I touched down in Denver, made my way through the airport, and got an Uber to a restaurant a friend had recommended. I had made a reservation in advance, walked right in, and was seated at the bar. I enjoyed an entrée and a cocktail and caught up on podcasts while I ate my meal. Later, I paid my bill, then took another Uber to my hotel.
This all sounds pretty mundane. As a 35-year-old professional, I had gone on a million business trips before, but as a newly minted openly blind person, it was a huge first for me. Checking in with the hostess, ordering the dinner I selected in advance after perusing the menu online, and being just another patron amid the chatter and clinking of dishes in the hip, busy downtown spot made me feel powerful and present in a way that was entirely new — and frankly, the meal was quite delicious.
As I settled into my hotel room that night, I thought about the object that made this whole trip possible: my white cane. Wielding the cane in the airport, at the restaurant, and in the hotel made me feel powerful and in control, but I recalled a time when that was not the case. I remembered when pulling out the white cane filled me with shame. It was the symbol of my failure to be sighted.
I was born with a genetic, degenerative eye condition that meant the cells in my retina responsible for light perception were either severely damaged or nonfunctional. I was effectively “night blind,” but I had pretty good daytime vision, depth perception, and acuity. As a child and then a young adult, I could mostly “fake it” as a sighted person. With eyes that appeared to track the world around me and no white cane or guide dog to mark me as blind to sighted people, my disability was well hidden. And, surrounded by a sighted family, classmates, and teachers, that’s what I was encouraged to do.
I went through life without interacting much at all with other blind people, except for the mobility instructors that my mom arranged for me through our state’s blind services agency starting when I was in elementary school. They would pull me out of regular classes during the day to train me on how to use a white cane.
My pretty good daytime vision, however, made it hard for me to see the benefits of the cane, and I spent most of these sessions making sure none of my classmates saw me with this strange device. Whenever I practiced with the instructor, I felt awkward and somewhat like a fraud — I could still see well, and I feared people would think I was faking being blind.
Still, I did absorb much of what these mobility instructors, some of whom were blind themselves, taught me. I learned different cane strokes, swiping across the ground in front of me or using the “two-point touch” to tap at shoulder-width intervals. I learned how to navigate stairs and avoid bumping into obstacles in my path. I mastered street crossings, listening carefully for parallel traffic as the signal that it was safe to cross. By middle school, I had the cane skills pretty much down pat.
But even at that young age, I subconsciously understood ableism and loathed the idea that people who saw me with the cane would think I was weak, deserving of pity, or worse, an amazing inspiration simply because I was able to move at all. At school, I tried to avoid things like dropping a pencil on the ground. As I’d feel around for my fallen writing implement, I would hear the jeers of the boys in my class as they laughed and called me “blindy.”
At the time, I thought, how dare they lob this horrible slur at me? It makes sense now, considering neither they nor I had learned anything in school about disability. I never saw characters that experienced the world like I did in the literature we read or the history we learned. My blindness was invisible to everyone, and I participated in the game of sweeping it under the rug.
Those feelings persisted into my teenage years and young adulthood. In college, my cane remained tucked away, out of sight in my bag. The one time I tried to use it, walking down Broadway in New York City (where I went to school), some kid yelled out, “Why’s she using that, she’s not blind!” This instantly pulled me back into my shell of secrecy and shame, reacting to the dissonance created by my partial sight and use of the cane. It would be years before I tried displaying the outward trappings of my disability, instead opting for the more discreet, albeit less convenient, approach of holding onto other people’s arms for guidance when I couldn’t see.
I began to lose vision rapidly in my late 20s, and that loss defined how I navigated life. I set limits on where I would go, I turned down social invitations, I was afraid to venture out by myself at night. Still, my desire to obscure what was happening to me was paramount, even above my own physical safety. It took some serious brushes with calamity — including falling into the train tracks at Penn Station because I wasn’t using a cane and missed the edge of the platform — that led me to wake up and realize that if I didn’t change my attitude, I could seriously harm myself, or even lose my life. My denial of disability was starting to look more like a death wish.
I didn’t want my vision loss to be the end of me. I found a new mobility instructor as a free service through the state commission for the blind and learned to navigate New York City. For one hour every week, an extremely kind, patient woman walked beside me while I felt my way through subway stations and navigated intersections. Gradually, she started walking behind me, forcing me to feel more comfortable being seen alone with the cane. One day, she gave me an address to travel to on my own and said she would meet me there. That was the first time I walked the streets and rode the subway with my cane and felt completely fine about it; there was no twinge of shame or embarrassment. When I found my instructor at our designated meeting spot, I had a huge grin on my face. I learned, bit by bit, not to care who was looking at me or what they were saying.
Once I began to tune all of that out, I started to understand how this 54-inch length of graphite was changing my orientation to the world. I could go anywhere at any time. I wasn’t constrained by shame and fear. The cane, I came to accept, was my best tool to participate in the world on equal footing with my sighted peers.
According to the 2018 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 32.2 million adults in the US (or about 13 percent of the adult population) reported either having trouble seeing even with glasses or contact lenses, or being partially or completely blind. The way people deal with it varies: Some prefer to only walk with sighted assistance, some use white canes, others prefer guide dogs. Canes give you a lot of advanced information when walking; you can feel bumps in the sidewalk, curbs, and abandoned scooters that people dump in the middle of the sidewalk. The cane offers a wealth of information in each swipe, and for me this made it indispensable.
Up until that point, I had relied on a series of free canes given to me by various mobility instructors at various points in my life. When I moved to Washington, DC, and started hanging out with more blind people, I discovered the world of cane variety. There are marshmallow tips (a big ball at the end of your cane that literally looks like a giant marshmallow) and pencil tips and roller tips. People even get cool bling for their canes, like sparkly charms with rhinestones that you can hang from the hand strap.
Suddenly, I felt that my tattered, beat-up, free cane from the New York State Commission for the Blind was just not up to par.
So I invested in my first white cane. I chose a 59-inch graphite folding cane from Ambutech with a marshmallow tip, as recommended by another blind friend. It cost $34.32, and I was so excited when it arrived in its fresh plastic wrapping. This was the first time I had been able to pick out the cane I wanted. I selected the length and chose an accent color — a cheerful, bright-pink strip at the bottom to complement the white body of the cane.
By buying the cane with my own money and in consultation with other cane users, the experience of blindness was no longer a burden I bore alone; it was a cultural marker that bound me closer to a community I had begun to fall in love with. It was my first true investment into my identity as a blind person — an object that would unmistakably mark me as disabled — and I was proud and delighted. I felt incredible joy in joining the ranks of my blind friends, all of us forming a crowd of white canes and guide dogs.
I now have multiple canes for all occasions and needs, and I swap between them like outfits in my closet. Gone are the days of hiding my cane away, folded in the depths of my purse. When it’s in my hand, I feel seen. I am unabashedly present in a world that perpetually wants to erase me and my disabled community. Now, wherever I’m going, that cane is coming with me, and I’m up for whatever solo adventure comes my way.
Qudsiya Naqui is a lawyer, disability justice activist, and host of the podcast Down to the Struts about disability, design, and intersectionality.