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20. White Canes in the Wild

While walking down the beautiful, but oftentimes treacherous and chaotic streets of Georgetown DC, you may see a small blonde girl wielding a giant white stick, tapping furiously, as she tries to get through the crowds of tourists. Why is she using the stick and how does it help her get around the outdated infrastructure of Georgetown university that is nearly falling apart? My name is Marissa Nisley and welcome to White Canes in the Wild.

*Intro music*

Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Legally Blonde & Blind. The summer hiatus is finally over. If you weren't aware, I took a three month break from recording episodes to focus more on some backend development. Mainly I designed a website, that has a ton of cool features, including transcripts for every episode, an albinism FAQ, and a resource guide that has everything from sunscreen recommendations to lists of blind scholarships. I am so happy with how it turned out and you should definitely take a look. But if there are any navigation issues, please, please send me a message. I tried to be mindful of contrast alt text and other components of website access. But I am by no means an expert. So if there are any problems, please let me know. I also got a microphone, which if you know anything about the podcast’s previous recording setup is quite a milestone. I am no longer shouting at an iPad and it makes me feel much more professional, but enough about behind the scenes, let's get into today's episode.

The truth is I've been keeping a bit of a secret and it's that I decided to apply for a guide. I started the process around January, and at the end of June, I found out I got accepted into the Guide Dog Foundation’s program. That means all of the paperwork is done on my end, and I am waiting for them to find a good match. The average waiting period is about 6 to 12 months, but I could get a call at any time. Obviously, I have been thinking about this for several months, but I didn't want to say anything until my application got approved. I plan to make an episode about that journey once I get a guide dog and we start getting settled as a team, but for now, one part of the journey that I did want to discuss was learning to use a white cane because most guide dog schools want to see that you have strong white cane skills before you even apply for a service animal. This time last year, if anyone, especially if anyone in my family suggested I learn to use a white cane, I would have immediately shut them down. And I think that's because I possessed a lot of misconceptions about mobility aids and how they impact your independence.

But before I get into that, let's start with a bit of background. White canes are essentially tools that allow a blind or visually impaired person to gain information about their surroundings. They can be used to detect things like curbs, steps, missing bricks, scooters people decided to leave in the middle of the sidewalk, cones, and pretty much any other obstacle you can think of that's on the ground. There are so many different kinds of canes out there. There are folding canes that you can put in your bag, long white canes that are typically a bit lighter, but can't really collapse. There are even ultrasonic canes that beep when you get close to an object, which I honestly think would be really annoying, but to each their own. There are several different types of tips you could see at the bottom of a cane. They could be marshmallow or pencil shaped. They could be ceramic. And that's just to name a few. Colors can also be significant when looking at a cane, for example, an all white cane could indicate that a person is completely blind whereas a cane with red and white stripes indicates that a person is deafblind.

Canes have been around for decades. And what I think can both be the most interesting and intimidating thing about them is that they are one of the most recognizable symbols of blindness. In fact, some people use what are called ID canes, which are typically a bit smaller and are not used for navigation, but rather to say to the public, “Hey, I'm visually-impaired.” One interesting statistic I found while researching for this episode is that it's estimated only 2-8% of people who are visually impaired use a white cane. And I think that's because there is a lot of stigma surrounding picking one up, especially within the albinism community.

White cane usage can be a bit controversial at NOAH conferences. Some people think they're a useful tool, especially at night or in unfamiliar environments. And other people think they're overkill for those with a lot of remaining vision. I know when I used to go to conventions and I would see people using white canes, I thought it was completely unnecessary. I almost kind of saw it as attention seeking. I think a lot of us unfortunately have developed a negative attitude towards cane training. And I want to explore some of the reasons I think that is/

