The triggers for the arrival of my symbol cane. (8 minute read)

I just wanted to get this out there in some form to begin with.

I never thought of myself as a potential user of any type of cane at any point in my life until late 2016. Whilst I had a reasonable but vague idea of the types of cane out there I mostly still thought of long navigation canes in the way the rest of the population appears to i.e. canes are for navigation and for using by people with much less vision than myself. A couple of things changed this, if not overnight, then in just about six months.

Firstly, I had a collision with an inanimate object which put me in A&E for the day. They circumstances are worth describing, if only for the comedy, but also to illustrate that the issue with visual impairment is that it can bite when you least expect it.

I was heading to the post office near my workplace in October 2016 when I collided with a large metal sign embedded in the pavement with two eight foot or higher thick metal posts. When I say “large metal sign” I mean it was about five feet off the ground and at least double that going across. It signed people leaving my workplace to various other buildings and it had been there a number of years, as had I.

Let’s be very clear about this. I did not collide with it because I didn’t know it was there or hadn’t seen it. I collided with it because I wear a peaked cap to minimise direct light in my eyes and in the low Autumn sun it was momentarily insufficient protection. I dipped my head slightly lower than normal; inadvertently veered just slightly off direction so that “walking past the big sign” became “colliding with the big sign in a manner reminiscent of a cartoon character bouncing off a wall”. A colleague nearby was having a crafty fag. At the time I was somewhat surprised they didn’t enquire as to either what just happened or my actual health but in retrospect I can see that the lack of blood and the metallic “boing” noise might have been sufficiently surreal to persuade them they’d just imagined it. I could barely believe it had happened myself. Some of the impact was taken by the peak on my cap but not an awful lot. The noise actually triggered some mild tinnitus. I do already have mild tinnitus. My perception of it comes and goes. It very much came at that moment.

I somehow made it to the post office and back but, in the first indication of something being wrong, decided to use my phone camera to get a photograph of the sign I’d hit for comedy value. It took me two goes to find the sign! I have a vague recall someone asked if I needed help. I’ve no idea who or what I said in response but I think I clearly did.

The next indication of something being wrong came fairly quickly. I decided to take the lift up to my work floor rather than walk upstairs as I usually would, and got off one floor higher than intended. Suffice to say that my thinking at the time was that the lift buttons had floor numbers so if I was concussed in any way that would surely help. Do I need to add that every floor is labelled with a floor number at least fifty times bigger than the lift buttons? A bang on the head can do quite a lot of very quick damage to supposedly logical thinking. It’s a lesson I have carried forward.

It took me two hours at my desk alternating between silence and garbled crap to be able to finally tell the person behind me that I thought I had a problem. Remarkably, the following week I came across the work I’d done in that time and it, despite having no recall of it at all, it was perfect.

I was escorted downstairs via the same lift; insisted I was shaken but didn’t need to link arms and then promptly veered off and collided with those irritating sensor controlled glass doors which never quite slide open enough for you to get through without slowing down. Yes, I was clearly in control! Anyways, I think you get the picture by now. Taken home; advised by the non-emergency number to get to hospital and many hours of waiting later finally getting myself through a thorough set of neuro tests which confirmed that, yes, I did have a brain but it was in shock rather than concussed.

I am happy to go on record and say that if that was shock then I don’t want concussion thank you very much. In retrospect, “shock” really was exactly that and I can see now that I was quite shaky and shaken for quite a few weeks afterwards.

Relaying this story the next week to work colleagues one of them quietly suggested that what I needed was a symbol cane as it would give me at least some warning as to what was about to potentially happen next. I can’t honestly remember my exact reaction but I think I was fairly dismissive. Not because I disliked the concept of a cane but more that I couldn’t immediately see what it would offer me in terms of both collision protection or anything else. The attempt to further sell me the idea by telling me I could “bling” a cane in order to somehow personalise it was not a winning strategy. If you already feel vulnerable then why would personalising an object you initially treat as having the potential to make you more vulnerable be a good idea?

However, the thought stuck with me as did the suggestion from the same person that I should talk it through with an Occupational Therapist work colleague.

The OT conversation took place a few days later and planted me even more firmly against a “blinged” cane but got me into a discussion about types, cost and purposes which I didn’t see coming but which started to push a tiny seed more firmly into the ground. I didn’t admit it then but I could sort of begin to see me with one of the shorter symbol canes.

The second thing which happened to me was equally random. I happened to be getting an earlier bus than usual to go do something eyes related. I ended up accidentally sat in a priority seat next to someone with a lovely but lively guide dog. They were clearly travelling as far as me but no conversation took place initially as they were preoccupied fending off endless comments and conversations from well meaning but, I would guess, somewhat wearisome strangers about the dog.

I’m not a “talk to random strangers on a bus” kind of guy but I noticed that said stranger also had a symbol cane with them. Aha. As much of the bus exited in the city centre I plucked up the courage to start a conversation by commenting on the fact that so many people commented on and patted a working dog and how weird it was that so many people didn’t realise the dog was working. This drifted (well, rather specifically drifted) into a conversation about how people used the dog stuff to perhaps avoid the slightly more awkward conversation about eyes and then off we went into talking everything eyes. By journeys end I realised I was not only talking with someone with a dog and cane but also to a trainee Eye Clinic Liaison Officer (ECLO). As bouts of good fortune go this was right up there. Contact details were exchanged. You have to realise that being bad at eye contact and reading body language don’t naturally lend themselves to being a great networker so, for me, this was extraordinary behaviour.

Off I went buzzing with the much new information on the value of symbol canes and two specific nuggets of information which were to prove decisive in the weeks to come as I became much more engaged in the thought that I maybe needed to at least try one.

The two vital facts about symbol canes that I’ve yet to see fully or simply articulated elsewhere? They can slow you down, and… they act as a protection. Small words, but fascinatingly huge once you get to grips with their meaning.

I’ll write on some other occasion about the confusion caused by not only not “looking” visually impaired but also daring to race around at speed because, guess what, there’s nothing wrong with my legs. I’ll also write at some point about the joys of being unexpectedly on the wrong end of hate in connection with my vision but, for now, just accept that being made to slow down or at least exercise some caution because you’re carrying a long but puny white cane is, after you’ve shocked yourself by walking into a near unmissable large sign, a good thing.

It’s also fair to say that one of the barriers to being a cane user is persuading both yourself and your nearest and dearest that it will not make you even more of a target. Being able to assert to both those parties that other users with less vision and potentially more vulnerability than yourself are absolutely clear in their assertions that it’s nothing but a protection at least gives you one less way to talk yourself out of a trial purchase. It doesn’t go a long way to persuading others that it is a protection but it at least starts the dialogue.

So, on Sunday the 9th of March 2017, around six months after colliding with an object so large I can still look at it and not quite imagine how I walked straight into it, I quietly placed an online order for my first 34″ (85cm) symbol cane. I’d like to thank both the work colleagues who started me off on this path as well as that random stranger who inadvertently used the most powerful word you’ll ever hear in connection with a symbol cane – protection. You’ve probably no idea what you started.

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