Today, 15th October, it is International White Cane Day. For some it’s another day in the diary which aims to raise awareness about how the white cane aids vision-impaired people all around the world – especially in Australia, as more than 200,000 Australians have vision loss related to eye disease, and every year a further 10,000 will lose part of their vision or go blind.
But for blind mother of two, Kim Batten, it means a lot more as her white cane is the tool that has given her freedom and independence back. It is also the prized possession that gave her the ability to only recently take her small children to the park for the very first time.
1. What was it like growing up with a vision impairment? How does it compare to what vision-impaired youngsters experience today? (i.e. awareness, assistance, technology, support)
Growing up visually impaired was a pretty unique experience – there were some great upsides, but there were also downsides.
I think the hardest part for me was the social aspect; there were a number of kids in my grade who were nasty to me at high school and would tease me, which was obviously tough especially at such a young age.
There were also some great upsides too; for my last two years of education I attended a special school for the blind, which allowed me to participate in sports teams which I wouldn’t have previously been able to do. As we used to play other schools for the blind in other states, we used to travel all over the country and inter-state to compete. I know that my brother and sister didn’t have these opportunities at their school so I felt lucky in some ways.
I think the huge advancements in technology over the years (and definitely since I went to school!) has certainly changed things for the visually impaired now. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have broken so many backpacks growing up! The books we were given were in braille and were absolutely huge – I must have gone through countless numbers of backpacks, which all broke due to the sheer weight and quantity I was carrying around on a daily basis!
2. Can you describe the hardest part about losing your vision?
One of the hardest things for me was the uncertainty about whether I was going to completely lose my vision or not. Over the years I went to countless doctors’ appointments, underwent all kinds of tests and saw many eye specialists, but no one could pin point exactly what was wrong and whether I was going to lose my sight or not.
Growing up with impaired vision meant that I could see some things – newspaper headings, trees, the outlines of people and so on. I had been told throughout my life that it was a distinct possibility that I could lose what sight I did have but having been ‘pre-warned’ didn’t make it any easier when it actually happened.
As I came to terms with losing my sight completely, I struggled with my self-confidence and my ability to move around independently. It actually took me four years before I gathered enough confidence to attend and complete an O&M training course. I haven’t looked back since then, but it was a huge set-back in confidence at the beginning.
3. How did a white cane change your life?
I used a White Cane when I lived in the US and still had some of my sight, so I was at least a little familiar with using a cane before I started the O&M training; that said, it’s a very different experience when you have no sight to rely on and you’re in a completely new environment too.
I used a White Cane when I lived in Chicago for university, and it gave me the freedom to go and do exactly as I pleased. Navigating Chicago is a feat in itself as it’s just so huge, but my cane gave me independence, allowing me to carry out everyday activities like doing the grocery shopping, or getting two buses to the university library. Even before I lost my vision, I still heavily relied on my cane to get around safely and confidently.
When I began my White Cane training here in Australia my confidence was at its lowest; attending the training and gradually becoming more comfortable with the cane was a huge factor in rebuilding my confidence. I now use my cane every day and it doesn’t stop me from doing anything I need to do, whether it’s picking up the kids from day care or taking them to the library – using my White Cane allows me to do these ‘every day’ activities which I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
4. You migrated to Australia and have two children, has your disability made you more determined to challenge yourself?
My disability hasn’t necessarily made me want to challenge myself more or challenge myself to do certain activities beyond the ordinary – at the end of the day my disability is just a part of who I am and I’m living my life as I want to, and I guess sometimes that in itself throws a few challenges my way!
I am determined however to set a good example for the blind, visually impaired and also my children. I think it’s important to show my children that sometimes you have to work hard in life and that a challenge isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
5. What is the hardest part of being a mum for you?
One of the hardest parts about being a mum for me is thinking about the future, so for example, not being able to see my daughter, Sophie, in her wedding dress should she get married one day; but I try not to think about these things too much and focus on the here and now. I have two beautiful children, Sophie and Liam, who I absolutely love spending time with; something as simple as taking them to the library is one of my favourite things.
6. How did you explain your vision impairment to your children?
My children are still very small so I haven’t really had to explain my vision impairment just yet; Liam has only just turned three and Sophie is four and a half. In the past I have always just told them that ‘Mummy’s eyes are broken’; Sophie is gradually becoming more and more inquisitive, like any four year old and just today she asked for the first time why my eyes are broken. I’ve been told that at the age of six to seven children begin to understand it more so I guess we’ll find a way to explain it to the kids as and when they begin to ask more as they get older.
Sophie already understands to a certain extent – she knows Mummy walks with a cane and she knows that if she wants to show me something, like for example that she is dressed, she needs to take my hand so I can feel it for myself. She is extremely intuitive.
7. Tell us more about your custom built pram?
Well it was pretty clear from the outset that pushing a double pram and using a cane just wasn’t going to be possible, so we began to think of ways in which I could transport the children around safely, whilst still being able to use my cane. We ended up buying a wagon (as they’re called in the US), which is a little cart that the children can sit in and I can pull behind me with one hand, whilst using my cane in the other. The pram is great – it has two seats, with a little roof and is exactly what I need! Guide Dogs helped me to customize and make it safer with reflective tape, which is important as I can’t tell when it gets light or dark.
8. Why is it important for you to feel independent?
For me personally, it’s hugely important to feel and be independent – it’s important to be my own person and to have a purpose; I want to be useful, not useless! There is more to me than being blind, and I want to live my life to the full extent, like anyone else. Being blind doesn’t define who I am, it just throws a few challenges my way!
9. How can the public help/respect white cane users?
The best thing that the public can do is just be mindful – especially when you see a white cane user crossing the road. I was once told by a friend that she saw someone in a car trying to waive me across the road – which I can laugh about now, but it does create confusion at the time! Everyone is different, but for me if you’re unsure, simply wind down the window and speak to me! I’d much rather that than having the uncertainty of not knowing whether I can cross or not!
About International White Cane Day: This Wednesday is International White Cane Day, an occasion to celebrate the freedom and independence the white cane provides vision-impaired people all around the world. Around 70% of Guide Dogs Victoria clients are white cane users (the most common mobility aid).