When I was first confronted with the idea of using a long white mobility stick, I laughed. This white cane was an accessory for the blind beggars on street corners. I struggled to conceive how it would become a part of my life.
The first time I held one it was placed in my hand by my new friend, Barry. He kindly handed me one of his old canes to try out and gave me a quick five minute lesson on how to navigate with it. This was fine with me as I have always been a fast learner. I had the attitude of, “Let me just figure it out.” I would fall and stumble, bounce off some walls and furniture, get a few cuts, scrapes and bruises and eventually just find a way to manage.
There were indeed many falls and blood shed, some black eyes and even broken fingers after a car boot lid was slammed closed onto my hand. I did ultimately get my act together. I even managed to drag myself to the local society for the blind for just one very basic but fruitful mobility lesson with a friendly instructor, Nombusa.
I had no idea how a long white cane would become such an important tool for me. It is the first thing I reach for when stepping out of my front door.
It s a great tool and invaluable to a blind person. I have a collapsible one that is made out of carbon fiber. it has a roller ball on the front that is the shape of a marshmallow, a rubber grip that has one square side, the same kind you would find on a golf club. the cane comes up to the top of my shoulder. Speedy walkers prefer longer canes. There are many options available. Some are made of fiberglass, some out of aluminum and some even sport fancy electronic devices that beep when you get close to a wall and that sort of thing. The blind community has a varied set of rules about what is right.
So, how does it work? Let me try explain as best as I can.
The automatic response when walking with your eyes closed is to reach out in front of you and feel your way forward by waving your arms in front of you to ward off danger, kind of like a zombie. But with the stick in hand, it simply becomes an extension of your arm. It allows you to feel your path in a sweeping motion in front of you as you walk. This prevents stumbling over invisible obstacles. Well, most the time. It is not fool proof. Tree branches are my worst enemy as the cane does not calculate what is coming to get me from above. The cane gets held in front of you, more or less to your middle. You sweep the ground either by rolling the tip or tapping it from left to right. The left swing predicts where your left foot will land and vice versa.
Very important is to never ever take a persons cane in hand and point it at an obstacle. This is similar to grabbing a sighted persons arm and moving their fingers in the direction of a challenging obstacle. Remember, we can’t see the obstacle and if our cane control is taken from us, well, then we can’t feel it either. Rather use words to explain what is happening.
I have even heard about a guy who was briskly walking along his normal daily route. His path followed a sidewalk that he had walked alone hundreds of times. On this particular day, he was moving along at his normal speed, feeling every bump and crack. Stepping over the familiar potholes and cracked pavers. Then all of a sudden he was being rushed to hospital for a set of stitches across his forehead. All complements of a builder’s scaffold that had been positioned right aver the side walk in his path. Construction men were repairing a light and by the time they realized that this poor old chap was coming, he was on the floor out cold with blood drizzling out of his crown.
My personal opinion is to use the cane and walking style that feels right for you. For example, when I walk on a trail or long hike, I have a small loop strap. I hold one side and the person guiding me holds the other. This is a lot easier than keeping your arm up and gripping onto the elbow, which can be exhausting for both the guide and guided person. There are also different canes for different applications. Ones with giant roller balls for outdoor hiking trails, etc. I have yet to play with one of these.
The most important rule is to communicate properly. If uncertain, stop and take a minute to explain the obstacle clearly.
For me, noisy crowds and windy days are the enemy. We as the blind generally see with audio and touch. When these senses are impaired in any way, it creates a debilitating environment that is very difficult to navigate successfully without assistance.
I hope that explains more about how I use my white cane, mobility stick, light saber, ninja sword, self stick, fighting stick etc. You can call it whatever you like, just know that for me, it is like an extension of my arm. Move over Inspector Gadget.
Lastly, I have a couple of spare canes and would welcome any of my sighted friends to come and let me give you a taste of how easy and hard it is and can be. Just bring your own blindfold.