Friday, October 14, 2011

National White Cane Day -- October 15

In honor of National White Cane Day, I'm offering just a bit of an education. People who are using a white cane are either blind of visually disabled. I've used a white cane for ten years now and I've learned a lot from it and often as not been a teacher for people who've never encountered one before.

So what is a white cane and what does it mean? A white cane helps visually impaired or blind people get around.

They use the white cane for two reasons. One, it's kind of like the "STUDENT DRIVER" sign you see on some automobiles. It tells you to beware and clear the road for someone who might perhaps not be as experienced as you are.

The second reason is to be able to navigate the world without having to be led by a person or a dog. Or worse, stumble around and bump into things. How does it work? The visually impaired or blind person holds the white cane in your hand and sweep or tap it in front of you. Essentially, that white cane is an extension of your index finger. You're using it to more or less "feel your way around."

First, if you encounter a person with a white cane, speak to them. Don't be shy. This helps particularly the blind know where people are.

Second, you don't need to yell. Generally, we hear pretty well. Sadly, that includes tacky remarks or jokes whispered to your friends.

Third, don't point or use gestures. Many times we cannot see them or interpret them properly. Use your words: forward (for straight ahead), left, and right work great for directions.

Fourth, don't expect the person with the cane to be "polite" and move it out of your path. They don't see you there. If you're not paying attention or expect the cane to be moved out of your way, don't get abusive. You're the one with the vision. Be glad you've got it and use it.

Fifth, allow people using white canes some space to navigate. They need to move the cane in front of them about two paces ahead and a bit more than the width of their body. If you see a person coming using a cane, keep your distance particularly with items that can foul up in the cane. Be particularly careful of pets and small children. We don't want to harm anyone.

Sixth, teach your children about white canes. Uneducated kids thinking they can jump over the cane or play limbo with it is dangerous for both the cane user and the kid.

Seventh, if you need to lead a blind or visually impaired person somewhere, offer your arm. Walk slowly. Be aware of obstacles off to the side, overhead, and steps and just verbally tell the person what they're getting into.

Blind and visually impaired people are not that much different than you. We want our independence, space and respect. The white cane helps us achieve that. I hope some of what I've said here while help my readers be more comfortable with people who use white canes.


  1. Great article, Becky! And folks, if you see a Seeing Eye Dog in harness or a Service Dog in his backpack, don't pet them. I know it is a natural impulse but these are working dogs with a job to do. At the very least speak to the person and ask permission!

  2. Right--you don't pet a seeing eye dog when they are working. That's part of their training. I'm told a seeing eye dog might make me more approachable, but a friend said, "Unless I knew the blind person, I'd just be interested in the dog." With my vertigo so bad and the streets around me so hilly and full of blind curves, I doubt independent walking is a really safe idea.