The White Cane - Clearing the Way to Independence

By Elizabeth Lee, AbleData Information Specialist

The white cane is universally recognized as a representative marker for blindness and low vision. But many people may not realize that for individuals who are blind or have low vision, the white cane is so much more than a navigational tool. It is a symbol of independence, integration, and triumph. This is why people across the country observe October 15th, White Cane Safety Day, as a day to celebrate just how far individuals with visual impairments have come in their pursuit for independence.

It all began in 1921, when James Biggs, an artist in Bristol, England lost his sight and decided to paint his walking stick white to make himself more visible to oncoming motorists. It wasn’t long before North America caught wind of this practice and began using the white cane to notify others that an individual is blind or visually impaired. In 1930, the first White Cane Ordinance was passed in Peoria, Illinois, granting pedestrians who are blind “protections and the right-of-way while carrying a white cane.” And in the following year, the Lion's Club International launched a national campaign promoting the use of white canes by persons who are blind. By the end of World War II, as blind veterans began using canes to help them return to their participatory lifestyles at home, the white cane began to make its way into government policy as a symbol of blind independence.

During the early 1960's, several state organizations and rehabilitation agencies serving the blind and visually impaired community urged Congress to declare October 15th as White Cane Safety Day. Their effort came to fruition on October 6, 1964 when a joint resolution of the Congress, HR 753, was signed into law authorizing the President of The United States of America to proclaim October 15th of each year as White Cane Safety Day. 

In addition to being a visible symbol of independence, the white cane is truly a remarkable mobility aid in and of itself. With it, the user can navigate from one place to the next; maneuver around obstacles; be warned of oncoming steps, curbs or uneven pavement; discern the environment by the texture of the floor/ground (e.g., carpeted, tiled, pavement); and even approximate the size of the room based on the echoes (or lack thereof) that reverberate from the cane’s taps on the floor.

Despite its multi-faceted uses, the cane is a low-tech tool. Now, there are a number of high-tech navigational aids specifically designed to help individuals who are blind or have low vision travel safely and independently, most of which complement the cane.  Here are a few examples of such high-tech aids:

HumanWare’s Trekker Breeze+

The Trekker Breeze+ is a talking GPS that provides specific walking directions as you travel. The “Where Am I Button” tells your current cardinal direction, next intersection, nearest address, and current street. The “What’s Around” feature identifies surrounding landmarks and points of interest. And when you are in an open area (e.g., campus or park) Breeze+’s open area mode identifies landmarked locations to help you get from point A to point B confidently. 

ClickAndGo Navigation

ClickAndGo Navigation is a patented wayfinding technology that offers customized narrative walking directions. Accessible online and via mobile app, it provides narrative directions, low-vision maps, and real-time location support both indoors and outdoors.

Tactile & Talking Maps

Tactile &Talking Maps offer a tangible and auditory reproduction of transit systems, street maps and floor plans. Consisting of raised lines and four-color printing for high contrast, Tactile & Talking Maps include labels in Braille and large print. They also offer auditory details with the aid of a Live Scribe Smartpen. So if you press down on a bus stop symbol, you will hear customized details about that particular stop (e.g., its exact location and the buses that stop there).

You can find more information about the wide range of navigational aids available for individuals who are blind or have low vision by visiting AbleData at http://www.abledata.com/. New Editions Consulting, Inc. manages AbleData - a federal clearinghouse for assistive technology and resources that make everyday life better. 

Navigational tool technology for individuals who are blind or visually impaired has advanced, but the goal remains the same - independence, equality, and integration. On October 15, 2000, former president Bill Clinton acknowledged the significance of the white cane with a reminder that is worth repeating and is still applicable 15 years later:

“The white cane has given [people who are blind or have low vision] the freedom to travel independently to their schools and workplaces and to participate more fully in the life of their communities. It reminds us that the only barriers against people with disabilities are discriminatory attitudes and practices that our society has too often placed in their way. As we observe White Cane Safety Day…, let us recall the history of the white cane, its emergence as a tool and a symbol through history; a staff of independence.”

For additional information, visit these sites:

 

References

Braille and Tactile Maps. (n.d.). Retrieved October 7, 2015, from http://lighthouse-sf.org/braille-translation/braille-tactile-maps/

ClickAndGo Navigation - ClickAndGo Wayfinding. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://www.clickandgomaps.com/clickandgo-navigation/

HumanWare Launches the Trekker Breeze. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2015, from http://www.humanware.ca/web/en/Newsletter/220420150950.htm

Strong, P. (n.d.). The History of the White Cane. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://www.acb.org/tennessee/white_cane_history.html