3 Things I'm Learning About Being a Cane User on Campus

I've been disabled my entire life, but it wasn't a word I used to describe myself until college. To be honest, I had a lot of internalized ableism until I really connected with the disability community on and off campus. In college, I finally made friends (both in real life and virtually) who were disabled, some in the same or very similar ways to my own experiences. And I made friends who were proud of disability as part of their identity, and who called out casual ableism when they saw it.

Still, I was hesitant to use a mobility aid "until the last possible moment." I thought of mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, canes and walkers, as a "last resort," something that I wouldn't use unless I absolutely had to. I'm not disabled enough to use a cane, I thought.

In the last year, I've been thinking more and more about using a cane. Now that I'm in graduate school and working, I spend a lot of my time commuting, which for me is a combination of walking, taking the train and standing around while waiting for red lights. I live in a crowded metropolitan hub, and my campus is literally right in the middle of Boston. More often than not, I'd find myself thinking, "This is hard. A cane would really help in this situation."

 

A photo posted by Alaina Leary (@alainaskeys) on

This year, I decided to talk to my doctor about going back to physical therapy, and started using a cane. I knew this would make my disability more visible to strangers, and that it might even cause questions from friends, professors or classmates. But I also knew it was something I needed to do, and more than that, something I should be proud of, not ashamed of. And it's now a visible part of my identity that I'm getting used to, similar to what it was like right after coming out as queer.

1. What does it mean to make things accessible?

I've thought about accessibility in-depth in the past, because even without a mobility aid, not everything has been accessible to me. And it's something that comes up frequently when I'm traveling with disabled friends, especially if someone's traveling in a wheelchair. 

Traveling with a cane makes me think about accessibility in new ways, though. Before the cane, I'd still almost always use the elevator to get to class, but not if there was a long line. I'd get stares and weird looks for taking the elevator to the third floor. Now that I have it, I always take the elevator, especially since my classes are on higher floors and the crowded, tiny staircase in one of the campus buildings is extremely inaccessible due to the fact that I need to use handrails.

I'm also a lot more likely to consciously think about how I enter buildings, where I sit and what I order. It's easy for me to find a seat, put my cane down and order a pumpkin spice latte, but if I'm getting that latte to go, I need to think about how I'll open the door while holding a drink and my cane. (The accessibility buttons that auto-open doors are lifesavers for this, but unfortunately the Starbucks next to campus doesn't have one.) 

2. Most people are more considerate than I expected

I'm used to casual (and sometimes blatant) ableism. I've witnessed friends who use wheelchairs being asked, "What happened to you?" and told, "You're so pretty for someone in a wheelchair!" I'm used to being pushed by people walking up the stairs because I need to hold the handrails, or being given dirty looks because it's hard for me to maintain balance while standing on a moving train. 

What I didn't expect was that most people are fairly considerate. Very few people have asked me what happened to make me use a cane, even though it would be a valid question in my particular case. I've explained to closer friends why I'm using one, although many of my friends and classmates had an idea that I'm disabled because I've gotten more comfortable writing publicly about it in the last year. So far, none of my professors have asked, and the only time I've considered bringing it up is to request a longer break during one of my classes. (Ten minutes is not enough time to wait for the elevator, leave the building, get a coffee, struggle with the door at Starbucks and come back. Can you tell caffeine is a requirement for grad school? Because it is.) 

More often, instead of asking invasive questions, people have complimented my cane, held doors open for me, stepped out of the way on a crowded sidewalk and given me their seats if I was standing. 

Related: 15 Things You Should Never Say to Someone in a Wheelchair

3. Being visible is a positive part of my identity

 

A photo posted by Alaina Leary (@alainaskeys) on

I've seen being queer as an unchangeable, non-negotiable part of who I am for more than ten years now. The same isn't true of disability. My disability wasn't a part of my identity; it was something I hid whenever possible. I'd refuse accommodations or try to find alternate ways to get around the fact that I needed something or couldn't do something, like use a high stool at a restaurant or ride a bike. 

By claiming disability as part of my identity, it's become a part of me that I can be proud of. I feel more comfortable calling out and discussing ableism and disability, full stop, because I'm embracing that part of myself. Being proud and visible is something disabled people can do whether they use mobility aids or not—it's just something I wasn't actively doing before. 

I recently bought a lavender cane and decorated it with glitter fabric, because I want my cane to be an extension of who I am. I want it to be a part of my identity that isn't "other" or shameful, but proud, unchangeable and non-negotiable. I want people to notice it because I want them see me as I really am, with no part of me hidden or ashamed. My cane does more than make walking and standing easier. It also makes me free.