If I were sighted, I think I would have been a fashion designer. I have always loved fashion, be it the various colours, textures, accessories or as a means of self-expression. Most of all, I have always loved how it makes me think, feel and respond.
Family legend has it that the only way I would agree to potty train as a toddler was if I could have a pair of frilly knickers in exchange. My childhood is littered with fashion landmarks such as the beautiful, intricately patterned brown cowgirl boots I received for my eighth birthday, the wide elastic black belt with the neutral coloured peplyn top I got for my twelfth, and the frayed stretch denim shorty short shorts when I was eighteen.
In adulthood, I expressed my fondness for fashion via those ridiculously high, strappy stilettos I bought when I was twenty-five. Everything from the stunning red, faux crocodile skin laptop bag I had in my thirties to the pearl earrings my husband gave me when I reached forty, all added to my style lexicon. And let us not forget such historic stand-outs as the bright green Stetson style hat, the royal blue shimmery cocktail dress, that pink sequence tube top, or my favourite, the purple suede boots with the fringes.
I can spend hours reading articles on the internet about one designer item after another. I love to trawl the second hand shops for that vintage hat, another scarf or a Gatsby inspired outfit that I’ll never wear. I love to lightly run my fingers over rows of shoes and have the shapes tell me their stories under my touch. I like to think about swing skirts, wrap dresses, Audrey coats, tall boots, tote bags, bright nail polish and costume jewellery, while I wonder about masked balls, painted faces, velvet capes and bell petticoats.
I love the smell and sound of a leather jacket, the poetry of a piece of lace, the sharp edges of a diamond, the weight of a woolen blanket and the swoosh of silk. I sometimes visualise how I would sketch pieces with a set of pencils on the page. Never mind that I cannot see to dissect a straight line or colour in a button. I can’t cut cheese straight let alone a sewing pattern. And I certainly can’t distinguish one detail from another. My running stitch is uneven, my embroidery is patchy, and I never mastered the gentleness of crochet or knitting.
My visual acuity is limited. The only way I know how to describe it is by suggesting it is something akin to looking at life through the heavily frosted glass of a bathroom window. My world is made up of bold shapes, big colours and faceless figures. The rest comes from filling in the gaps via my other senses, asking questions, a rich imagination and plenty of beautifully written books.
Five years ago, I bought a winter white, classic single-breasted, A-line coat, thinking it was the solution to all my worries. Surely something as gorgeous as this had to be the missing piece of my life’s puzzle, right? This was the coat that above all others would lead me to salvation with its yet to be discovered magical properties hidden beneath its seams.
The problem was, because my beautiful coat is a soft, winter white colour, my horrible, reflective white mobility cane severely clashed, making the coat, and by extension me, feel out of sorts and out of place. The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could give up the coat, or give up the cane. And Trust me, as tempting as the latter option always is, it’s just not practical.
I couldn’t keep fooling myself that my vision was good enough to manage without said ugly white mobility aid, despite my craftily choreographed theatrics to the contrary. However, after careful consideration and self-examination, I realised that it was not fair on the coat to leave it in the closet, nor was it fair on me to use a cane which does not encourage or enable me to feel, act or be at my best either.
My white mobility cane had never made me feel good. It made me feel horrible. Horrible about myself, horrible about others and horrible about walking down the street. It made me feel disabled, deeply ashamed and conspicuous, when all I really wanted to do was blend in, and be like everybody else with their easy anonymity and effortless stride in their gorgeous winter white coats, colourful scarves and glossy tresses.
Meanwhile, over the years, my white mobility cane became the outward symbol of everywhere I have been made to feel inadequate, less than, limited, discriminated against, left out, powerless, ignored, burdensome, problematic, disfigured, diseased, grotesque, inconvenient, ugly or unlovable.
I know I’m not alone in my struggle to accept a white mobility cane as a necessary, let alone valued part of my reality. When I recall some of the most honest and intimate discussions I’ve participated in over my lifetime with other people in similar positions, not one of them has claimed to be completely at ease with using a mobility aid all of the time. We had all struggled in some form or another to accept our respective disabilities and all that it means in the wider scheme of things, engaging with an often ignorant world where sight is highly prized yet rarely acknowledged.
Unfortunately, no amount of lamenting the secret burden of blindness with others changes the fact I cannot see well enough to live my life somewhat on my own terms without a white mobility cane. My cane is just as practical for me as an obstacle detection aid as it is practical for others to let them know of my disability. So although I may feel I don’t need it to get around, especially in familiar places, it helps remind others of my limitations, and politely requests they be a little more conscious and forgiving of my vulnerability. Therefore, if I want people to be accommodating, then it pays for me to use it, regardless of how I feel.
