2017 marks the twenty year anniversary for Launceston Resident James Newton’s use of the white cane. We caught up with James for a short Q&A on how life has been for the past two decades.
- 1. What was the turning point to begin using the cane?
The catalyst for me contacting Guide Dogs Tasmania and committing to Orientation and Mobility instruction from them with a white cane was due to an increasing concern I began to develop with regard to not being able to immediately anticipate objects coming up in my physical environment. This included negotiating steps, poles, curbs, bollards, in addition to people and vehicles, all capable of causing an individual significant injury. The idea of pain is a pretty good litmus test for either avoiding situations that may cause it, or developing strategies to better manage it. I chose the latter as I couldn’t bear the idea of sitting at home and listening to soap operas all day.
- How has the white cane benefited you over the years?
Since the white cane is designed to reach past your next footstep, it initially helped me to identify objects and drop-offs I was finding it consistently hard to see in front of me when I still had some residual vision.
I started out with a white “identification” cane which alerted me as vision impaired to sighted members of the public. However, I quickly found its short length provided only limited information about my environment. Compared to the long cane, it was less effective for safe travel.
Where the long white cane has had its core use for me is its design as an “obstacle detector.”
That is, it helped and continues to help me detect objects and drop-offs in my path, thereby enabling me to negotiate my way around them safely.
It also assists me to find and count landmarks, for example, a bus stop pole or the number of driveways from a street corner to my home.
It’s therefore important for sighted people to realise that a person using a white cane might be walking toward a particular object on purpose. The object could be a landmark that tells the person, for example, when to turn left to find the bank or supermarket.
- What would you tell someone who was thinking of using a cane / or what advice could you give them?
If you are struggling in the above mentioned areas, then err on the side of caution. It is better to travel safely, than with uncertainty… and to minimise your risk of painful events or encounters. That is, walking into a steel pole is not a fun experience by any means, nor is missing a step or curb, these latter examples at times having a much greater risk than just some bruising.
It is also worth remembering that each state has a Road Traffic Act, legislation that requires all pedestrians to take due care when travelling in public, both when crossing roads and walking along footpaths.
We constantly hear people complaining about sighted pedestrians looking at their mobile phones instead of keeping their eyes on their immediate environment (what is termed “inattentive blindness”).
This responsibility, however, also applies to those of us with low to no vision.
Sighted pedestrians, and vehicle drivers, cannot be expected to be aware of the extent of our needs if they do not know we can’t see them well, or at all.
But if they see us using the universal mobility aid that is the white cane, it alerts them to the fact that they need to act in a way that is mindful not only of their own safety, but ours as well.