Guest Post: Hanging Up the Cane

Lis is a 22-year-old university student from Western Canada. She studies psychology, and is currently working at a school for at-risk inner-city youth. In her free time, she writes fanfiction and participates in the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The first time I held my cane, I cried.

It wasn’t a feeling I expected, to be honest. I’d been fired the week before from a job I enjoyed, for telling my employer I was in too much pain to stand for the entire shift, but things were coming out on my side. I had all my friends and family supporting me, and I’d found enough self-esteem to file a complaint with the provincial Human Rights Commission, alleging discrimination on the basis of disability. It was time, in my mind, to give up beating around the bush.

I’d been raised by parents who lovingly ignored my seemingly minor birth defects, who didn’t want to stigmatize me any further than a Gifted girl in public school could be. They felt that letting me wear normal shoes was the least they could do. When a nagging ache formed in my right knee and hip in my teens, I tried to ignore it and the fact that it wasn’t going away. I was twenty before I went to a podiatrist, who didn’t have to do more than examine my hips and spine when I told him I was in pain before snorting in disbelief and saying, “Yeah, no wonder.”

My right leg is five and a half centimetres shorter than my left, with the discrepancy fairly evenly distributed between my femur and tibia. It’s the kind of thing only the tailors who hem my pants notice, when they call my house anxiously asking me to come in for a second fitting in case they made a mistake.

But I was sick of living in pain, and after I’d been fired for requesting a stool it didn’t feel worth denying my pain anymore to look abled, so I went out to the Mobility Aids aisle of the local London Drugs. A fellow fanfic writer who used a cane had told me what to look for: adjustable, orthopedic, and unrepentant. The one I picked off the rack was a vivid aqua.

Then I cried holding it in my hands, because I couldn’t pretend anymore that I wasn’t disabled.

After that was over, I went down to Stationery for a pack of Sandylion stickers, made my purchase, and sat outside that drugstore wiping the tears from my face and plastering the cane with pink and purple butterflies.

How do I say what that cane meant to me? None of the abled people I’ve met understand it with anything but pity. I’ve always had low self-esteem and what my psychologist later diagnosed as social anxiety, a terror of asking that my needs be met, of attracting unwanted public attention. Now I had a public declaration of my needs, and it was bright blue. The cane did some of my talking for me, so I became able to stutter a request for a seat on the bus, or ask not to walk long distances. I was attracting the sidelong glances and whispers I’d always feared, but all they made me do now was grip my cane a little harder and stare back at them. I knew I was in the right. They knew it, too, because they always glanced away.

How can I explain that after years of living in pain to be what was expected of me, that cane taught me to say I want and I need and I deserve? That it was never something I was bound by; that it gave me the ability to walk further, stand longer, move quicker than I would before? That I missed it when it wasn’t in my hand?

Society marginalizes disabled bodies and takes away their sexual agency, but being visibly disabled helped me find mine. I’d always felt anxious about my body, about being attractive, about being good enough: I always chided myself for not reaching some nebulous ideal. The great lie I had been able to believe when I was abled was that perfection was achievable: that if I only said and did the right things, I’d escape criticism from myself and others. It was in facing criticism and dismissal that I learned I’d been playing a mug’s game. The point wasn’t to make other people happy; my body didn’t and couldn’t exist to meet their standards. The only standard I could meet was mine. I used to be mousy, deliberately homely, as if my unfitted jeans and baggy shirts said, I quit, don’t criticize me for not being sexy. I wasn’t trying anyway. I was able to use the invisbility cloak of disability to begin to experiment with femininity, with ornamentation, without needing to be perfect. I could wear a low-cut shirt, I reasoned, because I’d have my cane. Nobody would look at me anyway.

(Oh, but it surprised me, the first time somebody looked anyway.)

Being disabled meant, for the first time, having the ability to talk about my body and my frustrations with it without judging it as bad. It meant that I, with all my flaws visible and invisible, was still worthy. That I still possessed dignity. That I was still human, no matter whose standards I failed to meet.

