Everything you always wanted to know about that white cane but were afraid to ask

Brooke Garceau uses her white cane, St. George, Utah, Oct. 10, 2018 | Photo by and courtesy of Adam Garceau, St. George News

FEATURE —  Monday is White Cane Awareness Day, which seemed a good time to answer some questions people have about how we use our canes and how other pedestrians and motorists should interact with someone using a white cane in public.

President Lyndon B. Johnson first declared Oct. 15 as White Cane Safety Day in 1964. As the disabilities rights movement has marched forward, general misinformation about the ability of blind people to travel safely with white canes has diminished. Because of this change in societal viewpoints, the word “Safety” has since been exchanged for “Awareness.”

However, many people still wonder how blind people can lead safe and independent lives – and often specifically what that white “stick,” “pole” or “staff” is even for. “How do they do that?” you might wonder. Or “Are they lost?”

White cane tip encounters caution dots before a curb, St. George, Utah, Oct. 9, 2018 | Photo by and courtesy of Adam Garceau, St. George News

White Cane Awareness Day was created to provide an official occasion to answer questions like these and to celebrate the independence that white cane-users enjoy.

The National Federation of the Blind explains that “blind people use our senses of hearing and touch to explore the world around us. The white cane, in effect, makes our hands and arms longer, so that we can assess the situation and move quickly and confidently.”

Being blind myself, I think this is a perfect description of what my cane does for me.

I tap my cane from side-to-side in front of me as I walk down the sidewalk, across a street or up a set of stairs. As I “feel” with my cane, I can find uneven ground, curbs or the edges of stairs. This allows me to navigate my world safely and with confidence.

The National Federation of the Blind gives the following tips for interacting with a blind person using a white cane:

There’s no need to shout warnings or try to physically steer us so that our canes won’t bump into things. Remember that we are using our canes to explore what is around us. … Feel free to greet us and say hello. If we do need any help or direction, we will ask. If not, we will just politely greet you in return.

Having met many wonderfully kind and well-intentioned people in my life who simply don’t understand how blind people live full and independent lives, I have to agree with their advice.

To put it in perspective, imagine walking yourself down the street – say to an important business meeting. You would probably find it quite unnerving if a complete stranger grabbed your arm, insisted you were going the wrong way and tried to pull you in the opposite direction of your destination.

Related story: Walkability training allows participants to experience streets as a pedestrian with a disability

White canes also allow pedestrians – and perhaps more importantly, motorists – to recognize blind individuals and avoid creating obstacles for them.

Motorists who notice blind pedestrians should follow normal traffic laws and give the blind person the right of way like they would for any other pedestrian.

Blindness may seem scary for some people, but it’s rather everyday for blind people. Using our white canes comes just as naturally to us as picking your feet up when you walk does to you. Listening to the traffic around us and feeling the path ahead to cross the street safely is as routine to us as watching for the “Walk” sign on a traffic light is to you.

When combined with our other senses, feeling with our canes allows us to gain all the information we need to navigate the world safely. This may seem daunting to you if you primarily rely on visual cues to navigate the world, but many blind people receive special orientation and mobility training to learn to travel safely and confidently without sight. This type of training enables blind people to travel the same routes as sighted people – just using different methods.

Brooke Garceau uses her white cane, St. George, Utah, Oct. 10, 2018 | Photo by and courtesy of Adam Garceau, St. George News

If you ever find your mind filling with curious questions when you meet a blind person – how much they can see, if they like to watch movies, how they match their outfits – know that it is perfectly okay to ask. And you may be surprised to hear about the many perfectly reasonable solutions to all of the problems that some people think blindness causes.

Just try to be polite when you ask.

So celebrate White Cane Awareness Day by embracing new, different perspectives and creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. You can also celebrate this day by donating to the Free White Cane Program of the National Federation of the Blind at the organization’s website and giving a blind person the gift of independence.

Here’s to a Happy White Cane Awareness Day!

Written by BROOKE GARCEAU, St. George, Utah.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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