Firstly, the albinism community is pretty separate from the blind community as a whole. It's a pretty isolated segment, in my opinion. And to some degree that makes sense with albinism, you have a lot more stable residual vision than you would with other eye conditions. It makes sense that somebody with 20/80 corrected vision that can drive doesn't really consider themselves to be blind. If you were to call somebody with albinism blind, I am willing to bet that they or their parents would make it very clear to you that they are visually-impaired, not blind. I think we make a very deliberate effort to separate ourselves. But especially for those of us who are legally blind and have an acuity under that 20/200, the distinction is pretty silly. Blindness is a spectrum and 85% of people who are blind have some form of residual vision. I don't think we should shut ourselves out from tools and non-visual techniques that could be beneficial for us because we believe we have too much vision. Lia and I touched on this in the blind baking episode, but even if you do have residual vision, using it may not be the most efficient way or the safest way to get a task done. Now I'm not saying we should treat all blind people the same. I know how frustrating it can be to be put in this box when strangers, teachers or even family members expect you to use a cane or a guide dog because you're blind and “don't all blind use these,” but that doesn't mean we should shut these options.

On a related note. I think another reason a lot of people are reluctant to use the white cane is there's this huge fear of publicly presenting as blind. I was on the albinism community Facebook page, and I saw someone comment, “If I use a white cane, then everyone will know I'm blind. I'm at a point of no return.” A lot of us can pass as sight to strangers if we don't use the stereotypical mobility aids like a cane or a guide dog, I think this is a really interesting concept that I want to make another episode on at some point. And I personally thought that getting a cane would only add to these strange comments and interactions I had with people on the street. I thought of walking around with a cane as the equivalent of wearing a neon yellow hat or t-shirt that said “I'm blind” in bold black letters. And for a very long time, I didn't want people to know. There was something that bothered me about the fact that people walking past me would just see me as a blind woman. They wouldn't know about any of my accomplishments or my interests or who I am as a person. I would just be this one label in their head. It takes a lot of work and confidence building to get to a point where you prioritize your own independence and safety over what other people think. And unfortunately, visually impaired people aren't the only ones who feel this way about white canes. I was doing research for this episode and I found a quote from a professor of ophthalmology at John Hopkins that said:

“Ophthalmologists and optometrists can be overheard saying that their visually impaired patients should not receive mobility training because they're not totally blind. Blindness has a stigma that doctors and their patients alike want to avoid. People with low vision often refuse to use a cane despite its many benefits because it identifies them as blind and their service providers reinforce that decision by concurring with their beliefs.”

Another sentiment that's really popular is this idea that “I don't need it.” I think our emphasis on self-reliance and personal responsibility in the United States has led us to a point where we view accommodations at the bare minimum. This idea that if we wouldn't die without it, then we really don't need it. A lot of people, including myself until a few months ago, see white canes as overkill because we can still get around without them. We might trip over things more often than a sight person would, we might end up with more bruises on our legs, but we can still get by. But here's the thought process I went through a few months ago. If a white cane helps me feel more confident when I'm going down a busy street or going downstairs, then why is it overkill? Why am I just settling for getting by, for tripping over missing bricks, for ending up with bruises, from the scooters in the middle of the street?

Another attitude that can be a huge barrier in cane training is this idea that white canes and other mobility aids are a crutch, that it's bad to depend on them. I saw a TikTok where the user was explaining how she wished people would view mobility aids like glasses the same way they would with wheelchairs or canes. There are plenty of people that depend on wearing eyeglasses, but we don't call them “eyeglass bound.” October 15th is White Cane Awareness Day, and a lot of blind activists were sharing Facebook posts about how canes can be a symbol of mobility and independence. I remember feeling shocked because that is not how we talk about canes at NOAH. I feel like more often than not on the albinism community page, people talk about learning to use a can as giving up or something that they did only after experiencing several injuries.

