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Tales From The Blindness Closet

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Julie Sanfacon is currently participating in an international development project in Mali, West Africa.

Some people say that I am mystifying. I sometimes do not use my white cane during the day but need to use it at night. From time to time, I also put on my inline stakes and go for a spin. My behaviour is quite mysterious for some people but clear to eye specialists.

I am legally blind but have useful remaining vision; however, darkness and glare have a strong impact on my remaining vision. I experience night blindness. Since late 2002, my vision has changed. I developed photophobia, an intolerance to strong light. This new eye condition causes new problems because strong sunlight and neon lights blind me and hurt my eyes. I have also lost a good deal of depth perception and trip more often on low obstacles.

It took me time to cope with my various limitations. In 2001, I asked my local rehabilitation centre for a white cane. I was ashamed, however, to use it. I was afraid that my neighbours would think I was acting strangely. I can imagine that it can be strange to see someone on inline skates during the afternoon and see that same person walking with a white cane at night. I put my cane away in a closet until I gathered enough nerve to use it.

My cane came out of its closet in late 2002, when I was living in Australia and developed photophobia. I dared to use it from time to time and enjoyed walking safely in the street. I avoided injuries caused by tripping, missing steps and bumping against obstacles. It was a great step forward. I now use my cane on a regular basis.

Since I have been using my white cane, though, many labels and assumptions started to materialize. I noticed that some people felt that activities such as camping or adventure travel were "unsuitable" for me. In February 2003, I took legal action against an Australian travel company and a tour guide because of discrimination based on disability that occurred on several occasions during an adventure tour I took part in as a solo traveller. My advocate received a letter from the tour guide in which he clearly stated that legally blind people are not to be booked on these tours. I won my case against this company, but the travel guide's discriminatory behaviour and remarks left many scars.

I also feel that I am accountable for the risks I take. Three years ago, when I did not use my white cane, I ran towards attractive things such as a cage full of colorful parrots and the ebb and flow of cool waves on a beach. People were happy to witness such enthusiasm. Now, if I suddenly run towards something attractive, I "dash off" and disappear out of sight, leaving my companions in a state of anguish. They perceive me as reckless rather than curious.

Many things changed since I came out of the blindness closet. But it is not I who has changed, but people's perceptions of who I am. Now, some people see my cane, not me. I strongly believe that taking my white cane out of its dusty closet was a step towards freedom. I need to rebuild my self-confidence, however, and above all, tackle the task of educating people around me about the use of the white cane. To achieve this, I need help.

The blindness community should work together for the betterment of everyone longing to get out of the blindness closet. It should raise public awareness to help blind and partially sighted people to use their white cane with a renewed sense of confidence and pride. The white cane should not be a source of misunderstanding, pity and discrimination. People should perceive the white cane as a symbol of independence, as a tool to walk with swiftness and grace.

Photo: Julie Sanfacon


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