I don’t know how to explain any of this. I don’t know how to respond when I walk into work now, freely and unassisted, and have a coworker say, “Hey, you aren’t using your cane! That’s fantastic!”

The orthotic lift I started using a year ago finally stopped hurting, enough that a slight increase in height at the end of September took away the pain in my knee within two weeks, which got rid of my need for the cane. My ambient pain has at least halved. I’m not relying on prescription painkillers to get through my day. I can climb stairs. I’m beginning to hope I can even fence again. After so long living with pain I didn’t think would ever go away, I almost don’t know how I feel. I guess I’m happy. I’m cured, right? I’m enjoying my body again. I definitely don’t miss the pale, persistent ache in the shoulder of my caning arm that no height adjustment could completely banish. I ran to my car last week, just because I can do that now.

My cane still hasn’t moved from its habitual place, on the floor of my car between the seat and the door. I don’t take it out to use it anymore, haven’t touched it for the last two weeks, but I can’t bring myself to hang it up. Sure, part of me’s waiting for the honeymoon to end and the pain to come back at any moment, but that’s not it. That cane has been a friend to me. It’s been part of my voice, my statement about who I am, and a lack of apology about being flawed in public. It’s helped me move, let me go places, allowed me to function. It has been a source of succor to me in my hour of need, and I find it as hard to cast aside now as it was to pick up in the first place.

What I really want to say to the well-meaning people who wish me health and happiness is, it isn’t about the cane. It wasn’t about receiving pity from people in public for being disabled. It wasn’t about the looks or the whispers. I was in pain that disabled me from truly living for years before I picked that thing up. It was never about the cane.

It was about me.

16 thoughts on “Guest Post: Hanging Up the Cane

  1. Thanks for writing this, it’s beautiful! I totally understand where you’re coming from. Although I don’t habitually use a walking cane (must be a better term), though I could certainly have done with one up until quite recently, the weakness in my left arm and the fact I have to use a white cane in my right hand have made it virtually impossible, I’ve used a white cane for getting around outside my home since I became blind, at first I resented it but I soon became grateful for the freedom it gave me. It gave me back independence of movement which I thought I’d lost forever. Like a lot of people who become disabled I don’t think I could fathom how I, or anyone else, could manage, without sight, I hadn’t appreciated how useful a white cane was, just saw it as a symbol of blindness and I feared the stigmatisation that came with it. But it has allowed me a freedom I hadn’t thought possible, the ability to get about on my own round a busy city and though I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed by it and get a bit annoyed by the people who see it and assume it automatically means I need help (honestly I’ve lost count of the people who’ve grabbed my arm and tried to ‘helpfully’ steer me off in a totally different direction even though I know where I’m going and definitely don’t want to be helped over a road I had no intention of crossing!) at the end of the day it helps me be aware of my surroundings and navigate the world which really outweighs any embarrassment! It was really brought home to me recently when I had surgery that left me on crutches for a protracted amount of time meaning I could no longer use my white cane while I was out which made me much more nervous about walking in the streets and meant I had to have someone with me most of the time. I eventually got used to using the crutches to assess the ground in front of me but it was tricky because I was meant to be using them to support me! Anyway, I wasn’t prepared for just how happy I would be to be able to swap my crutches for my white cane, I was so happy to have it back that it really surprised me! I’d actually missed it and everything it symbolised

  2. Thank you for writing this, Lis. It pretty much sums up how I felt when I started using a cane (or stick as we call it in the UK) 15 years ago. I used one and then two sticks for about 5 years until surgery gave me a temporary ‘fix’ 10 years ago. Now I’m starting to wrestle with it all over again because my condition’s begun to deteriorate.