I was reading an albinism insight article titled “White Cane Training on my Own Terms.” And I think the author expressed a lot of sentiments that I felt until very recently, “I believe using a cane at a young age would've led me to think that I couldn't navigate without it.” And, “although I'm legally blind, not having a cane as a child gave me time to find my own way and to incorporate tools if, and when they become necessary.” I think there are a lot of underlying assumptions here. First is that using white cane prevents you from exploring other options and strengthening your orientation and mobility skills. I used to think that people who used canes or guide dogs were simply bad at O&M and that traveling without those things meant that you were somehow more competent. That's simply not the case. Using a cane takes a lot of rhythm skill and practice as we will discuss later. Second is this idea that if you learn to use a cane, you have to use it 24/7. You will think that you can't navigate without it. Two things to say to that. One, part-time cane use is completely valid. Plenty of people only use it at night or in unfamiliar environments or in harsh lighting conditions. And two, even if you decided at a young age to use a cane full-time, why is that a bad thing? Why is traveling with the cane seen as less than?

This all ties into the final reason I think people are reluctant to use canes and that is pride. There is something that feels good about saying or thinking, “Hey, look at me. I can do this without a cane. I am surpassing your expectations. I don't need a blind stick.” As terrible as this is to admit, I think little Marissa had a bit of a superiority complex and felt like she was better because she didn't have to tap on the ground to find things and get. The author of the previous article put it very concisely. “Society assumes a lot about our abilities or lack thereof. Therefore, if we're keeping it real, ego plays a part in many of our decisions to go toolless. I felt small amid all the vision aids people insisted I needed and the things they said I couldn't do. I was determined to defy every limitation ever applied to me. And I did.” I was talking with my dad about deciding to use a cane, especially as an older adult. And he said that if he were ever in that position, if he were losing his vision and had to use it, he would almost feel like he was conceding. I thought that was such an interesting word choice.How is this mindset helping us except our limitations and our blindness? Overall, I think that viewing canes as a tool in a toolbox rather than a sign of defeat would do our community a lot of good.

You know, when I was younger, I expected going through cane training and applying for a guide dog, if I were ever to do those things, to feel like surrendering. But in fact it was the exact opposite. I think this podcast played a huge role in my decision because I wanted the show to appeal to all blind people, not just those with albinism or a lot of residual vision. So I started to do research into things like braille, screen readers, and other tools that people with less vision use. That started to really chip away at those misconceptions I was just talking about because I realized that there are blind people living normal, boring, independent lives with all different kinds of tools in their tool belt. There isn't some sort of hierarchy where it's better to use large print than braille, or it's better to travel without a cane than with one. I think with albinism, because there's such a huge spectrum in the vision people can have, we almost have this association that more vision is better. I remember when I was younger, I wanted to be like the people that could drive with bioptics or who could get around on their own by reading street signs. I didn't wanna be like those that had to use canes or guide dogs. But starting the podcast and broadening my horizons made me realize that one is not better than the other.

I think another huge component was moving to Washington DC and getting to explore a city by myself for the first time. Things like getting to know the layout of my campus, using a Metro for the first time, taking the bus, all of these activities were huge confidence boosters. And you would think that if I could do these things successfully, then why would I need a cane? But these exercises made me wonder, how can I travel even more confidently? How can I increase my skills and get a better sense of my environment? Do I really need to have all these bruises on my legs? I didn't wanna settle for the bare minimum anymore. If there were tools out there that could help me, I wanted to use them, even if it wasn't a life or death scenario.

And finally, one of the main reasons I decided to get a cane and apply for a guide dog, which admittedly, this is the hardest one to talk about, is that my mom once asked me, do you ever feel scared while crossing the street? And it made me really think about all of those times I've been uncertain, when I couldn't see anything in front of me because of the blinding sunlight. when I was overwhelmed in these huge crowds and felt like I couldn't get out. when I was trying to go down steps but they all looked flat to me and I didn't even know where the next one was. And I was just going with it. These moments are not only extremely stressful, but they also pose a safety risk. I could have gotten injured. And I think it's easy to brush them off individually because they only happen for like 30 seconds to a minute or so at most. But thinking of them together made me realize that I wanted more. I wanna feel even more certain than I already do. Even if I feel certain 95% of the time that other 5% is significant and causes me a lot of stress.

