A white walking cane had been an extension of my hand for six years before I became a college student. In those six years I had experienced interesting and varied reactions. They ranged from a muttered “what the heck is she doing in a place like this by herself?” (I was in a mall) to a woman asking my husband if he thought I would mind if she offered her assistance in a public restroom along an interstate highway. My favorite reaction was the simple, curious “What’s that stick for?” I heard from children.
At the beginning, the Orientation & Mobility instructor (O&M) had assured me that a white walking cane would function like Moses’ rod parting the Red Sea, and so it had been. I was skeptical about expecting the same thing on a university campus but she assured me it would work there too.
It was a few weeks into the first semester when a classmate first mentioned the cane, “Is that an experiment?” he asked, as he watched me fold it and lay it on the front edge of the small table that served as my desk.
“No, it’s not an experiment,” I replied, “It’s a necessity. I’m legally blind.”
“Well, but you wear clear glasses and you can read,” he said hesitantly, “I thought only blind people used those things.”
“Yeah, I know. I did too. But that was before I used one,” I said. I went on to explain that the medical profession viewed me as legally blind because my visual field had been reduced to about 20 degrees off center and only functioned if there was adequate lighting. The cane was a necessity for independent mobility in all surroundings.
“Oh, okay,” he responded, “Thanks for telling me.”
Trust the young to forego the awkward embarrassment and ask the simple curious questions, I thought. I hoped that matter-of-factness would continue.
Although the curious questions continued, there was one reaction that neither the O&M instructor nor I had considered: the blindness caused by techno-gizmos. It seemed the non-technical cane was no match for the myriad techno-gizmos on a twenty-first century university campus. There I was not only assaulted by techno-gizmos but literally overrun by them at times.
This happened most often on sidewalks as I hurried to get to my next classroom. Oncoming students came at me in droves but entirely too often they did not see the white cane until it entered their down-turned visual field just ahead of the techno-gizmo that had their full attention. Sometimes they managed to avoid it, and sometimes they ended up tripping over it. Other times the cane missed them completely and I ran straight into a chest.
The worst, and most embarrassing, overrun happened because one guy didn’t see the cane before he tried to side-step. I was striding along a crowded sidewalk when suddenly the cane was wrenched out of my hands. I sensed a moving body and heard a muttered oath.
“Excuse me,” I said. “What’s going on?” as I continued to hear fumbling noises but not the “Oops, sorry!” I usually heard. Apparently this guy’s legs were scrambling to keep his body upright even as his brain was struggling to figure out what had happened. Because the cane had been disconnected from my hand, I stood still as he regained his grasp on reality.
He finally recovered enough to say “Ah, I’m sorry, are you okay?” as I stood there wondering where my cane was. I had not heard a clatter—indicating it was lying on the sidewalk—nor had I heard anything else telling me what might have happened to it.
“Yeah, I’m fine, but I am going to need my cane back before I can move on.”
“Oh, sorry,” he stammered as he stepped back and looked down. “I don’t . . . oh, yeah, it’s ah, right here, um, between my legs.”
I took it from him, said thanks, and walked on with a slight grin on my face. If the cane had ended up between his legs? . . . how fast had I been moving? He sounded tall enough to have escaped the bane of all males and my hand hadn’t actually touched him.
I wished I could see his face, the tone of voice and the stammer both sounded like complete embarrassment. I wondered whether it went deep enough to have him put away his techno-gizmo and concentrate on where he was going.
Maybe. For about three seconds.
After eight semesters of navigating on a university campus with thousands of other students, the majority of whom were blinded by techno-gizmos, I decided that the O&M instructor had been mistaken. The white cane did not separate oncoming students like Moses’ staff parted the Red Sea. Not on a university campus in the twenty-first century. It got overrun by techno-gizmos even as it tripped up the owners.