There comes a time when it just makes sense to use a white cane when you are losing your vision. Most of us resist this rite of passage, fearing the stigmas, myths, and images associated with the “dreaded white cane.” In my case, something awful had to happen to wake me up to the reality that I was no longer a safe traveler. I had many falls and sprained ankles which I attributed to clumsiness. As my vision worsened, the falls became more frequent and I was forced to admit it was not just clumsiness. While at work, I took a series of falls which raised concerns with my employer. Then I fell at home and ended up having ankle reconstruction surgery. I knew it was time to consider using a cane.
I called various vision rehabilitation services to inquire how to get training. They pointed me to the state vocational rehabilitation agency where I applied for services, to include what is called Orientation and Mobility (O+M) training. Unfortunately, in my state there is a long waiting list and a shortage of funds to serve the disabled. After waiting a year with no word from the state agency, I tried to find private instructors to teach me O+M and was told there were none available and it would be cost prohibitive. So, I turned to the internet and found the Accelerated Orientation and Mobility (AOM) program offered by Leader Dogs for the Blind (LDB). This is a seven day, one-on-one, intensive course taught by certified O+M specialists at the training center in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The cost to the client: FREE.
I always thought I would eventually get a guide dog and when I researched this option I learned good O+M skills were a prerequisite to using a dog for mobility. However, the AOM program is for anyone who wants to learn to use a white cane, whether or not there is interest in using a guide dog in the future. With great anticipation and a bit of trepidation, I applied for the AOM program. LDB walked me through the process, made all the travel arrangements, and paid all the expenses. All I had to do was show up at the airport and be ready to learn. The flight to Michigan was easy with assistance from the airline escort service. When I arrived in Michigan, LDB staff was there to greet me.
My week at LDB was an incredible experience. The accommodations were very comfortable and visually impaired friendly. The staff was welcoming and professional. On the first morning, I was fitted with my new cane and the teaching began. It felt awkward in my hands, but I was eager to learn. The days’ lessons built on each other as my skills developed. There is so much more to Orientation and Mobility than I ever imagined. It is not just about thwacking a cane around. It involves cane techniques such as the grip, the swing, and two-point touch. There is shore-lining, stairs, and street crossings to master. I was struck with the difference the cane made immediately. I was able to walk with my head up and with a normal gait as I learned to use the information my cane gave me. No more staring at the ground and shuffling like a grandma! It felt wonderful to stand tall and take in the surrounding environment. I learned to plan a route, use environmental cues to orient myself, and get from point A to point B safely. It was so exhilarating to realize I could once again get myself to where I wanted to go. I will be forever grateful for the gift of this training from Leader Dogs for the Blind as it was the beginning of regaining my independence.
I like how the cane identifies me as visually impaired so I do not have to explain this. At first, I thought it would make me appear “disabled”, but on the contrary, I think I appear more “able”, traveling on my own with confidence. And so, I embraced my cane. Before long, instead of feeling awkward with it, I felt awkward without it. If your cane is stashed away in a closet, aging like fine wine, I encourage you to get it out and use it. If you have been putting off learning to use a white cane, consider the AOM program at LDB as a great place to start. Don’t wait until a serious injury happens. In the end, I learned the white cane is simply a useful mobility tool that helps keep me safe and independent.