|Right now my cane is folded and |
in my purse more than it is
straight and in front of me.
I went to the door and let the WC Lady in. “I’m very, very anxious,” I said. Not missing a beat and ignoring any hesitation that I had, she said “Let me show you how to open it.” Out of the plastic, she held on to the top part of the cane and said “hold it close and upright so you don’t hit anybody with it.” She let it go and poof it was 44 inches long. Just like one of those those self-erecting tent poles. “Now, you try,” she said. It took a couple of times, but I managed. She showed me how to hold it - like you would a golf club with the index finger on the outside pointed downward. I did ask her if I should be wearing sunglasses and she said no, they only do that on TV.
For the next hour and a half or so, I was too absorbed to be anxious. The cane becomes your vision from the waist down, the WC Lady explained. It’s not a crutch or a substitute, but rather an extension of your senses.
She showed me how to store the cane in the car when it is extended. We drove (she drove, not me) to the supermarket, and I learned how to get out of the car with the cane. In the store, I walked up and down the aisles, looking straight ahead, not down at my feet. It makes perfect sense. I’ve been bumping into things for some time; I realize now that it was because I was looking down and not in front of me.
I started seeing with my ears too. I learned that the aisles with canned goods are quieter than the ones with boxes of sugar and cake mix. I learned to listen for the sound of a cart coming towards me and going away from me. Somehow, carrying the cane helped sharpen all my senses.
I had a problem getting used to the rhythm of walking with the cane. It takes some practice. With the left foot out, you move the cane out to the right side to protect the right side of the body with the next step. Right foot forward, move the cane left. Left foot forward, move the cane right. Tap, tap, tap. All I could think of is line dancing and I don’t do that well, or the cha-cha-cha and I don’t do that well either. I did practice coming to the end of an aisle and “bumping” the cane into the dairy section. I started to get the hang of it, but it will take practice.
When we left the market, it was time to cross the street and get back to the car. At the crosswalk, we stopped and listened. To a truck, an idling car, a moving car, no cars. If I’m not crossing the street, I learned not to look at the street. Because of the cane, drivers, will or should be anticipating my next move. If I’m not crossing, I don’t want to act like I am. Phew, this was hard work. I couldn’t imagine how young Helen Keller did this with both no vision and no hearing.
When I got home, I realized that I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself any longer, that I had paid the utmost attention to my lesson and that I had learned quite a bit. It’s true: this wasn’t just about waving a white cane, it was very much about listening and becoming aware of the environment.
The WC Lady came back a few days later. This time we went to the light rail station. I learned how to go up and down steps and cross the train tracks. Using the cane I found holes near the tracks that could have tripped me. At the ticket machine I went to put in money for the full fare and the WC Lady stopped me. I was now qualified for the disabled fare, she advised.
Hmmm… I immediately wondered if there was a disability fare on the commuter train between Baltimore and Washington DC. (And there is, by the way. From now on, my roundtrip ticket to DC is 6 bucks and not 12!)
The light rail came and I used the cane to find and navigate the steps. We sat down and other passengers started to talk with us. How odd. I had a white cane and I was laughing. We rode to the airport, and along the way, my teacher was pointing out different things to me – I became aware of the number of stops we traveled. She noticed the inconsistency of the person announcing the stops. She asked if I could identify and use the STOP request button, which is really a tape. Talk about feeling like you are all thumbs!
When we arrived at the airport station, she watched me get off the train. Sweep the cane more to your left, she said. Cover the space in front of you to approximate the width of at least your shoulders. Don’t be so robotic, she said. I noticed the change in texture where the sidewalk met the door jamb, and then felt the waxed slickness of the airport floor.
There was no one in the international section of the airport so we chose to practice on the escalator there. Up and down the escalator we went. I held the bottom of the cane against the second step up in front of me. When I no longer felt a step, I knew I was at the top of the landing. Wait until you feel the little bump, and then step off.
Coming down the escalator, I reversed the procedure. When the tip of the cane hits the bottom of the escalator, wait for the bump and step off. I went up and down many times. And people were getting very confused watching me go up and down. My guide walked away once and I was all alone going up and down, up and down the escalator with my eyes looking straight ahead. Even I was ready to laugh!
We walked over to a more crowded section of the airport and I deliberately stood with the cane, smack dab in the middle of travelers. One person with a ton of luggage walked directly towards me all the while looking up at an arrival/departure board. I had to duck and dodge to avoid a major collision. We walked around some more and a few people politely moved out of my path. We went to my problem area, the pesky escalators with the inconsistently placed yellow stripes, and we/I practiced more. Feeling quite good about my excursion, we went back to the light rail station and came home. It was obvious to the others on the train that I was “in training” and it was all ok.
