A feature interview I covered for SUNY Purchase’s literary and arts magazine, The Submission Magazine, in April 2011.
A row of eye-catching canes hanging across the open closet are revealed as the brown apartment door opens. They’re vibrant oranges, blues, purples, and greens, each in different patterns and sizes. From behind the door peeks senior graphic design major, Nicole Wynn, with her hair pulled back and glasses half way down her nose. After shutting the door, she walks by the collection of canes and heads for the living room.
She jokes that she took over the “messy” room as she looks around at the patterned canes and walkers up against the walls. A wheelchair is between the two couches. It was once black, but is now covered in an abstract design of the sun, its rays bursting. In total, there are 40 fashionable medical aids, most of them being canes that Wynn has designed for her senior project, along with a self-published book about her collection titled, Raising Cane.
Since birth, Wynn has been living with Multiple Hereditary Exostoses (MHE), a rare genetic condition causing multiple bony lumps and tumors to grow on all of the long bones of her body, most of the bones being irregularly shaped. According to Wynn, one in 100,000 people suffer from the condition, which comes with lots of pain and fatigue.
“The main reason I walk with a cane is because I have no hip sockets,” Wynn says. Instead, she has tumors growing in there.
Wynn has had the wheelchair, the walkers, and some of the canes for over a decade. As for the rest of the canes, she bought them cheap off of the internet for her senior project.
The medical aids are mixed in with the typical college apartment scenery. The walls are littered in old discs of The Beatles, The Who, and Steve Martin. A Led Zeppelin poster hangs across from a Pink Floyd poster. A green and a red walker are folded up against a dark blue one, leaning on a couch of pillows with different sketches of animals on them.
As Wynn sits at the round living room table, she says that in order for her to use a cane to assist her with walking, it must look good.
“There is no way I’m going to use an ugly cane.” She peers above her glasses and nods her head.
Wynn started off using walkers and wheelchairs. At 10 years old, she began decorating her walker with Beanie Babies and key chains. She didn’t want anything to look plain; she wasn’t happy with plain. Once she began using a cane in high school, she decorated it by coloring on computer paper with markers, then gluing the papers to her cane. In her freshman year of college, her ideas began to expand once she had to think of an idea for her collage class.
“For our final project, my teacher told the class to do something ‘crazy and different’,” says Wynn. “I did a collage cane. It was a collage of the history of canes on my cane.”
She grabs a cane that is up against the wall. All around it are pictures of Willy Wonka, Gregory House, Charlie Chaplin, Cane and Able, Citizen Kane, and photos from The Caine Mutiny.
She smiles as she mentions that she got an A on the collage assignment.
“My work isn’t about being disabled, it’s about being an artist,” she says. She sighs before explaining how irritating it is when people feel sorry for her and see her as a “cripple.”
“If someone sees me with a normal cane, the general reaction is ‘Oh my god, you poor thing’,” Wynn says. “But when I use my decorated canes, people are like ‘Wow! That’s so pretty. How did you do that? I love the colors’.”
Wynn decorates medical aids to reflect the personalities of different people. She doesn’t want every disabled person to be seen as similar.
“Disabled people come in all ages,” she says. “Anyone can be affected by a disability. In the general decorated mobility aid market, the market is for elderly people.” She grips the table as she shifts in her seat. “Unfortunately, not all disabled people are elderly.”
Wynn has decorated canes with butterflies and sparkles, and some with rainbows for younger children. She has made one with cars for boys, along with “nice mature patterns” for people who want a simple design. One of her earliest cane designs is one made up of various song lyrics. She has even designed one that says “My grandchildren are better than yours” for the elderly.
She says that after her senior show, she’s either going to sell or donate the medical aids to various worthy charities, like children’s hospitals.
“Thanks to the internet, I know several people who have my condition and most of them walk with canes,” Wynn says. She looks up as she lists. “I’ve decorated for a 16-year-old, a 20- something-year-old, a 70-something-year-old.”
Wynn has met plenty of people who have disabilities. When her grandparents hurt themselves and need a cane, she’s always there, ready to design it.
“If my family or any of my friends need a pimped out cane, I’m there for them.” Wynn laughs and her eyes beneath her glasses widen.
She says that her project is all about changing people’s outlooks.
“Just because your situation sucks, you don’t have to sit around and mope,” she says, placing her hands on the table. “You can do something about it. Something good can come out of a really, really bad situation.”
She gets to her feet while holding onto the back of the wooden chair she was sitting in and grabs the collage cane to help her balance.
“If I can help other people with this project, any of the pain, unhappiness, and discomfort that I’ve been through is worth it,” she says. “That’s the way I see it.”