“There’s none so blind as those who can see.”
This is a quote which has been much on my mind recently. Over the last year or so, at least three people have tripped over my white cane. Please take note of that sentence: they have tripped over my cane. I’m not trying to absolve myself of any responsibility for these accidents. I’m very glad that nobody has ever been hurt as a result of them. I just wanted to express my opinion after reading the BBC news story at the following link:
The story is about a girl who has been asked not to use her white cane at school because of health and safety concerns for staff and other pupils. I have used a white cane for over 25 years and am quite upset at this decision.
There are two broad perspectives on disability. One, the “medical model”, says that a disabled person should be helped to integrate into society as best as possible, given his/her limitations. The other, “social model”, suggests that society has a responsibility to adapt for disabled people as they are no different, and should not be marginalised, as a result of their disabilities. The reason I feel this is a relevant point to make is because I have attended a school where I was encouraged to use my white cane and one where I was asked not to. At both of these schools, other pupils dropped bags in untidy piles and left chairs and other obstacles haphazardly around the corridors and classrooms. In what way were their health and safety responsibilities enforced? In neither school was it safe for me to walk around without some kind of assistance. What does it say for society that it is considered better for a child to be lead about rather than learning to be independent? How many people out there can really say that, as a teenager, it would have felt right, natural and life-affirming to ask to be taken to the toilet or to find food, or to be escorted in and out of classrooms by an adult?
What about a guide dog? A very good question. Firstly, there is a minimum age restriction on owning a guide dog because of the extra responsibility of managing an animal. Secondly, although a guide dog is trained to avoid obstacles, it does not have some kind of in-built satnav. You still have to learn and know where you’re going. I get asked if I wouldn’t rather have a guide dog than my white cane quite a lot. I’m sorry to be cynical but how many people ask that because they feel it would be a better option for me, and how many ask it because they admire the training that goes into a guide dog, marvel at its abilities and just want to pet one at that precise moment? How many people using wheelchairs, mobility scooters or walking frames get asked “have you thought about (X) mobility aid instead?” Just because a dog feels more socially acceptable than an iconic symbol of “differentness”, it doesn’t make it the right choice. I have been judged and bullied over the years, as a child and an adult, because of the target that my white cane makes me. Nevertheless, it is probably one of the most important things that I own.
Despite how it might appear, it’s actually quite frightening to walk in a public place with absolutely no sight. Neither a guide dog or a white cane can take that away. People whizz past in both directions, intent on their business. Buses and pneumatic drills block out the other sounds you might use to orientate yourself. Rubbish bins, A-frame signposts, tables, plant pots, protruding doorsteps, cars parked on pavements, overhanging tree branches and all manner of other things force you to make detours or stop to think about how to get around them. What’s more, blind people are usually taught a specific route from one place to another which is, usually, calculated to be the safest. If this is blocked for any reason – by road works, for example – the blind person literally can’t continue on his/her journey. I have had to turn back on numerous occasions and return, embarrassed and unsuccessful to my house. Even with all this to attend to, blind people are expected to be responsible for all the other pedestrians as well?
Again, I do feel that owning a potentially hazardous object – this goes for you drivers as well as us white cane users (says the guy who was nearly hit by a truck reversing across a zebra crossing the other day) – requires a degree of responsibility. On the other hand, I use a white cane to keep me safe. It wouldn’t hurt those who are too intent on mobile phones, rushing for a crossing, a terribly exciting conversation or a desperate need to get to the next shop to do something to keep themselves safe either. Sight is indeed, in some cases at least, wasted on the sighted.