. Little did I know what awaited me over the next few years.
During the time between my first two years of summer programming, I received no orientation and mobility instruction in my local school district. I navigated my school and community without the use of a white cane. I relied extensively on my vision in order to maintain my orientation. Sometime in late elementary school, I was taught the route from my home to a local park, which was across two quiet streets. I never remember using a cane while walking the route, but I remember getting lost in the park one time. This should have been a wake-up call to everyone that I needed more orientation and mobility instruction, but nothing changed.
“I Wanted None of That”
In sixth grade, I met the instructor who worked with me for the remainder of my K-12 education as well as my undergraduate years. This instructor was a young man who loved compass directions and that long cane that I would have nothing to do with at the time. Eventually, he and I got to know one another quite well as teacher and student and are now friends.
During my middle school years, the instructor and my local TVI worked collaboratively as he only came to our part of the state every three or four months. Both vision professionals always wanted me to use the cane while I was working with them, but as a teenager, I wanted none of that. My first cane was a rigid cane with a hook for a handle; this was absolutely not something I wanted my peers to see me using.
A Change of Heart
All through my middle and high school years, the vision professionals in my life kept emphasizing the importance of using the cane. I was exposed to others who confidently used their canes when I attended short-term programming, but I always put the cane away when I returned home. Being a stubborn teenager, I did not want my peers to see me using the cane. I thought I would be teased and bullied. It did not help that, having been mocked previously by someone because of my visual impairment, I had developed a protective shell around my emotions. I would not let alternative techniques of blindness penetrate that protective shell.
Sometime during my spring semester of senior year, I began changing my thinking as I contemplated leaving for college. I had the realization that I would be in an unfamiliar environment and around people who would not know me as well as my family and TVI. It would take bravery, but I knew I had to change my ways. With determination, I walked across the high school graduation stage using the white cane. This is the exact time it sunk in that this tool would be a part of me for my entire life. I remember that it was absolutely silent in the gymnasium when my name was called and I made my way forward. The silence continued as I walked across the stage and accepted my high school diploma. I don’t know what everyone was thinking, but I knew what I was thinking: I finally had broken free from the denial that I had been hiding behind since late elementary school.
Coming to Terms with a White Cane
I began my freshman year at a small private college out of state. My cane was never far from my side as I made my way through four and a half years of undergraduate coursework. These courses even involved some field work when I observed teachers in their classrooms. I never again left my dorm room or future living environments without the cane and later my guide dog.
Coming to terms with a white cane is a journey that anyone who is blind or low vision might face. It might take months or years from the time you are provided with your first white cane until your acceptance of it as an extension of your body. It was almost as if I had been struck by lightning when I finally embraced it. I went from one day not using it in high school to proudly walking across the graduation stage in front of a hushed gymnasium with eyes glued on me and the white cane in my hand.