How does that white cane work, anyway?


Donna at age five.

White Cane Safety Day (also named Blind Americans Equality Day by President Barack Obama in 2011) was celebrated over the past weekend, and when I read her Taking on college and getting around campus when you can’t see it post, I took note when guest blogger Alicia Krage mentioned that at the local community college she used to attend, many of her fellow students had no idea what her white cane represented. “Some people didn’t even understand what it was,” she wrote. I’m here to try to explain.

The white cane is a mobility tool used by people who are blind or who have low vision to get about independently. Think of the cane as an extension of your arm to reach out to things on the ground and in front of you. The white cane helps you find obstructions and get around them safely.

Here’s how it works: the person holds the cane in their dominant hand, roughly centered in front of the body, and the cane is swept from left to right in a pattern about shoulder-width. It sweeps to the left as the right foot steps and back to the right as the left foot steps, thus clearing the pathway before each step.

Through the feel of the tip of the cane against the ground, it is possible to detect changes in surfaces, grates and man-hole covers, steps and curbs, and obstacles such as poles, signs, planters, and trees. Each person decides how fast to walk based on their comfort level in making adjustments to the obstacles found with the cane

As I grow older, I find that I move a little slower to allow for reflexes that aren’t quite as sharp as they once were. On the other side of the spectrum, there are people who are blind or have visual impairments who use a cane to aid them in taking their daily run!

My first experience with the white cane was when I was five years old. A neighbor who was blind was attending college and studying law. He came to visit my mother to talk about all the potential for leading a fulfilling life as a person who is blind, and he brought a child-sized cane along. I remember him showing me how to hold it and sweep it back and forth in front of my feet to alert me to obstacles and steps, but I confess that I was not giving it the attention it deserved.

At five years old, I was the mistress of my environment which consisted of my house and a large front and back yard. I knew where the swingset was, along with where all the doors, steps, furniture, trees, plants, and other such landmarks were in my domain and had been navigating them successfully without a white cane as a blind person since the age of three.

The need to use a cane to get around was not something I embraced at an early age. I had a hefty dose of imagination, however, and easily turned this ever-so-practical tool into a wand, a sword, or a bat. When propped on other objects (such as dining room chairs) my white cane became a pole to jump over.

My mother was no one’s dummy. She quickly identified the child-sized white cane as a weapon of mass destruction. The mobility device was banished to some place well out of my reach until I started school.

In elementary school I received more instruction on how to navigate larger environments – the school campus, for one. It wasn’t until I was 16 years old, however, that I got my first comprehensive training on how to use the cane. This is known as orientation and mobility training, O&M for short. The purpose of O&M is to teach people who are blind to safely and independently navigate the world using the white cane. The summer training program culminated in learning to use public transit independently. That is undoubtedly the single most important set of skills I have learned throughout my life.

Later on I decided to train with a guide dog, and the basic skills I learned in O&M were necessary to make that transition successful. I never completely stopped using my white cane, though – I still use it in certain situations. I’ve also gone long periods of time between guide dogs in which I returned to using the cane full time.

I can’t emphasize enough the role of independent mobility in my life. When I learned that I could walk around unfamiliar places, cross streets and take trips on the bus by myself, my confidence soared. Not only was I confident about my ability to travel, but this confidence flowed over into other things I wanted to accomplish such as going to college, getting work, developing a career, having a family, and so on. I knew I could accomplish all of these things because I had the skill I needed to get to all the places I needed to go.

So when I hold a cane in my hand, I don’t think of it as a symbol of blindness. It represents my ability to take off and do what needs doing!


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  1. Joana Davidson Says:

    I just want to praise your courage to move forward with confidence and full of hope. Your blindness is not a hindrance to doing what normal people can do. Take care!

  2. Says:

    The summer training program culminated in learning to use public transit independently. That is undoubtedly the single most important set of skills I have learned throughout my life.

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