Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane

The title is from Thomas Bickford, more of whom later.

The white cane is a familiar emblem of blindness, but what is it for?

There’s three things going on here.

  1. Information: Letting others know you are blind or have impaired vision. This matters a lot in busy and crowded spaces or when crossing the road.
  2. Navigation: A cultural stereotype is the the blind person’s tapping cane. For many with very low vision this is a crucial function and essential to their ability to move outside their home. The cane is used to probe the territory ahead.
  3. Support: The traditional role of a stick as physical support and balance aid.

If asked to guess about the timelines of these I’d have said 3 was ancient, 2 went back centuries, and only 1 was modern. However 2 the navigational cane is quite recent, less than a century old. The inspiration was probably aid for those who lost vision in World War 1 combat.

There are two claimants to the throne of inventor of the long white cane for navigation. The history is controversial but roughly what seems to have happened is this.

In 1921 James Biggs from England, blinded by an accident, had his walking stick painted white to be more visible when navigating the traffic outside his house, and his idea spread. Later in 1931 Guilly d’Herbert from France launched a white stick movement from which later developments sprang.

The technology of navigation canes has developed over the years, new materials, the tip at the end of the cane, features for night visibility, and so on. But now a more fundamental improvement is being explored. What if the cane was not just passive – the user does all the tapping – but proactive? It might gather data from sensors and databases, interpret it and feed information to the stick user, through sound, tactile feedback, or in some other way. At the same time it can be used just like a traditional white cane.

Users of long white canes often feel it as an extension of their sensory apparatus. A cybercane would extend this, but the IT enrichment would make it more like a partner, a sort of plugged in seeing-eye cane.

This idea is allied to research into wearable computers. There is a funded project to carry it forward.

I’ve got a white cane myself. For me it’s a symbol stick only. I take it with me if visiting any busy and crowded place. It’s in sections and folds up small. If I feel a need for people to know I have low vision I take it out and it all snaps together, a bit like a tent pole.

The legal status of white canes is interesting. In the US I believe it’s generally the case that a person with a white stick has priority over everyone else, even if crossing against a red light. I agree with this personally, but I don’t think it applies in other countries. In some US states it’s illegal to carry a white cane if not actually blind or vision impaired. Again I don’t know what applies in other countries.

The article by Thomas Bickford is a wonderful evocation of the part a long white cane can play in a blind person’s life. To my mind it’s essential reading if you want to understand what the tap, tap means to that person.


About partialinsight

One evening I had a stroke. Half my sight vanished overnight. Adapting made me grasp how amazing the visual system and brain are. It also taught me to understand disability completely differently and I'm grateful for the lesson.
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2 Responses to Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane

  1. A teenage friend of mine with no sight at all has been given a bright pink stick – presumably because of her age. She hates it with a passion (perhaps because it emphasizes her disability and difference from others) and rarely uses it. Trying to encourage her to see it as a friend and ally, some of us had a go and I was really surprised how much information you could pick up very rapidly from using it – where a wall or a door was, for example – almost intuitively, without having to be taught. I do wish they hadn’t given her a bright pink one though.

    • My stick is only used as a symbol but I experimented with it and as you say it’s possible to pick up a lot of information quite instinctively.

      I was able to navigate round some things and reach the door with my eyes closed. Having a mental model of the room helped of course and it would be harder in an unfamiliar environment but still something one could learn.

      I think you’re probably right about why your friend doesn’t want to carry the stick, I guess if you are young you don’t like feeling different, and bright pink isn’t going to help with that!

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