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White cane syndrome is real – crutches are better for your social life

October 1, 2015

Over the last 5 weeks I’ve dumped my white cane in favour of a pair of crutches, after busting my leg. Weird thing seems to be happening, the social encounters and conversations I’m having with random people have changed, for the better.

Even though I cannot make eye contact, for some reason, people have come up to me for a chat and for once, nobody has mentioned that I’m blind. I think a lot of people don’t even notice, maybe they think I’m just a bit shy. The crutches and the leg in plaster create the talking point and from there conversations develop in a fun way, something that I haven’t experienced since starting to use a white cane.

I think white cane syndrome is real. They seem to severely limit and disrupt the way random social encounters work. As I love the whole thing about meeting new people and having a bit of playful chat, my experience of crutches is that while I’ve lost my ability to get around almost completely, I’ve gained an amazing insight into what my life would be like if I didn’t need to use a white cane.

So, when I finally give up the crutches which won’t be for a good few months, I’m not looking forward to using a white cane again. In fact I so want to dump any symbol of blindness as it messes up normal social interaction. Maybe it’s time for me to walk with a different kind of stick… A pair of crutches signals walking problems not seeing problems so they aren’t going to work, but if I can somehow invent a symbol that says “I can see but I can’t avoid you so please walk round me” that’d be exactly what’s needed.

or, if I can get an Ap for my phone which tells me the same information as my white cane does, that’d also do the job. But, before anyone thinks that’s a remotely realistic thing to design, you’ll need to fully understand how powerful a sensory device the simple stick is. It’s not the stick that’s powerful, it’s the way it physically extends the touch and haptic capabilities of the hand and fingers, and that links into the brain, and it’s the brain systems that “read” all this dynamic and instantaneous information. The brain is extremely powerful and, often, not well understood.

Most people seeing the road ahead visually, are converting all that information from 2D into a 3D model and then adjusting the way they move based on that. But, when you don’t have that 2D visual scene to use, it’s not just a matter of getting a device to describe that scene to a blind person. Anyone who tries to do that when guiding a blind person will know it’s mostly impossible to do quickly enough and accurately enough, so assuming a processor can do it better than a human is wrong track.

Also, a crucial part of moving through a space busy with people, is their reaction and response to the white cane itself. The takes-two-to-tango factor is a massive thing to take into account and means I am unlikely to be able to dump my white cane and just use a non-white stick. Perhaps this is why me and many others make an inner choice about using a white cane, trading off whether we want to be able to move around on our own or want to feel “social neutralness” by not showing a white cane.

Addressing these issues should be a priority for anyone working to promote the rights and free movement of blind people in our society.

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