All About the White Cane

For centuries, a traveling tool has existed giving people who are blind or visually impaired the ability to get around safely and independently anywhere they choose to go: the white cane. This piece of equipment also serves as an indication to others that the user is blind or visually impaired.

White Cane Safety Day is nationally celebrated every year on October 15. The work of many people throughout history made the white cane into the tool and signal it is today. We will delve into this history, as well as types of canes, where you can learn to use one, and how to get a free white cane.

History of the White Cane:

A man walking with a white cane circa 1964.
Photo courtesy of Iowa Department for the Blind.

Throughout the ages, the cane, staff, and stick have existed as traveling aids for people who are blind or visually impaired. Dating back to biblical times, records show that a shepherd’s staff was used as a tool for solitary travel. Here are some 20th century key dates on the white cane as we know it today.

  • 1930: The “white cane” was introduced by George Bonham, president of the Peoria Lions Club (Illinois). One day, he watched a man who was blind attempting to cross a street. The man’s cane was black and motorists couldn’t see it, so Bonham proposed painting the cane white with a red stripe to make it more noticeable.
  • 1937: Michigan began promoting the white cane as a visible symbol for people who are blind. A bill was written and proposed in the Michigan state legislature, giving the carrier of the white cane protection while traveling on the streets of Michigan. It was signed into law in 1937.
  • 1944: The standard technique for using a white cane was pioneered by Richard E. Hoover, a rehabilitation specialist working with World War II veterans. His technique of holding a long cane in the center of the body and swinging it back and forth before each step to detect obstacles is still called the “Hoover method.”
  • 1964: A joint resolution approved by Congress authorized the President of the United States to proclaim October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day.

Today, the white cane is recognized as a means for empowering and identifying people who are blind or visually impaired around the world.

Types of White Canes:

Today’s white canes take various forms with slightly different functions.

  • The standard mobility cane is long, white and lightweight. It is used to navigate obstacles from the vibrational feedback provided as the cane is tapped or slid along the ground.
  • The support cane is rigid and helps with physical stability. It is used by people with visual impairments who also have mobility challenges.
  • The ID cane is a small, foldable cane used by people with partial sight to let others know they have a visual impairment. Its purpose is identification, not mobility.

Did you Know? White canes are made from aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fiber, and can weigh as little as seven ounces.

Council staff can help you pick the white cane that is the right fit for your needs.

Learning to use a White Cane:

A woman walks on a tree-lined road using a white cane.
Photo courtesy of Low Vision Technologies.

White cane navigation instruction is best taught by a Certified Orientation & Mobility Specialist (COMS). In addition to white cane techniques, O&M Specialists teach other navigation and orientation strategies, such as crossing streets safely by listening to traffic patterns.

Melinda Coulman lost her vision a year ago and felt she could not go anywhere by herself. She found out about the Council from the ADRC of Iowa County. Her vision rehabilitation specialist at the Council referred her to an O&M Specialist.

“Learning to do things by myself was important to me because my husband works full-time and I have two children to raise,” Melinda says. “The Council recommended an O&M Specialist and he came out to my house. He worked with me to plan a route so I could get my son from the bus stop after school, and showed me how to cross streets safely. A month into the O&M training, I knew I could be successful when I felt comfortable getting my son from the bus stop myself. I now go places with my kids, and I can go anywhere in town by myself.”

To find an O&M Specialist in your area, contact the Office for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The Council can provide you with contact information for the OBVI Vision Rehabilitation Specialist who is assigned to your county. You may also contact your CESA (Cooperative Educational Service Agency) district to find out who the district might use for O&M and if that person also sees adults in the community.

Where to get a White Cane:

The Council provides free white canes to any Wisconsin resident who is blind or visually impaired through the White Cane Program. The program does not receive any publicly funded money; all canes are provided through generous donations from individuals. Those in need are eligible for one free cane every 24 months.

Note: The Council gives an additional free white cane to students under age eighteen who have a rapid growth spurt, making the current cane no longer an appropriate length. Also, people may be eligible to receive a replacement white cane at the Council’s discretion, in the case of a defective cane or damage to the cane not due to the user’s error. Cane users are eligible to receive a backup cane at half the retail cost within the first two years of receiving the free one.

Available canes include the Ambutech aluminum rigid and folding mobility cane, the Ambutech adjustable rigid and folding support cane and the Ambutech folding ID cane. Various cane tips and accessories are available for purchase. For more information, visit the Sharper Vision Store online at store.WCBlind.org/store/canes-and-accessories or call Kris at (608) 237-8105.

Now that you know more about the white cane, reflect on your orientation and mobility needs. Is it time for you to give a white cane a try?

For all of us, pedestrians and drivers, here’s a reminder of Wisconsin’s White Cane Law: “An operator of a vehicle shall stop the vehicle before approaching closer than 10 feet to a pedestrian who is carrying a cane or walking stick which is white in color or white trimmed with red… and shall take such precautions as may be necessary to avoid accident or injury to the pedestrian.” We can all work to keep pedestrians safe.

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