    I had a little twitch though when I saw you’d used the term ‘birth defect(s)’. Obviously you used it self-referentially, and I’m not trying to police the way anyone thinks about their own body, but I’ve always felt that term was offensive and ableist and I stopped using it to refer to myself several years ago. Maybe it’s because in my current job ‘defective’ is a word most often used about consumer goods – if you buy defective goods you have a legal right to return them and receive a refund. Whenever someone talks about me having ‘(birth) defects’ I feel like they’re thinking about me as something less than human.

    I am not ‘defective’, thank you very much. I am just me, the way I am. /rant

    Maybe ‘birth defects’ is a candidtate for a future ableist word profile?

  3. Thanks for writing this. i cried when i got my first cane, a thriftstore wooden number with a jaunty handle. i cried because immediately upon beginning to use it people around me changed. It was THAT powerful! KA-POW!!!!! It freaked me out how quickly people changed. im still, over a decade and several adaptations later, not used to it. My crutches elicit so much shit from people. (as an aside, i get so pissed at folks who suggest theyd “rather have a disability that (sighted) people could see, because itd be so much easier!”. Bollocks. But thats another rant for another day)

    Immediately upon getting that first cane, i felt ashamed, alarmed, pissed at myself for not taking care of it sooner (having been dealing with this newly cracked the fuck up body since 1986). i felt stupid, and now every(sighted)one could see it. It was like every thing, every hateful hurtful thing i ever felt about my body, every pain and ache, every vulnerability, was suddenly available for any(sighted)one to see. i felt cut open. It didnt feel liberatory. It felt like a cage that others were peering into.
    i dont know when that started to change, but it did. And holy shit am i grateful for it. im still exposed every day, and still have mixed up feelings about it because i have to get the fuck on with things in spite of peoples bs yknow, but its different than it was for sure. These crutches are freedom for me, whether or not anyone else understands that.

  4. Being disabled meant, for the first time, having the ability to talk about my body and my frustrations with it without judging it as bad. It meant that I, with all my flaws visible and invisible, was still worthy. That I still possessed dignity. That I was still human, no matter whose standards I failed to meet.

    Yes, this, oh my goodness, it is so true I want to cry, permission to quote in future?

    This is a profoundly powerful post—thanks so much for writing it.

  5. Thank you so much, everybody. The community here is really great. And yes, quote away, and thank you. (I just got back from a session of fencing, where I couldn’t spar, but I could teach, and it felt pretty fantastic.)

    Dogged, I completely understand your twitch about “birth defect”. I did think twice about it before choosing to leave it in. It really does go to the far end of the reclamatory spectrum, to redefine “defective” as “okay, thanks” and it’s not a word choice I’d use in a less disability-aware setting. For me, it is the most accurate way to describe my condition, especially as viewed by my family and doctors, and not using it because of its connotations sends me into some tongue-twisters of explanation, because there are eight separate physical issues that need to be explained. It also seems more apt to me because I have one typical hand and foot, and one ‘defective’ hand and foot, so my feelings about them have sometimes been very complicated and antagonistic.

    So I agree, it’s a problematic word. It’s just one that I need to use, partly because it is problematic, and it’s one that I need to watch my usage of. Thank you for pointing it out.

  6. I enjoyed reading your post! I feel like it was really sincere.

    I also have a length discrepancy (sorry if this term offends–I don’t know what else to call it) in my legs (1 1/4″). “Reclaiming” mobility aids can be an emotional process, I guess — I recently started wearing my leg brace again and I look at it much more positively than I used to. I’ll be honest, I used to hate my brace and I really resented having to wear it even though I had to b/c it helped me walk “better.” When I was a kid, I didn’t want to be, as I saw it, “different” (read: disabled); my brace was a symbol (for me) of being “different” and not able-bodied, which I couldn’t handle at the time. It was also a symbol of constraint and all the things I felt I couldn’t do.

    However, now, like you with your cane, I feel like I’m regarding my brace with some fondness and I guess I’m wearing it because of that feeling. It’s not so important that I use it for physical reasons at this point in my life.

    So, this explanation is a bit long-winded, but yes, I can really relate to a lot of what you said about your changing feelings on having a disability.