My Fashion Crisis
I stand in front of the mirror one morning, mid fashion crisis, with all manner of clothing strewn across the room, multiple shoes at my feet, and on the verge of a meltdown regarding what to wear. Nothing I put on makes me feel pretty, confident, dignified or any number of emotions I desperately attempt to evoke in order to get through my day.
Suddenly it strikes me. Why not match the cane to my coat, and turn it into an accessory rather than an ugly, unwanted tool for accessing the external environment? The idea rings like a beautifully balanced church bell through my consciousness, clearing away my sense of resignation and hopelessness. Because oh my God, it wasn’t my sense of fashion that was out. It had never been that. It had never been me. It had been the style of my mobility aid all along.
The truth was, yes, I could live without that brilliant pair of teal blue, peep toe heals I saw the previous day, if I absolutely had to. But I couldn’t live without my horrible, reflective white mobility cane, no matter how much I willed it, wished it or wanted it to be otherwise.
My mind began to tick over. This, yes this I could change. It dawned on me that I’d been approaching this from the wrong angle, and hadn’t even realised there might be an alternative at my disposal. I’d been trying to fit into the widely held character traits of my disability, while simultaneously rebelling against its mythology, rather than simply being myself, and having my mobility aids meet my needs, wants, goals and individuality.
The concept of having my cane match my outfit, my mood, or the occasion, was so deceptively simple. I wondered why I hadn’t considered it from this new, enlightened, empowered perspective before.
As a person living with a disability in a society that does not value diversity or inclusivity as much as it claims, or as much as it could, I’m groomed not to think for myself. I am groomed to be grateful for what I’m given. I am groomed not to ask for more. I am groomed not to advocate outside the square. I am groomed to accept that tradition is safe, and that others know better. I am groomed never to consider myself part of the solution, but as part of the problem. I am groomed to be on the fringes of things, never truly part of the equation. And I’m groomed to be punished for my difference.
However, it was clear that I absolutely couldn’t keep living with the insidious resentment and bitterness poisoning who I was and who I wanted to be. It wasn’t fair on my family, my friends, my colleagues or clothing. Especially my clothing, which is how the beautiful, winter white, classic single-breasted, A-line coat became my road to redemption.
My World Changed Forever
I have always preferred to look good, feel fantastic and be more than the sum of my sightlessness, which isn’t easy in a society seemingly intent on me experiencing the opposite. However it is exactly what happened the moment my husband added a classic leopard print design to my horrible, reflective white mobility cane. No longer did I feel disabled or disempowered by something that is so indicative to my dignity and independence. I felt more stylish, sophisticated, safe, and suitably fabulous, as is a girl’s birthright.
My self-confidence instantly increased, as did my self-respect. Suddenly it wasn’t so much of an internal battle to leave the house, because I wasn’t as embarrassed or ashamed about the starkness of my white mobility cane. Suddenly there was more room in my mind for other possibilities, because I wasn’t fretting over a detail that although may seem silly to others, was extremely significant to me. Suddenly I was more relaxed at the idea of trying something new, because I didn’t feel so awkward or obvious within myself. Suddenly I was walking taller, speaking more clearly, having more fun and interacting with others more freely.
People’s responses to me became noticeably and measurably more positive. No longer was I seen so much as the blind girl first, and whatever have you second, but rather as someone with a funky stick who happens to be blind, but obviously has it together, and has something to contribute to the larger context. I felt I had finally found a way to relate to people on their terms, thereby enabling them to relate to me on mine.
I’d discovered a bridge that, if I were strategic about it, might provide a glimpse into another world. It’s a world I had coveted for as long as I could remember. A world filled with places to belong, interesting people and new possibilities. A world where I might fit if given an opportunity to find out. A world where my difference was disguised by a pretty pattern, which happened to be the same as someone’s handbag, a neck-tie, a top, or in the colour hue of the season. A world where my disability wasn’t scary anymore, because I had dressed its nakedness in something nice. A world where I wouldn’t have to advocate so hard all the time.
The question was, had I placed too high an expectation on my latest smoke and mirrors stunt? Sure, my encounters with others shifted into something more collaborative and healthy, as opposed to the antiquated, outdated, stereotypical reactions and assumptions I’ve experienced previously. However, were they going to shift enough to make a meaningful difference in the world, or was I ahead of my time.
Perhaps if I’d been given a mobility aid in my favourite colour, or in a currency I could understand and relate to as a child, then I could have saved myself half a history of heartache. As it was, the only way I could bring myself to use my white mobility cane as an adult was when navigating international airports or transport hubs where I was sure nobody would know me, thus keeping the extent of my sightlessness at bay. Because what would happen if people truly knew what I couldn’t see? Would they like me?
