Doug Powell, NOVA President
October 15, 2006
Surprisingly, many people don’t know what a white cane is, what it is used for, and how they should interact with someone using one! It seems like people know more about "seeing eye dogs", "guide dogs", or service animals as they are frequently called. Both guide dogs and white canes are used by blind and visually impaired individuals to help them live independent, productive lives. A white cane is a mostly white colored cane with red markings close to the tip.
Yes, it is. Blind and visually impaired individuals move a cane back and forth to feel the changes in the environment around them – curbs, steps, posts, etc. If you want to get a sense of what a blind person would feel like without this kind of support, close your eyes and walk around your house. The world can be a scary place when you don’t know what is in front of you. With a white cane, and some training, blind and visually impaired people can move with confidence to work, school, stores, and a myriad of social, civic, religious, or recreational activities. In short, the white cane helps a blind or visually impaired individual go to and participate in any activity that their sighted counterparts would.
Yes, it is that too. As well as being a mobility aid, the service animal in harness or a white cane is a symbol to everyone close by that the person using it does not see well, if at all. And, since there are still those in the community that think blind people are invalids, the white cane has become a symbol to those who use one and those in the surrounding community that blindness or visual impairment is a challenge – not a debilitating affliction.
Since the 1920s when the white cane evolved in this country as a tool for blind and visually impaired individuals to travel more safely from place to place, the white cane has become a symbol for the increasing independence of those individuals as well as a symbol of awareness for other community members. In 1964, the US Congress passed a resolution directing the President to declare October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day. Most years Presidents have followed through on that resolution.
On October 15, 2000, President Bill Clinton again reminded us of the history of the white cane as a tool, and its purpose as a symbol of blindness: "With proper training, people using the white cane can enjoy greater mobility and safety by determining the location of curbs, steps, uneven pavement, and other physical obstacles in their path. The white cane has given them 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."
President Bush in his 2001 White Cane Proclamation pointed out the need for people who are blind or visually impaired to be able to access school, work, and community services so they can reach their full potential. President Bush worked hard to have the Freedom Initiative put into law.
In addition, for many years, the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia has made similar proclamations. Also, this year, because of the sponsorship of Supervisor Frey, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors will proclaim October 15 White Cane Safety Day at their September 25 meeting.
First, from a safety standpoint, if you are driving a vehicle and see a person with a service animal or white cane, please treat them with courtesy. Virginia law basically says that they should be treated like a stopped school bus with their blinkers on – stop and wait for the person to get across the street. Please don’t swerve around them too closely. Many blind and visually impaired people have stories of getting canes broken or getting physically injured by drivers who were impatient or tried to cut too closely around the person with the cane. Remember, with people living longer and incidence of macular degeneration increasing, some day you may be the one walking with the aid of a white cane.
If you would like to offer assistance to someone using a service animal or cane, do just that – offer. Grabbing a service animal, a white cane, or the person using either is not usually appreciated unless time or circumstances prevent other methods of communicating danger to the visually challenged person. Some people will take your offer, and others may decline it, but we thank you for the thought.
The Northern Virginia Council of the Blind, and the parent, American Council of the Blind, are consumer organizations run by and for blind and visually impaired persons. We collaborate with thousands of interested individuals across the country to try to raise the level of opportunities for blind and visually impaired people up to that of their sighted peers.
We are currently working on many issues which would not only improve the lives of those who have limited or no vision, but would also enhance the lives of sighted citizens as well. If you would like to familiarize yourself with these issues of importance, go to www.acb.org/olddominion.