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Richelle's journey: Using a white cane in Indonesia

13 October 2017

Moving to a different country presents plenty of challenges, but for Richelle Street a move with her young family to Indonesia in 2015 bought with it one particularly large challenge.

Richelle is legally blind as a result of retinitis pigmentosa and uses a white cane to assist her to navigate her surroundings. While her cane had provided her with a sense of security when living in Australia, helping her identify hazards and indicating to others she is person who is blind, the same could not be said for Indonesia.

“My husband had a work opportunity in Jakarta so we moved over there with our children for nine months in July 2015,” Richelle said.

“The biggest concern was how I’d go with using my cane to walk down the street and find my way around and if the cane would be recognised like it is Western countries,” she said.

Richelle quickly found that wasn’t the case and things like walking down the street, a simple task in Australia, proved to be much more difficult.

“At home people slow down and take a bit more care as soon as they see the cane, in Indonesia that just doesn’t happen,” she said.

“Just all the little things you get used to when using a cane don’t happen. I had to rely on others more to make sure I could get around safely which took a bit of getting used to.”

While the white cane itself is not recognised as a symbol of blindness or low vision in Indonesia, Richelle also said cultural differences between Australia and Indonesia presented other challenges.

“I do have some vision left, so sometimes I wouldn’t use my cane. In Indonesia there’s no in between, you’re either blind or you’re not and that did cause some confusion.

“The other thing is that people with a disability are looked at differently. A lot of the wealthier Indonesians weren’t quite as willing to help me.”

Image shows an aerial view of Jakart at night
While it may not sound like Indonesia is not the most welcoming of locations for people who are blind or have low vision, Richelle said she never really considered not making the move.

“When I was younger it was tough to deal with some realisations about things I might not be able to do because of my vision, but then I started to take more pride in the things that I was able to achieve.

“You only get one life, I could feel sorry for myself and be down about everything but I’m not going to waste my time doing that, so when an opportunity like this came along it was something I wanted to do.”

It’s that streak of independence and confidence in Richelle that pushed her in the direction of using a white cane as support rather than a Seeing Eye Dog.

“I’ve always enjoyed being independent. Possibly in the future I’ll look at a Seeing Eye Dog, but I’m not at the point yet where I’m ready to hand over my independence like that.”

Richelle’s vision didn’t seriously deteriorate until her late teens, but early intervention at the behest of her parents meant she took up the white cane before it was completely necessary.

Richelle began learning cane skills at age 12, and while at sometimes she questioned that, it turned out to be a wise decision.

“When I first started learning I was probably 50/50 about why I was doing it. I had the sorts of thoughts young people have about why am I doing something if I don’t need it now?

“When my vision did really deteriorate I was definitely glad I’d already had that experience. It made so much easier to rely on the cane when I really needed it compared to if I’d just started learning then.”

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