Taking life into your own hands with white canes

Blind and visually impaired people can use a straight cane like the one pictured above, or a folding cane, to walk with outside.

In honor of White Cane Safety Day, we are taking a look at white canes and if they can benefit you. Bianca Rossetti, Director of Orientation and Mobility Services at MAB Community Services, breaks it down.

What is a white cane?
A white cane is a device used by blind or visually impaired travelers to give them information about the environment they are traveling through. Using a cane can warn them of obstacles in their path, tell them of stairs they are approaching, detect curbs, and help identify environmental landmarks and cues for orientation purposes. The cane will also do something else, it will alert others around them that they are blind, and this can be very helpful. Many, if not all, states have laws concerning how drivers must act when encountering a person using a white cane

Who can use a white cane?

Anyone with a visual impairment significant enough that traveling without a cane is hazardous. Some individuals use a cane in all environments, some only use a cane in outdoor environments and/or at night.

How is a white cane actually used to travel?
There are different cane techniques used to accomplish tasks such as going up or down stairs, navigating escalators, finding and traversing doorways, helping to find dropped objects, locating and clearing curbs, etc.  The technique described below allows individuals with visual impairment to walk confidently down a hall or sidewalk.

To start, the person holds the cane handle at waist level using his dominant hand. He holds the cane with his hand wrapped around the handle and his index finger pointing down along the cane handle. The cane tip rests on the ground. While walking, the cane is swept from side to side in an arch that extends approximately 1” outside of the widest part of his body. As he walks, the cane touches the ground at the end of each sweep from right to left. It is done in such a sequence that the cane taps the spot where the next footstep will land. This allows the person to clear the area of each step before his foot lands on the spot. If there is a hole, the cane finds it first. If there is an object lying on the floor, the cane encounters it and prevents a stumble or fall. Some people even use the sound of the cane tapping on the surface to give them cues about the size of the area in which they are walking and on which type of surface they are walking.

Will one cane fit all?
The answer is a resounding no! The cane should be long enough so that it comes up to your armpit when the tip is resting on the floor. This will allow the tip to land on the proper spot as described in the above technique. Some experienced cane users like to have a cane that is somewhat longer than described, but measuring from your armpit is the general guideline.

What does a basic cane look like?
White canes come in two basic types, the straight cane and the folding cane.

The straight cane is made of a long tube of aluminum or fiberglass with a handle on one end and a ceramic, nylon, or metal tip on the other. The handle may have a wrist loop on the end or a small crook, which can be used to store the cane when not in use. The body of the cane is covered with a white paint or white reflective tape to provide visibility. Some canes have a few inches of red at the tip, although this is not mandatory.

The folding cane looks similar to a straight cane except that it is broken up in to several sections held together by an elastic chord running through the middle of the tubing, which allows the cane to be held tightly together when unfolded, or folded when not in use.

What is a white cane usually made of?
The cane is usually made of fiberglass or aluminum, although other lightweight materials such as graphite are now being used as well. Because a cane is being swept back and forth continually and used in other active ways to detect obstacles in the environment, it is important that the cane is made of light, but durable material to prevent fatigue to the user and tolerate ware and tare during travel.

Are there different kinds of tips for canes?
The basic purpose of a tip is to protect the end of the cane shaft as the cane is being tapped or slid across the traveler’s path. There are several different types of cane tips to choose from based on preference. There is the pencil tip, marshmallow tip, marshmallow roller tip, jumbo roller tip, and roller ball tip.

How long will a white cane last?
The answer to this question depends on many factors. If a cane is used primarily inside a building, it may last for years. If it is used outside to travel from place to place, it will probably not last as long. A straight cane usually last much longer than a folding cane because the elastic of the folding cane breaks down from regular use.

Watch a video demonstration of using a white cane!

Information modified from the resource: “White Cane Basics” by Jerry Howell and retrieved at Howell Mobility website. Use the following sites to learn more about White Canes or to order a white cane: AmbutechLS&SNational Federation of the Blind and The Carroll Center for the Blind.

Bianca Rossetti, M.Ed., COMS, is the Director of Orientation and Mobility Services for MAB Community Services. For questions or comments, she can be reached at brossetti@mabcommunity.org or at 617-930-0172.

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About mabvi

Pressing Need The number of seniors with low vision is expected to double by 2030, as the “baby boomers” experience sight loss such as glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and macular degeneration. Low vision makes it difficult to complete activities of daily living, puts elders at increased risk of falls, and complicates health care compliance. There is a pressing need for low vision services today more than ever, to ensure people with vision loss can continue to live the lives they want. Elders are the fastest-growing and most vulnerable population of persons with sight loss. Four of the five major causes of blindness are directly related to the aging process: age related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cataracts. According to data published by the Commission for the Blind and the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness, there are an estimated 105,000 elders in Massachusetts with serious sight loss who cannot receive state-funded services because they are not “legally blind.” Nevertheless, their vision impairment is serious, and without appropriate intervention, can have a devastating impact on their independence.

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