It wasn’t until I hit the latter half of my thirties, when my resolve and resilience had run their ragged course, that I reluctantly agreed to use a mobility cane more frequently. But the only reason I agreed was because my mother found a black mobility cane on the internet, and thought it might suit me. I reasoned that if I had a black mobility cane, and couldn’t see it myself, then nor could anybody else. So maybe it would allow me to remain partially hidden in a world of shadows. Maybe I could just slip through life, and nobody would notice my broken eyes, my broken spirit or my broken dreams.
A black mobility cane allowed me to detect those obstacles in front of me I’d been running into lately. Lately being a loose term, I dared not measure or think about, preferring to skip over it all together in my mind’s eye and pretend everything was fine. A black mobility cane was my way of defiantly easing into the truth of my blindness, and although I still felt deeply ashamed and fearful about using a cane, its less obvious colouring made it slightly more palatable while I came to terms with my new reality. At least it matched my shoes, my dress or my favourite long winter coat. Surely, that had to count for something, right?
Being blind is like being a celebrity, but without the wardrobe to match. People like to take photos without my permission, touch my person, call my name without my knowing theirs, ask me invasive questions, make up stories about me, and judge how capable I am based on the colour of my hat. A bad hair day is never seen as just a bad hair day. It’s seen as a symptom of my disability rather than an intentional style, or a recognition that I haven’t slept yet, so yes, I look and feel like shit.
If I wear active gear because I’m planning a run before work, I’m made to wait longer to get through the train station turnstiles than if I’m wearing corporate clothing and clicky heels. It’s as though I’m an ant being curiously examined under a looking glass by an onlooker whose understanding of my world is based on theory and speculation, but still I’m expected to measure up to something far bigger and more impossible than I will ever be.
I try to be mindful. I try to choose my clothing carefully, using it as currency to pass through the gateway to the land of sight and equity, but I never know if I’ve gotten it quite right. Is my lipstick the right shade? Are my sunglasses the right brand? Do my shoes match, or did I walk out in one black and one beige again in identical styles?
What about my hem length, my hair colour, my handbag? So many questions and such limited knowledge on my part. How do I seek the validation I’m hoping for when I cannot see aspects of my outfit mirrored back like others? It’s always a risk, but if my cane matches one of my accessories, then in my mind, I’m happy. Not only am I doing disability on my terms, but I’ve also turned it into something other than an ableist approach.
Admittedly, in recent years, there have been various attempts at different coloured canes, but to my mind, these are still undignified and disabling. Florescent pink, green, blue, orange or yellow are not usually my thing, unless I’m on a trail run and looking to match my shirt, my shoe laces or my Running Rope.
In my everyday existence, I need something else. I want contrast, creativity, discretion, casual, formal, fun, funky, fabulous and everything in between. I want dots and spots, patterns, floral, and blocks of colour.
Most of all, I no longer find it acceptable to be dictated to regarding what I can and will be using. As far as I am concerned, my options are limited enough in this world in so many ways. Why should this to be one of those? The fact is, almost everything in my universe is a compromise to what it would otherwise be if I were sighted.
Times have changed, ideologies have changed, models of disability have changed, yet my options for a mobility aid have basically stayed the same for upwards of three quarters of a century. Sure, the white mobility canes themselves may be lighter and more flexible than they once were, but the fundamental reasoning behind their colours is still rooted back in the first half of the twentieth century.
In fact, in many parts of the world, the traditional colours of a white mobility cane are legislated, making it illegal in many situations to change it. While in others, their colouring is a highly recommended, unquestioned and enforced guideline. However, as valid as the traditional colouring of a reflective white mobility cane may be according to many, that is not my choice. I am in the here and now, and I require something to reflect the present – my present.
Twenty-One Canes and Counting
These days, I have twenty-one different cane designs, and counting. I have canes in various colours, patterns, lengths, weights and materials. I have alternative tips depending on the height of my heels, the terrain I will be using or the situation I find myself in. I have a different cane for trails than I would use on sand, road, indoor, or at night. Sometimes I even carry more than one, because the last thing I want is for my mobility aid to slow me down or stop me in my tracks. I would not wear tennis shoes to a black tie event, or soccer boots on a shopping expedition, so why should my approach to using a white mobility cane be any different?
The irony is that after all the drama, denial and disappointment, now that I’ve created a set of designer cane choices, I’m not nearly as bothered using a traditional white mobility cane as I once was. Sometimes I will even opt for it over another alternative. However, I won’t be giving up on my dots and spots, patterns, floral, and blocks of colour any time soon. Because like my collection of hats, scarves, coats, bags, shoes and clothes, my canes are now an important part of my arsenal of expressions, and a passport to acceptance in the world. After all, if I have to use a cane, I would rather be noticed because of the cane I am carrying, rather than because I am carrying a cane.