As of right now, I'm a part-time cane user. I mainly take it out at night, or if I'm in a new place with a lot of steps, I mainly find it beneficial for when I'm going downstairs. It gives me a better sense of when the steps start and stop than if I were to just feel around with my foot. I also find it very helpful when it rains, because I can't tell how deep puddles are. So if I hear sloshing, when I'm tapping my. I know that I don't wanna put my new shoes in it.

So you might be wondering, based on my experiences, how do people really act when they see you using a cane? Well, it depends. Some people, as with anything, are great and others not so much. I'd say in general, it wasn't better or worse than what I was expecting. It was just different. I wanted to devote a segment to this question because it was one of the things I was most worried about. But keep in mind that your needs are far more important than how people react.

Essentially, federal law dictates that people who are blind and using a guide dog or a cane have the right of way when crossing a street. Generally cars will be more cautious around you. If you're at an unlighted intersection, for example, they will generally stop more often for you and further back. Sometimes people will even honk at you, which if I have any drivers listening, is not helpful. We can't even really tell who you're honking at or why. So we're not gonna cross the street just because we hear you blaring your horn.

I think things get a bit trickier with pedestrians on the street. Like I was saying earlier, white canes are one of the most recognizable symbols of blindness. So people mostly know what they are and know that you have low vision, but they don't really know how to act. For better or for worse, guide dogs are a very social mobility aid. People typically come up to handlers and ask them a ton of questions about how old their dog is, what breed they are, what their personality is like, what kind of tasks they do. No one really comes up to you and asks those kinds of questions about your blind stick.

If anything, people for the most part will avoid you. I've noticed that people will cross to the other side of the street. So they're not walking on the same path as me. I've even noticed that some of my friends, when I'm using it, will subconsciously stick further back away from me. I'm a pretty social person, so as I'm sure you can imagine, this does make me pretty sad, especially when I'm trying to take pictures for my dog, Instagram account, @gtownpups. How am I supposed to find the pups and photograph them if their owners are walking them away from me? I have also started a few family conflicts. There have been a few instances where either the dad or the child is in the middle of the sidewalk totally oblivious. And then the mom seeing me approach, yanks them to the side. And then they're like, “why'd you do that?” So generally, if people have the space and the self-awareness they'll stay away from you and depending on who you are, that may be a good or a bad thing. It's just something to keep in mind.

However, when crowds are unavoidable, I find it very challenging to navigate with the cane. This is one of the main reasons I have opted to apply for a guide dog instead of using a cane full time. But when I'm in a massive group of people on M street, generally, it's so busy and hectic and loud that people aren't even really noticing your cane. So I'm left with two options. I either stand on the side of the street, wait for a brief and rare moment of peace, which if you know anything about me, I don't have the patience for, or I start tapping my cane and potentially hit people with it. The main difference between a cane and a guide dog is that canes are obstacle detectors while guide dogs are obstacle avoiders. So in the crowd, if there was a clear path, the guide dog would simply just weave you through the people. Meanwhile, with a cane, you have to find that path. And that means hitting many, many ankles. I personally find the cane much more helpful for stationary obstacles like bricks, cones or steps, rather than moving obstacles. That's just me. I'm sure there's some blind people out there who can effortlessly get through crowds of the cane.

One final note I will make about social interactions is that if you're in a store or a restaurant, trying to read a menu, people are much more likely to read off things like prices or give you product descriptions than if you're traveling without one. So if you're sick of getting told it's over there, a cane might be a good option for you.

