The Mighty White Cane

The White Cane is a Powerful Symbol of Independence

by Melissa Mabee and Christopher Butler

October 15 is National White Cane Safety Day, a time set aside by The United States Congress to celebrate and raise awareness of this powerful symbol of independence and opportunity for people who are blind and visually impaired.

While people with visual impairments have used canes for thousands of years, according to a History of the White Cane from the Tennessee Council for the Blind, the modern white cane in the United States came into existence in 1930 when a member of a local Lion’s Club watched as a man who was blind tried to cross a busy street using his black cane as a guide. Realizing that the black cane was barely visible to passing motorists, the local Lion’s Club members painted the man’s cane white to increase its visibility. In 1931, Lion’s Club International began a successful national program promoting the use of white canes for persons who are blind.

The long white cane with a red tip is a critical tool that people who are blind and visually impaired use not only to identify themselves as someone with a visual impairment but more importantly as a way to safely and independently navigate in their community. For its user, the white cane becomes an extension of their arm providing valuable information that they can use to safely navigate.

Many of us may notice people with visual impairments out-and-about in our communities and wonder, “How do they do that?” They do it by learning to use a long white cane, a skill that anyone can master, though it takes practice. It’s not magic, it is dedication and time spent building confidence and independence.

Tapping the tip of the cane and listening to the sound it makes helps the user determine changes in surface, such as when they have inadvertently moved off their path on a cement sidewalk to grass. Inside a building the change in sound alerts the user when they have gone from a carpeted floor to a wood floor, helping them to know which room they are in. Sweeping the cane back and forth helps them avoid obstacles such as telephone poles, stairs, curbing, and people who may be in their path.

As with all types of growth and learning, the best way to learn is to just do it. We sometimes hear from parents, “my child is blind, she can’t possibly go hiking, take ballet, play soccer, walk to a friend’s house…” Adult children often worry that their elderly parents may no longer be able to accomplish everyday tasks now that their vision has diminished. We know however, that in Rhode Island there are hundreds of kids and thousands of adults who each day are doing all of these things, and much more, by using a variety of tools, including the mighty long white cane.

One of our clients said during a recent mobility lesson, “I can do anything, go anywhere, with my cane. I go on trips all the time and some of my family members just don’t understand. They say things like, ‘Why do you want to go there, you won’t be able to see anything?’ I look at them and say ‘What am I supposed to do, just stay home and stare at the wall?’”

We know from years of experience that with training, support, encouragement, and most importantly opportunities, that people with visual impairments can do as much, and sometimes more, than their sighted peers. So, in the spirit of White Cane Safety Day, the next time you encounter someone who is blind or visually impaired don’t tell them they can’t do something or worse yet do it for them without letting them try for themselves. Instead, celebrate and support their determination to learn and ultimately succeed in their quest to become equally valued, active, productive, and independent members of our communities.

Melissa Mabee is a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist who provides white cane training to children and adults throughout the state. Christopher Butler is the Executive Director of IN-SIGHT, a Rhode Island nonprofit that provides programs and services that build the confidence and independence of people who are living with visual impairments.