Happy White Cane Safety Day!!
Author’s note: In Part 1, we reviewed the history of the white cane. In Part 2, we will explore the perspectives of users of the long white cane, professionals in the field of orientation and mobility, and product manufacturers. For newcomers to the field of vision rehabilitation, VisionAware’s section on Orientation and Mobility (O&M) explains that O&M is a profession specific to blindness and low vision that teaches safe, efficient, and effective travel skills to people of all ages:
Further, “Orientation” refers to the ability to know where you are and where you want to go, whether you’re moving from one room to another or walking downtown for a shopping trip. “Mobility” refers to the ability to move safely, efficiently, and effectively from one place to another, such as being able to walk without tripping or falling, cross streets, and use public transportation. Orientation and Mobility Specialists provide instruction that can help develop or relearn the skills and concepts needed to travel safely and independently within your home and in the community. O&M Specialists provide services across the life span, teaching infants and children in pre-school and school programs, as well as adults in a variety of community-based and rehabilitation settings.
Perspectives of VisionAware Peer Advisors Who Are Cane Users
Ashley Nemeth: “Had I had the choice of using a colored cane when I was a kid maybe I would have been a little more inclined to use it.” This comment is not an uncommon response to the question, “What do you think about using a colored mobility cane?”
Ashley and local friends with vision loss: “If someone needs their cane to be colored in order to feel comfortable using it then they are better off using a purple cane rather than no cane.”
Lynne Tatum: “The only other colors I’d consider using would be neon yellow, orange or pink. It might, however, be fun coordinating my cane with my outfit.”
DeAnna Noriega: “I think for those of us who only occasionally use a cane, guide dog ill, between dogs…for brief travel, it would be fun to have a more fashionable cane.”
Steven Wilson: “Well, I ordered and received a custom cane from Ambutech last year but, I was concerned about deviating from the standards of the universal color code and opted for a white cane–reflective white) with just a tad bit of color splash near the top of the cane, splash of colors unnoticeable from a distance, only seen up close which include a sky blue, pink, red and orange. This cane also has a blue grip instead of the black grip and I do save it for my special occasions. Since I’m very independent and rely on public transit, crossing streets and walking, traveling a lot by foot, I worry about altering the tool too much and making it less obvious for the ‘regular Joe or Jane,’ operating motor vehicles failing to recognize the importance of my white cane.”
Concerns About Crossing the Street
The concern expressed in this last quote reflects the major concern of the ten cane users interviewed for this article, even some of those who are using a colored cane occasionally. All agreed that using a colored cane would be perfectly fine if the person did not need to cross streets. Everyone seemed more confident about crossing a street using a white cane, even the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) former staff member who liked being able to match cane and suit colors! Their reasoning: because the white cane has been part of our culture for such a longtime and because drivers are distracted now more than ever and pay less attention to pedestrians whether they have mobility canes, or dog guides, or neither.
Concern About Impact on White Cane Laws
One other issue expressed by the cane users I interviewed is how colored canes might impact the white cane laws. If colored canes become increasingly popular, the laws would need amending, and increased public education and changes in the driver’s handbook would be necessary.
Perspectives of Professionals in the Field of Orientation & Mobility
Somewhat surprising to this writer, were the responses from the professionals which were not much different than those of the cane users. There were three university professors, four experienced O&M specialists, and one expert in traffic safety for visually impaired travelers. Some were extremely positive and none were totally opposed to using a colored cane.
Mickey Damelio, Florida State University: “I think it’s good that people have choice…If we really believe the people we serve are fully realized adults and have the same rights to make choices regarding their lives as anyone else, then we must as a profession support their right to choose.”
Mary D’Apice, O&M instructor, California: “If someone is attending a party or special event and he or she wants to use the cane as an accessory that expresses a unique style, I think it’s okay to use a cane that’s decorated or a different color.”
Dr. Grace Ambrose-Zaken, Hunter College: “People who are resistant to using a white cane or are visually impaired could be safer because they embrace the use of the cane.”
Dr. Laura Bozeman, University of Massachusetts Boston: “Personally, I would have one if I were blind.”
Ashley’s O&M instructor, CNIB: “If someone needs her cane to be colored in order to feel comfortable using it then she is better off using a purple cane rather than no cane.”
Consider Potential Risk
Although several of the experts said they would not discourage someone from using a colored cane, they did think that the user should consider the potential risk when choosing to use a color other than white. Even so, all the professionals believe that color is an issue primarily because it’s been the symbol of independent travel for blind people for decades. Needless to say, they all agreed, that good O&M techniques–detecting drop-offs and objects in one’s path, knowing what’s ahead and on either side–really makes the user a safe traveler.
The majority were less concerned about cane color than how many people in the public make the connection between a white cane and someone with a visual impairment. To illustrate her concern, one O&M instructor shared this experience:
D’Apice: “When I was training in O&M at San Francisco State, a man approached a group of us standing at the corner with our white canes and asked about our ‘walking group.’ I think he thought the canes were walking sticks!”
Perry, another O&M specialist in Daytona Beach, where the state rehabilitation center is located, noted that frequently drivers will turn even when the person using the cane has stepped into the crosswalk. During a daylong observation at the same corner, seven out of ten drivers ignored the pedestrian right of way. So it’s possible, when drivers do stop for a pedestrian using a mobility cane, they may not even be aware that the person is visually impaired.
Perspectives of the Manufacturer of White and Colored Canes
So what are the thoughts of Ambutech, one of the largest manufacturers of mobility canes for people in North America and Europe? Below is a list of facts provided by the company’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Gordon Hudek:
- More than 99% of all sales are still white canes
- All canes are covered with 3M highly reflective quality tape (white plus ten other colors are available)
- Each purchaser is cautioned by the company sales rep about challenges related to cane recognition, especially when traveling
- They rely on recommendations from O&M instructors, whenever possible
- The company is equally concerned about driver recognition of a colored cane and is sponsoring current research on this topic
- Coming soon is a new style of cane called the “Highlight” cane. These can be custom ordered with a choice of new grips in four “vibrant colors,” but the cane will be primarily white with colored accents.
Exploring this topic has produced as many questions as it’s answered, such as:
- How is color affecting driver recognition?
- Is a colored cane covered under a “white cane” law?
- Does color really impact safety when crossing streets?
- Is the person with the visual impairment more responsible for his or her own safety than the driver of a vehicle?