The next morning, my husband and I went out for a walk and I took my cane to practice. Cane to the left, right foot forward; cane to the right, left foot forward. Again, and again. When you sweep to the left, the distance between the cane and the left foot is greater than the distance between the cane and the right foot. The left foot is going to go where the cane just swept. The whole idea is to check out the space where you are about to walk. Got it?
All right, so my training wasn’t so bad. I felt very safe and secure with the WC Lady. I even felt empowered. My husband even commented that I seemed to be paying more attention to my surroundings, which was true; normally I’m lost in thought. Can’t do that any more.
WC Lady and I plan one more visit. We are going to go on the commuter train to DC, take the DC metro and walk to work. In the meantime, I am on my own.
I began to carry the cane with me everywhere I went -- to work, when traveling, and doing errands. But I carried it folded up, in my purse. I was just too afraid to take it out and use it. A crazy fear, but a big one. Afraid of being looked at, of being vulnerable, of being pitied… you know, the Scarlet “A” thing.
I took it to DC one day and bravely opened it before I got off the train. I figured I’d try it out walking the platform in Union Station and on Metro. I was very self-conscious. I didn’t notice any difference. At the airport, most people had been very polite and considerate. Here, they ignored me, bumped into me, and on the metro, not one person even thought to offer me a seat. It’s very hard carry a brief case, a white cane and hold on to a pole to maintain balance. I was not a happy camper! At least I tried.
I went to New York and went out to dinner with my work colleagues. When we left the restaurant, it was pitch black and I was in totally unfamiliar territory with a couple of blocks to walk. If ever there was a time to use the cane, this was it, but I just couldn’t. I still couldn’t use the cane in front of people that I knew. That old Scarlet “A” again. I said out loud that I wasn’t comfortable walking. My colleagues became uncomfortable. One asked if I wanted his arm. “No.” “Carol, are you ok?” “Yes,” I said. It was a long walk back to my friend’s apartment. What was this stubbornness all about?
The next day I went to the train station with my friends. Their train left before mine. It was 5:30 pm on a Friday afternoon and the place was mobbed. Waiting for a train at Penn Station in New York is something like a rugby scrum. Everyone clusters around the big board that lists the departure gate numbers. They don’t announce the gate until just a few minutes before departure, at which time a huge mob rushes to the gate. This time the white cane helped, but not in the way you might expect.
I took out the cane, opened it, held it close to me but made it very visible, and approached the information desk. “I can’t read the board. Can you tell me what gate the 6:00 pm Acela will leave from?” The clerk did a double take; they’re never supposed to give out the gate number before it’s announced, but seeing the white cane, he said quietly, “Go stand by Gate 9.” So I walked over to the Gate 9, sweeping the space in front of me.
And that was just the beginning of the good things the white cane did. Once I was at Gate 9, people took notice, and several asked if they could help. Someone carried my luggage down the escalator for me, and that allowed me to focus on the steps. I swept (left… right… left…) my way to the train, got on and took a seat. I left the cane open and visible and had it leaning on the seat beside me. My seat-mate was very friendly, and we chatted off and on. About an hour in to the trip, she asked if I wanted something to drink. Yes, that would be lovely and I tried to give her some money. No she said and returned with a diet coke. We had a delightful talk – I extolled the virtues of Apple for all of its accessibility options, only to learn that she worked for Microsoft!
Back safely in Baltimore, I got off the train, still using the cane, and swept my way over to hop in the car and go home with my husband.
A couple days later, I was in the airport awaiting a flight to a conference in Las Vegas. I was using the cane. I was standing in the Southwest boarding line when I heard a familiar voice and discovered an old friend standing right behind me. He already knew about my eyes and had always been sympathetic, but as soon as I realized he was there, I folded up the cane and put it away.
In Vegas, it would have been great to walk up to a Roulette or Blackjack table with the cane, but I didn’t. I only used the cane once – when I went to see the Lion King by myself. I needed to ask the usher to help me find my seat. And I did take and use a portable illuminated magnifier to read the PlayBill.
Finally, the other night I was in DC with some folks who had read the earlier entries to the blog. Several were interested, and asked questions. I had the cane with me but it was folded up, though it was visible sticking out of my purse. I’m not sure why, but even though I’ve been thoroughly “outed” (by myself, mostly), it is still difficult to actually use the cane in the presence of people I know. Sometime I take it out and show people how it’s used, but then I fold it up and put it away again. The urge not to be different is a powerful instinct. This new existence will take some time to get used to.