SYMBOLic decisions

23 January 2017

Natalie Doig, our Bedfordshire Volunteer Campaign Coordinator, has shared her experiences of using a symbol cane and her journey in becoming a cane user.

I was born with my eye condition and I don't remember anyone ever suggesting that I should use a cane as I grew up. In fact as a teenager I would have been mortified to use a cane. At that age I didn't want anyone to know that I was partially sighted. By the time I was working as a teacher, I would explain to the secondary school students I taught, that I was partially sighted. Their usual refrain was “Why don’t you have a guide dog miss? It’d be great if you had a dog!” None of them ever asked me why I didn’t have a “white stick.” It never crossed my mind that I needed either a dog nor a cane.
Even when I changed jobs and became a disability rights campaigner (15 years ago) I still didn’t consider using a cane. This is in spite of the fact that I was often questioned for using my disabled rail card and bus pass. Being young (I was in my 20s) many transport staff just wouldn’t believe I had a visual impairment. Their usual comment was “You don’t look blind.” I was often approached, by young men in particular, who would suggest that I needed an eye test when they saw me peering closely at my phone or a book. Coffee shop staff would sigh and groan when I asked them to tell me what was on the menu because I couldn’t read the one displayed on the wall behind them. I struggled making my way through busy crowds of people. One day at Tower Hill tube station I was pushed down a small flight of stairs by an angry business woman who swore at me and yelled “Get a move on, are you blind or something.” I shouted after her that “Yes, I’m visually impaired.” But she was long gone.
Becoming a cane user
Yet, I still didn’t consider using a cane as a way of notifying others that I have sight loss. It wasn’t until I was approaching 40 and I had been working with other campaigners at RNIB that I decided to rethink my attitude. It’s funny because a lot of the problems I’d encountered when I was younger seemed to happen less often by then. Fewer people gave me unsolicited ophthalmic advice. Probably because I now read in public using a kindle with large print so I’m not holding books close to my face any more. Various transport and way-finding apps mean I am less likely to need help form staff and members of the public now a days. It’s the same with coffee shop apps, I can even buy my drink with an app before setting foot in the shop!
But even though there have been all of these technological developments, I decided to give the symbol cane a go. A colleague, who is a strong determined campaigner, explained to me that she felt reassured having it in her handbag. If something unexpected happened, like her train was delayed or she had to walk an unfamiliar route, she could whip out her cane and she found that people got out of her way, or offered her help. The campaigners I worked with often talked about how they used their canes when we were working with bus drivers, so that the drivers understood what the different canes meant. I thought well if these campaigners can do it, I should give it a go myself.
I was ever so nervous the first time I used one. I set out to Kings Cross station brandishing it in front of me like a talisman. My colleague was right; people did move out of my way. My sight is good enough that I could notice that many people close by smiled at me. I find now that if I do ask for assistance and I have my cane in hand, staff immediately understand why I’m asking. I don’t have to explain any more about being partially sighted. I’ve seen the odd chancer dash in front of me in a queue grinning, thinking I can't see their rude behaviour. But on the whole people are so much more understanding when they see my cane. I’m even offered seats on the underground, which if it’s busy I gladly take as my balance is appalling!  
The time was right for me to start using a symbol cane but everyone is different and some people may never feel comfortable using one. I know that many people in the wider public don’t understand the difference between the different canes and may wonder why I’m not “tapping” with it. But most people seem to understand that a white cane means sight loss however the cane is being used. I wouldn’t say it’s changed my life completely but it has made travelling in particular a lot less stressful.