Thoughts on My White Cane and What It Means to Me

Photo of David Ballmann

By David Ballmann

David Ballmann is the WCBVI Transition specialist. He works with students as they start their journey from high school to college or work. As we were planning activities for our celebration of Blind Americans Equality Day, he submitted the following for our blog. His experience with the cane is similar to that of most of us as we adjust to being blind or visually impaired in an adult world. Here is what he has to say:

October 15 is designated National White Cane Day and Blind Americans Equality Day by the President of the United States, and White Cane Safety Day by the Governor of Wisconsin.  It recognizes people who are blind or have low vision, and shows what the cane means and how it helps make them independent.  The observance of White Cane Safety Day was established in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, when he recognized its importance as a staff of independence for blind people.  The presidential proclamation said, “The white cane in our society has become one of the symbols of a blind person’s ability to come and go on his own.”  In 2011, White Cane Safety Day was named Blind Americans Equality Day by President Barack Obama.  I feel strongly that my white cane affords me a degree of independence and allows me to travel freely and navigate my world with respect and pride. 

I didn’t always feel this way. There was a time when I felt ashamed and embarrassed to be seen with my cane in public. I was born with congenital cataracts and developed glaucoma as a child.  I had a fair amount of functional vision, allowing me to see colors, recognize people (if I were close enough) and read very large print and, sometimes, regular print, if it was magnified enough.  I grew up in Milwaukee, and my parents and early educators felt that my vision was at a level where it would be best for me to learn the skills of blindness.  I went to a school where I had a teacher who was blind, too. She was a white cane user and a braille reader.  In first grade, I was taught braille, and probably in about the fifth, began to learn how to use a cane, but because I had enough vision to ride a bike at that time, and get around my neighborhood and familiar places, there wasn’t much emphasis put on using it. 

In high school, I began to have regular lessons from an orientation and mobility instructor, who taught me how to use the Milwaukee County Transit System, how to find addresses and how to cross streets without vision.  This eventually became useful, as when I was 27, I became totally blind from a retinal detachment.

That was a depressing and stressful time for me. I doubted my ability to live an independent life.  Growing up, I knew quite a few people who were totally blind, and they were pretty independent.  In the back of my mind, I think I knew that I had a lot of the necessary skills, but I lacked confidence.  I referred to my cane as a “stigma stick,” and I preferred to have somebody lead me sighted guide, as I felt that this would not bring so much attention to me and was much easier.  I remember a friend saying once, “You don’t need that stick, just let your friends know if you want to go somewhere and we’ll help you out.”  Well, the thought was good, but I soon realized that sometimes I might want to go somewhere without my friends. Besides, they weren’t always around when I wanted to go, and a couple of times, I was left stranded without my cane.  Once at Summerfest, a friend told me to “wait right here” and he’d “be right back.”  This turned into what seemed like an hour.  I was in the middle of a huge crowd and I had no way to navigate my way out of it.  This made me decide that I would always carry my cane, whether I had somebody to guide me or not. 

Things changed after I gained some confidence.  These included learning how to travel independently, crossing very busy streets, getting lost and learning how to problem solve. I found I enjoyed it, and got pretty darn good at it.  This took some time.  It involved a lot of nervous moments. I had to confront my fears and work outside my comfort zone.  But there was nothing like the feeling of independence, and successfully doing something because I just wanted to do it.  None of this would have been possible without the positive blind role models in my life, and without my family, friends and eventually me believing that I could be successful. 

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the World War I and II veterans who became blind, and the ingenuity of rehabilitation professionals, who perfected the technique and the white cane itself.  According to Wikipedia, the white cane can be attributed to James Biggs, a photographer in Bristol England, who went blind and used a black stick.  He was told to paint it white so motorists could see it better.  This reminds me of the time a motorist stopped and told me that I shouldn’t wear all black at night as he had difficulty seeing me, to which I said if you can’t see my almost six foot white stick then maybe you shouldn’t be driving, but that’s a different story. 

The transformation in my thoughts about my white cane, from the initial feeling of embarrassment in its presence and that it brought unwanted attention to me, to the understanding that it provides me with the independence to do what I want, to go where I want and to live a successful life, has helped make me the person I am today.  I have traveled independently to many different states and several countries.  I go to concerts and sporting events, often with other blind people.  I go to beaches, climbed mountains and walk out on piers, only once falling off into the Chesapeake Bay. I have crossed many busy streets, and navigated train stations, airports and bus terminals.  Without my long white cane and the skills of independence, I could not live the meaningful life that I do today.  I want to thank the instructors and mentors I have had and all of those veterans who taught us the importance of the long white cane.  I appreciate the orientation and mobility instructors and the many blind mentors who are teaching our blind children how to navigate life successfully and independently.

Let us remember and thank all of them as we celebrate Blind Americans Equality Day, and White Cane Safety Day this October 15th.