Taking that step, using a white cane

In a previous blog post titled 'When two pairs of glasses are no longer enough' I mentioned that my vision had continued to deteriorate. As a result of this, I am now registered as partially sighted and it was recommended that I received training on how to use a long cane. Now, before this diagnosis I had limited knowledge on the world visual impairment and using a white cane. 

I was under the impression that there was one type of white cane, it was used by people who had very little or no vision and that it was a simple mobility aid to use. Oh how I was wrong! Safe to say I have learnt a great deal since being registered as partially sighted earlier this year.

A white cane is actually very unique to every person, despite coming in all different sizes and materials, this is only the beginning! To start with there are four types of canes:
  • Support cane, the best way to describe this cane is to call it a white walking stick. Very much like a symbol cane, it will alert others that they have a visual impairment. The support cane would be used by someone who needs a walking stick as well, but can manage without having a cane to navigate obstacles in their path. A support cane is the only type of cane that you can put weight on to help you walk.
  • Symbol cane, this is fairly short in the grand scheme of things and does not touch the floor. It will be white and will be held in front of the individual to alert others that they have a visual impairment. It would not help with navigating obstacles.
  • Guide cane, this cane is longer than a symbol cane and will touch the floor when held by the individual- but only just. This type of cane is held diagonally across the body to make other people aware but it also can run along the floor to stop the person walking into things. However, this cane would not be used to run along the floor from left to right.
  • Long cane, this is the longest of all canes, and is probably what you think of when someone says they will be using a white cane. It is used to run along the floor from left to right, and will let the individual know if there is anything in the way. It will also help the person navigate kerbs, steps and uneven ground. The long cane is almost up to the person's shoulder when stood upwards, but this can differ according to preference. 
The type of white cane that I have nearly finished training for is called a long cane. However, the differences do not stop there! The end of the long cane is called the tip (the end of the cane that would be running along the floor as you walk) and there are so many different tips to choose from. Mainly, a marshmallow tip is used and I can't actually think of a better way to describe it apart from the fact that it looks like a rounded marshmallow. However, other tips can be different size balls or even a point if the cane is used to tap from left to right (rather than rolled). The type of tip used on a long cane is down to preference and the kind of surfaces you would be going over. Smaller tips are more likely to get stuck in cracks on the path, so it's trial and error to find out which one works for you. After trying out a few different tips I found that quite a large ball would work the best, even if this did make my cane heavier!
In the beginning of the post I said that I was under the impression that a white cane would be used by someone 'who had very little or no vision' yet this also is not entirely true. I would still say that I have a lot of vision left and would not refer to myself as being blind or nearly blind. Yet using a long cane was highly recommended. Due to my peripheral vision being affected it can make it hard to know exactly where kerbs and steps are, as well as uneven ground being hard to navigate. I can and have managed without a long cane, probably using my stick too much to check for these obstacles. However, it does mean that things can be a lot harder, like constantly looking down and looking around to try and avoid things in my path- especially if I am somewhere busy! By having to check things constantly it can make me a little anxious and almost not trust myself. Falls are avoided at all costs, so the last thing I want to do is trip up over a wonky paving stone or a kerb that was higher than it appeared. Similarly, in lower light my vision can be even worse and at night it can be near impossible to get down some stairs, as I have found out on more than one occasion.

Yes, I am not blind, I have low vision and people with low vision can also benefit from using a long cane some of the time. But how do I feel about that?

A long cane will give me more independence, it will allow me to navigate obstacles, it will allow me to be more confident that there is not a gigantic kerb right in front of me, it will make me safer, it allows others to know that I have a visual impairment. So why am I apprehensive and slightly reluctant? There appears to be so many benefits. I don't really know how to answer that question myself, yet you could say it will be a learning curve. It will be getting used to the idea that my eyesight has deteriorated and getting used to the fact that I need a little more help with that. Despite our best efforts, there will always be one question that comes to mind: but what will other people think? I know I shouldn't care. I wear two zebra print splints, use a walking stick (a new yellow one!) and my walking isn't exactly 'normal' but I honestly couldn't care less what people think about that. However, I hasn't always been like that. Using a white cane is still a new change, something I am not used to, hopefully with time this too will become my version of normal.

Yesterday I had my first training session outside with the long cane. I was under the impression that it was fairly straightforward to use, how hard could it be? Well it is a lot harder than it looks! You hold the cane differently depending on whether you are walking on the path or just about to cross the road. The cane is used in different ways whether you are going up or down some stairs and it is heavier than you would expect. When you cross a road you know you have reached the kerb when the cane drops, you then would have the cane at the edge of the road, holding it diagonally across your body until it was safe to cross. With stairs you know the depth of the step depending on how far down the cane drops- I guess this will come with practice. To begin with it felt odd holding the cane, after having 3 years of normally holding a stick it is a fairly big change. Yet I found myself not looking down as often and knew when the pavement changed, I knew when there was a kerb.  I did find it tricky to change hand positions all the time and making sure I was rolling the cane far enough to my left, hopefully after my next (and last training session) I will get the hang of it!

Towards the end of the session the rehabilitation officer took the white cane off me and we continued to walk, it was only then that I realised what a difference the cane had made. I instantly started looking down again and found it harder to cross the road. I was in an area that I knew extremely well, so imagine the difference in an area that I didn't know as well? My cane has now been ordered and my final training session will be in the next few weeks.

I'm taking that step, using a white cane, and hopefully one day I will be okay with that.

~ Chloe x

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