Expanding my Toolset

This is a somewhat difficult post to write about what has become an understandingly, if not rationally difficult decision for me.

For those of you who don't know, I'm legally blind. I have been since birth. I kind of hate the term "legally blind" but saying I'm blind conjures up a ton of misconceptions, and saying I'm severely visually impaired makes people thing I just need glasses. So I guess, for now, it's about the best term I've got.

I do wear glasses and they correct for a very minor astigmatism, but they're primarily safety lenses, combined with a bifocal that provides straight-up magnification for reading. Glasses don't help much.

I have fairly severe Retinopathy of Prematurity. I'm completely blind in my left eye and my vision in my right eye has always hovered around 20/200 with a lot of damage to the periphery of my retina.

What all of this means is that I am very near-sighted, I have a very narrow visual field and I have no depth perception.

Recently, I did something I didn't think I would ever do - and in fact, it was something I promised myself a few years ago I wouldn't do; I purchased a red and white cane.

My reasons for doing so and feelings on the matter are very mixed and varied. I want to do my best to lay them out here.

Been there, Done that. Never again.

A few years ago, I went through a scary cataract ordeal. It's a simple problem to solve for most people, but in a nutshell, my case was a lot more complicated and a lot more risky. I put it off as long as I could because there was a very real chance my eye retina would just phone it in post-op and that would be the end of my eyesight.

For a couple of months prior to the surgery, I used a white cane. I'd use it when going out at night, or on days where the sun was too bright, because I just couldn't see to do basic things like walk around.

Once the cataract surgery went off with only three or four complications and I found myself not needing the cane anymore, I ceremoniously threw it in the trash can and vowed "Never Again."

It's hard to be that person that uses a cane.

It wasn't that I didn't like the cane. It was that I didn't like what it represented. At the time, the cane was a symbol of my failing eyesight. It was real and terrifying and depressing and that floppity red and white stick symbolized all of those things.

But that wasn't the only thing that made it hard.

A lot of folks have a lot of misconceptions about blindness. People tend to think of it as a binary thing. Either you're blind and can't see, or you're not blind and you can see. Walking around with a travel cane while you still obviously have some functional vision (e.g. using a cane to get around inside a store, but then picking up something off a shelf to read it) can lead to a lot of glares and whispers. You constantly feel like you're being judged.

The much different reality is that vision, like most things, is a spectrum, and being able to see something four inches in front of your face is a lot different than looking at something even a foot or two away.

I also had this silly notion, probably because of the earlier experience with the cataract, that using the cane meant admitting defeat - like I was letting my blindness "win" somehow. Of course, I know that's silly, but I couldn't shake it for the longest time. I've spent my whole life walking this weird balance of being defined by my vision, and also not letting it define me. Giving in and using a cane felt like I was tipping the scales too far in one direction.

I don't need this thing, except I kind of sometimes maybe do.

So what changed? My vision's no worse now than it was five years ago, so why did I go out and buy a cane now?

My eyesight hasn't changed, but the rest of me has. I'm 38 years old and, aside from those couple of months before the cataract surgery, I've spent my whole life not using a cane.

I've also spent my whole life looking down, bumping into things, twisting ankles, banging shins, and falling down. Honestly, falling down at 38 hurts a lot more than it did at 18 and those injuries heal a lot slower. It's also a lot more embarrassing (especially when people can't tell you fell because you couldn't see). Sure, 38 is still pretty young, but it's old enough to start feeling the effects and that's just going to be an ongoing thing as I get older. Both ankles have been severely sprained so many times because I couldn't see a step or a curb that I don't want to seriously injure them again.

All of these things have affected my confidence and I've found that I'm less likely to do things that put me at risk of getting injured.

Given that, I just couldn't stop thinking back to when I did have the cane. I hated it because of what it represented, but even with my failing eyesight, I was able to do things like wander around in the dark for 3 hours without getting injured (something that had literally never happened before) and walk down the street without constantly eyeing the pavement.

All in all, those things are kind of appealing.

So now you use a cane all the time?

No, far from it. I don't need or want to use a cane all the time, but the reality is, I can't see more than half of what's going on around me. I want to have it as a tool in my arsenal for the times I need it. For situations like these, for example:

  • Identification as someone who's visually impaired when traveling alone
  • For help getting around in unfamiliar places when traveling alone (or with others)
  • Getting around at night when I'm not with Rich, whose had 20 years to learn all of the subtle ways to guide me through dark places
  • Not killing myself when inside dimly lit stair wells (truly the stuff of nightmares)
  • Not killing myself on really well-lit stairs that have no visual markings along the lip of the step.
  • Those times when I find myself wondering "is that just a change in the texture of the pavement, or a 4in curb?"
  • That one curb in Cambridge that's distinctly not four inches.

In reality, I expect the cane will get used maybe half a dozen times in a year. But I'll have it if I need it and it will give me a little more confidence and assistance when getting around by myself in those occasional situations, and possibly prevent some personal injury and pain.

And it was really hard to get myself to a point where I'm OK with that, but now I think I am, and I think it's for the best.