White Canes and Black Coffee: Reflections on Different Ways of Seeing the World

In this post, Xan Nowakowski discusses the importance of White Cane Day and accommodations for students and scholars with different levels of visual functioning.  

I walked into my office smiling last Thursday because change was in the air. It was White Cane Day, and this year our campus was decked out with materials to promote awareness and accommodation for blindness and visual impairment. I smiled because I’d never seen so much activity here for White Cane Day before, and it made me think about other positive changes I’ve been noticing lately to make the campus more accessible for people with limited sight. We’ve installed accessible pedestrian signals that chirp assertively when someone gets near a construction fence or crosswalk. We’ve increased the size and prominence of trigger plates for automated doors, and on some of the signs for classrooms and conference rooms that use Braille text. Hopefully these improvements are signs of good things to come.

Visual functioning has been on my mind a lot since I was very young. Despite having a lot of other challenges with physical health, I have always had strong eyesight. Even during times where my vision was affected by severely low potassium levels or side effects from medications, I was always able to see more than well enough to navigate different physical environments, drive a car, and read written text. But I grew up thinking about accommodations because of what I learned to do for others in my life, beginning at home.

My mother is one of over 85 percent of people with significant visual impairment who have few challenges with light perception. By contrast, only between 10 and 15 percent of people who score as “blind” on current clinical assessments have no light perception. I learned over time that when my mother said that she was “blind without glasses”, she didn’t mean that she couldn’t see at all. Rather, she could see a sort of “big picture” of the world with no details, either up close or at distance.

I watched my mom use adaptive techniques and technologies to complete every task she’d set for herself during the day to her exacting standards. Mom is a developmental neuroscientist by training, and spent about 30 years doing laboratory research and intensive neuroscience education before shifting her focus more prominently to teaching, course leadership, and curriculum development. When I was little, she’d fiddle with her top-quality Zeiss microscope to get a tiny section of mouse brain perfectly into focus. Then she’d trace cells onto white paper in red and blue pencil, marking the path of the ones she and my father were tracking as the brain continued to develop.

I always wondered how she achieved that level of precision in her work—how anyone would. And as my autoimmune disease slowly destroyed nerves and blood vessels in my hands, and my ability to use pens and pencils for more than quick tasks along with them, I was hit with the sharp realization that I couldn’t have done her job without the aid of a modern computer. Other things, I could have done more easily. My mother is notorious for making beautifully detailed and labeled slides for her students, which she builds by getting her screens adjusted just right so she can see the text clearly at close range. It’s a simple accommodation that a lot of people make, and that technology has made much more available to people throughout the world.

Mom’s attention to detail is razor-sharp even moments after she wakes from sleep—always has been. It’s what made her a technical wizard in the lab when she first got her start as a scientist. I’d watch her measure scoops of coffee for the percolator, each one perfectly level and symmetrical.   Sometimes she’d tease me for asking her about something visual early in the morning, before she had her trifocal glasses on. Her jokes helped me learn that what seems like a perfectly reasonable question to a person without visual impairment can seem totally absurd to someone whose vision functions differently. The fact that she could measure out coffee to the grain didn’t mean I could just expect her to process new visual information without the right glasses.

As I got older, I met many other people with varying degrees of visual impairment. From a colleague with Down syndrome, I learned that often what prevents people with this condition from living alone is not cognitive functioning challenges, but rather visual impairments that make getting a driver’s license impossible under current law. From a friend with glaucoma, I learned about smartphone apps that make it easy to read and write on a small device. From a friend with Duane syndrome, I learned about different types of special lenses that help to strengthen muscles that support the eye.

I kept learning from my mother, too—when the retina detached in her “bad eye”, when the macula puckered in her “good” one, when the cataracts started to grow from multiple surgeries. Then she had the larger cataract from her former “good” eye removed and we started playing a game called “Camera 1, Camera 2” where she’d close one eye and then the other to make the world appear in white or yellow tones. It felt okay to laugh in those moments. After all, this surgery was the first to improve Mom’s visual functioning, and she actually had to return to wearing an old pair of glasses with a weaker prescription.

Just from watching and listening to my mother over the years, I learned a lot about how people with different types of functional limitations complete tasks and solve problems. I also learned a tremendous amount about how to start constructive discussions surrounding ability and disability, and create inclusive environments for learning. Mom won several awards over the years for her work in medical education, and her office was constantly filled with students seeking help negotiating challenges in the classroom. She’d share some of these stories with me, never naming any names but making sure I understood the basics of each case.

Always the educator, my mother would ask me how I’d handle accommodations for that student if I were teaching the class. We’d talk about all of the different intersecting issues in providing reasonable and helpful accommodations: fairness to students with accommodations as well as other students, responsibilities of professors versus those of students, current laws and school policies about accommodations, social responses to people with disabilities, and much more. I didn’t know it at the time, but the education I received from my mom about disability and accommodation would become a very important resource for my own teaching activities later in life. Indeed, it would become a cornerstone of my approach to student engagement. In my next post, I’ll discuss some of the ways in which these early-life experiences have helped me create opportunities and remove barriers for students with blindness and visual impairment.


One thought on “White Canes and Black Coffee: Reflections on Different Ways of Seeing the World

  1. Pingback: Beyond White Canes: Translating Experiential Learning into Student Support | Write Where It Hurts

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