Finally, I wanted to give some cane training tips, especially for those who are learning to do it for the first time as an adult. It was funny while I was researching this episode because there are YouTube videos and even a wikiHow article about how to use a white cane. But in reality, there is no substitute for a certified O&M instructor. They are required to receive approximately 120 hours of cane training blindfolded before they can even teach. It's extremely beneficial to have those in-person lessons where you can get automatic feedback about how you're doing. For context, I did one cane training lesson over zoom during the coronavirus pandemic, because my state's commission wasn't offering in-person services and it was a total flop. I don't remember anything. I didn't click with that instructor. I never saw them again. My first tip is not only to find an O&M instructor, but find one who understands your residual vision. There are some teachers and some schools for the blind that really aren't going to want you to use any residual vision at all. They may want you to put on a blindfold for the duration of your training. If that's something you're interested in, great. But for a lot of people with albinism, it doesn't really make sense for us because our vision is stable and most of us have a good bit of. In that case, finding someone who can help you determine when it is most effective to use the cane and when it is most effective to use your vision is crucial. There are some skills like walking in a straight line or staying on a certain path that you might not really need to focus on because you have enough residual vision to see the sidewalk and what direction you're going in.

My next tip is to tap or drag your cane gently. My first instinct at least was to have this sort of death grip on it, which was really painful for my arms and wrists. Generally speaking, the lighter you touch something, the more information you're going to receive from it. That's why, when people are learning to read braille, they gently drag their finger over the page. The same applies for your cane. You're gonna get a lot more information about your surroundings and it's not going to get stuck, which will save your internal organs from a lot of distress.

Trust your cane and trust that with the proper skills, technique and practice, you'll be able to detect obstacles with it. It was very tempting for me when I first started to constantly look at the ground. I was always worried about missing something. It definitely takes some time, but I think what can be helpful is when you're first learning to use it, maybe putting yourself in those environments where it's more challenging for you to see. Doing a lesson at night or taking off your hat or sunglasses briefly can help you learn to trust the cane more than your kind of crappy eyes.

Don't be afraid to educate your family and friends about your cane. I know I went to a movie theater with a few of my friends back home and I whipped out the cane for the first time in front of them, they had never seen me use it before and they looked at me like I had three heads. If the people in your life aren't used to seeing you with it, then they're probably going to act a bit strange at first. Don't be afraid to educate your friends and family about what your cane is, how it works, and most importantly, that they don't need to avoid you like the plague. You can just let them know, “Hey, as long as you're not standing right in front of me where the cane is tapping, then you're totally fine. You can be next to me. You can be behind me.”

Finally, don't be afraid to take up space. Now I know it's important to practice good at cane etiquette by not whacking people or having an obnoxiously large arc. But you don't have to be timid with it either. I like to tap it a bit more loudly because I like to make my presence known, especially if I'm in a large crowd. I always felt this way about things like heels. I always liked the click clack sound because then people would know I'm coming. Am I a bit aggressive for some people, but the point is be proud of your cane. Don't be afraid to walk in public with it. And if you're worried about how people are going to react, fake it till you make it, trust me, it can really help.

Well, everyone. Thank you all so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I wanted to give a quick shout out to my O&M instructor, Lisa Payne. She was such a godsend during the pandemic. I was so worried about finding an instructor in the DC area because the Columbia lighthouse and my state's commission weren't offering in person services. Thankfully, as a freelancer, she was. If this episode inspired you to pick up a white cane and you live in the DMV area, send her a message. She also has an Instagram @mywhitecane that inspired the name for this episode because people will send her pictures of their cane in places like the woods or in front of the white house. And she'll make these posts called “white canes in the wild.”

Anyways, if you enjoy today's episode, make sure to subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, or pretty much any other podcasting platform out there. You can stay up to date by subscribing to my monthly newsletter on my website, You can also follow my social media pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram @legallyblondeblind. I ended up deciding to ditch the @legallybb_ underscore Instagram username. I just never liked it. But the problem was that @legallyblondeandblind was taken. I eventually settled on @legallyblondeblind because that's what ended up being the website domain. And it kind of makes sense seeing as you can't have the & symbol in a username, but definitely check out all of those new pages. There are plenty of resources available. Thank you all for listening. And I hope to see you soon!


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