Meet Robert Wall Emerson, Ph.D. and the Newly-Funded “Better Long White Cane” Project

Robert Wall Emerson, PhD

Robert Wall Emerson, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo. Dr. Wall Emerson, in conjunction with WMU colleagues Dae Shik Kim, Ph.D. (the principal investigator) and Koorosh Naghshineh, Ph.D., is the recent recipient of a $421,125 grant award from the National Institutes of Health/National Eye Institute.

The three-year grant, entitled Better long cane design and biomechanics for blind cane users, will examine the construction and most efficient use of the long white cane, used worldwide as a mobility device by people who are blind or have low vision.

Dr. Wall Emerson began his academic career in Canada, where he taught English and science. He then worked in special education as an itinerant vision teacher in northern Manitoba before moving to the United States for his orientation and mobility (O&M) and Ph.D. studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

His research interests are broad and span a wide range of topics, including accessible pedestrian signals; acoustics in blind navigation; braille literacy; braille reading; the biomechanics [i.e., the study of the mechanics of movement] of long cane use; describing math images for blind students; strategies for increasing drivers’ yielding behaviors at street crossings; and winter travel techniques for people with visual impairments.

Maureen Duffy: Hello, Dr. Wall Emerson. I appreciate your taking the time to speak with us about your new grant award. To start, can you tell us about the history of the long white cane, including its design as we know it today?

Robert Wall Emerson: Sure. The history of the long cane is itself long – but also is a history without a lot of changes until more recently. People who are blind have been using some sort of rod or staff to aid in their mobility for millennia, but the modern long cane was developed in the 1920s and 1930s.

There were some initial developments in the United Kingdom, but the first appearance of a modern cane for people who are blind, with white and red paint, was in the early 1930s in Peoria, Illinois. But these canes were made of wood and were fairly thick and sturdy, more like a regular walking cane.

It was during World War II that Dr. Richard E. Hoover thought to make aluminum cane shafts and created the modern cane we see today. More recently, people have started using carbon fiber or fiberglass for cane shafts. And of course there are now both rigid and folding – or telescoping – canes.

But the basic design of the cane has not changed appreciably for some time. One of the biggest innovations has been the range of cane tips that are now available.

MD: What are your goals for this research project? As I understand it, your research team is seeking to “improve the cane’s ergonomic design and cane-use biomechanics to better detect obstacles and drop-offs in the walking environment.” Can you explain those goals to our readers who use a cane for mobility or are thinking about using one?

RWE: We are not looking to redesign the cane. What we are looking at, however, is the different components of the cane – such as how the shaft material and the tip have an impact on the detection of obstacles and drop-offs. We are also looking at how changing the cane technique [i.e., the way a person uses the cane] has an impact on these detections. We are measuring several biomechanical aspects of body movement in order to track how the cane is used.

MD: In my role as VisionAware’s social media specialist, I read about many research projects every week that are proposing to “improve the antiquated white cane” or “do away with the white cane because it is outdated technology.” How would you respond to those researchers? And how is your research different?

RWE: We recognize that the long cane is the most commonly used and universal mobility aid used by people who are blind. The simplicity of its design means that it can be generalized to a wide range of tasks and environments, and with foldable or telescoping shafts, a cane need not be in the way when not in use.

The cane’s basic design works well. I think that most modern cane travelers would also benefit from some sort of technology, such as a GPS device or phone app, but the long cane will always be a useful tool. And I do not think that attaching technology to a cane tends to be a workable solution. I tend to prefer hand-held assistive devices that can be put away when not in use.

MD: Can you tell us about your other research interests? I’m particularly interested in your work on the effect of hybrid or “quiet” vehicles on people’s orientation and mobility skills – and I’m also interested in your research on accessible pedestrian signals.

RWE: I have done a fair bit of research in both of those areas. With my colleagues Dae Kim and Koorosh Naghshineh, as well as some earlier work with Bill Wiener and Julie Hapeman, we have looked at many aspects of how quieter vehicles have an impact on O&M and independent travel. Of course, most people now recognize that these vehicles are an increased threat at slow speeds, when backing up, or when turning. But what can we do about it?

Some of our research has fed into the forthcoming suggestions by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for addressing the issue. But for the typical blind traveler, it is difficult to link our research to actions they can take to reduce the threats from “quiet” cars. One of the main things that needs to be done, I think, is that pedestrians who are blind need to recognize what risks exist in a given situation and be okay with that level of risk.

I also think that O&M instructors need to do a good job of teaching risk assessment to their clients. Crossing a street when the environment is “all quiet” does not equate with “safe.” That does not mean this strategy should never be used, but it should be used when appropriate – and even then there are risks associated with the crossing.

Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) are a great example of something that can address the quiet car issue. At intersections where APS are installed, they can offer the kind of support that a pedestrian who is blind can use, even when other acoustic cues are not available, such as when there are only quiet cars around.

However, O&M instructors must also recognize a new type of procedure to use when crossing at an intersection with push buttons (with or without APS):

  • The pedestrian needs to establish his or her crossing place and find some sort of anchor to remember the spot.
  • The pedestrian then scans with the cane left and right for a pole if there is no APS installed; otherwise the pedestrian walks to the pole with the APS locator tone.
  • The pedestrian waits until the parallel surge of traffic starts and then pushes the button to activate the traffic signal controller. This will provide the pedestrian with a parallel traffic phase and a subsequent perpendicular traffic phase before the walk indicator signal will sound.
  • After activating the traffic signal controller, the pedestrian returns to the crossing place, re-establishes alignment, and crosses with the next parallel traffic surge and when the auditory walk signal sounds.

MD: What do you regard as the next great frontier in independent outdoor travel for people who are blind or have low vision?

RWE: I think it’s important for O&M instructors to engage on a large scale with traffic engineers so that they can have an impact on the travel environment and make it more accessible. This might lead to changes in the environment itself that we cannot yet foresee. For example, if driverless cars are truly around the corner, then perhaps we are not too far from a fully integrated environment that allows pedestrians to flow seamlessly into traffic with much less risk.

We thank Dr. Wall Emerson for his support of VisionAware and for his continuing research on behalf of blind and visually persons. You can read more about Dr. Wall Emerson’s ongoing research at the Western Michigan University Discovery Experts Database.

Additional Orientation and Mobility Information