  7. When I had to pick up my first cane, I was…upset. I picked out the pattern and color that appealed to me the most, and it still upset me.

    When it had to be upgraded from a hard-handled collapseable cane to a soft-handled offset cane, I was again upset, this time because I couldn’t tell myself that I’d only use the cane sometimes and collapse it the rest of the time. It didn’t matter that I’d only collapsed the former cane a few times in the months that I’d had it, it still felt more…permanent.

    And then my attractive offset cane was lost, and I ended up with a rather ugly one because it was all the shop had and I was travelling. I appreciated that my mother bought the replacement cane, but I hated it. I called it ‘Stinkbug’.

    I ended up getting a new copy of my first offset cane some 6 months later, and was much happier because…well, I might have to use a cane, but at least this one was pretty!

    And then I ended up needing both canes to get around. Ugh. Suddenly I lost my hands, and any ability to camoflauge my disability by hiding the cane against my leg. Sure, it stopped the random falls, but my poor self-image! For some reason, doubling the canes suddenly opened me to a world of people asking about and commenting on my disability in a way they never had before – a very unpleasant experience, especially for someone who was trying to wrap her head around being more disabled but still being just as valuable a person.

    Then it was crutches. I actually loved my crutches from the moment I got them. I had my HANDS BACK!! I used c-crutches or forearm crutches, so I could drop the handle of the crutch to open a door for myself and it would hang on my arm. They were bright blue and cheerful, not that anyone ever seemed to really notice the color of my crutches. They were also a better support for my body, to the point where the security guard for my building at school noticed that I was walking better.

    Finally, the dog. Now, I love my service dog far more than any other mobility aid I’ve ever had. He’s a better support and a dear fluffy goofy love. In some ways, he’s a struggle – he doesn’t like walking on anything metal, he’s afraid of things that move, and he’s curious as all hell, but he’s worth it because he’s company when I am at my sickest and most pained. I garner far more stares and comments than I did with my canes or my crutches, and heaven knows people unintentionally interfere with him a lot more. I have more confidence in how I appear, because I know I’m stepping out with a handsome gentleman, but I also find myself living with far more attention directed at my disability than I ever wanted.

    Then there are the other aids – the MANY braces I’ve fallen into the habit of not wearing because of the staring and my tendancy to faint in the heat, the backpack on wheels because I cannot lift my school bag, so on.

    …which I guess is a long-winded way of saying that mobility aids can be a huge journey. I am lucky in that I met someone when I was walking with one cane who thought I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, and 2 years (and many mobility aids) later, he still feels that way. It has helped me to look beyond my mobility aids, because he always does.

    ~Kali
    http://www.brilliantmindbrokenbody.wordpress.com

  8. I meant to mention this before: I go to college, and I’ve noticed young guys there staring at me since I began wearing my brace again. It’s a little creepy, and I felt quite uncomfortable in each instance. Four different guys have stared at me, and I don’t think it’s in a “I’m attracted to you” sort of way, unfortunately; I think it’s more out of curiosity, which is bad.

    I guess I’ll give the most dramatic example (yet; ew): I was coming out of my dorm room one time and there was this young man (whom I’d never seen before, btw) hanging something on a bulletin board nearby. We said hi to each other, but as I kept walking, I got the sense that he might have been still looking at me. I turned around, and sure enough, he was staring at me and he made no move to look away or down or whatever (he stayed in the same place — he didn’t follow me). I was kind of creeped out by that.

    It goes to figure that as soon as I become comfortable with my personal mobility aid, and in turn, my impairment, the able-bodied world has to make their disapproval manifest in some way; that’s part of my opinion, I guess, about this whole staring thing that’s been happening to me.

  9. Este, I’ve always chosen to interpret stares as curiosity rather than disapproval. (Not that it makes the staring any less rude.) I suppose it comes from my science/engineering background. I tend to look at things and wonder how they work and if they could be improved (talking about the orthotic devices here, not the person using them).

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