Author’s note: The nation celebrates White Cane Safety Day on October 15. As this celebration occurs, the historic white color of this “visible symbol of a blind person’s ability to come and go on his own,” as President Johnson stated in the original proclamation, is competing with a growing interest in choice of colors by users for their canes. This post is part one of a two-part series that will (1) give a brief historical evolution of the white cane in the U.S. and Europe; (2) explore the perspectives of users of the long white cane, professionals in the field of orientation and mobility, and product manufacturers; (3) look at some research of the effect that colored canes may have on the yielding behavior of driver; and investigate the white cane laws and pedestrian safety laws to see when or if the white cane gives the user any advantage.
Part 1: Historical Evolution of the Long White Mobility Cane
Many readers may remember the movie “Scent of A Woman.” The main character is a retired military colonel who is struggling with his recent blindness. Reluctantly, he accepts a mobility cane but it’s black not white. Although the movie purportedly stirred the current interest in abandoning the traditionally historic white color and procuring a cane of another color, the black cane used in the movie was not a new idea.
The History of the White Cane
Stepping back several hundred years in history, blind people used the “cane” merely as a travel tool. Not until the twentieth century was the cane, as we know it today, promoted for use as a symbol to alert others to the fact that an individual is blind. This new role for the cane had its origins in the decades between the two World Wars, beginning in Europe and then spreading to North America. The artist, James Biggs of Bristol, England, claimed to have invented the “white cane” in 1921. After an accident took his sight, the artist had to readjust to his environment. Feeling threatened by increased motor vehicle traffic around his home, Biggs decided to paint his black walking stick white to make himself more visible to motorists. A decade later the BBC suggested in its 1931 radio broadcasts that people who were blind be provided with a “white stick,” which would become universally recognized as a symbol that an individual was blind or visually impaired
In North America, Lion’s Clubs International is credited with the introduction of the white cane. In 1930, a Lion’s Club member watched a blind man attempt to cross a busy street using a black cane. Recognizing that the black cane was barely visible against the asphalt to motorists, the Lion’s Club decided to paint the cane white to increase its visibility to oncoming traffic. Thus, in 1931, the Lion’s Clubs International began a national “white cane program.” (Note this history was excerpted from History of the White Cane by Phillip Strong.
More about the Lions Club International Role
Dr. Grace Ambrose-Zaken, Hunter College, states that perhaps only orientation and mobility specialists are aware that Lion’s Clubs International developed a white cane for use in their program; however, this cane was short in length, designed for identification only and not for independent travel. The blind person would hold the cane straight out in front of his body as he attempted to cross the street. This cane was white to make it more visible. However, they discovered that this white cane did not improve safety, and so they added the red tip to make the cane red and white like a stop sign. This,too, did not make the individual’s mobility safer, because the cane was too short to assist with travel.
Development of the Long Cane and Technique
When many veterans of World War II returned to America blind or visually impaired, Doctor Richard Hoover developed the “long cane” and the “Hoover” method of cane travel in an attempt to help return veterans to participatory lifestyles. The Hoover cane was white and designed to be used as a mobility device and returned the “cane” to its original historic role as a tool for mobility. At the same time it maintained the symbolic role as an identifier.(ACB History of White Cane).
Cane and Cane Technique Still in Use Today
Since the 1940’s, the long cane developed by Hoover and the cane technique are still used today. Catalogs offer folding, telescoping, graphite, aluminum canes with pencil, marshmallow, roller ball, etc. tips, but, overall, the structure and color has remained the same basic reflective white or reflective white with red tip. The Presidential signing of the White Cane Safety Day referendum in 1964 marked a climactic moment in a long campaign of the organized blind movement to gain state as well as national recognition for the white cane. Anyone carrying one of these canes is perceived to be blind or deaf-blind.
White Cane with Color Used in Europe
According to Dr. Laura Bozeman, University of Massachusetts, Boston and Gordon Hudek, engineer with Ambutech, in Europe, color has been added to the white cane, not to make a fashion statement, but to identify the users level of vision loss. For example, in England, the traditional white cane with red tip is used by someone who is deaf-blind. Blue or yellow added to the white cane signifies that the user is blind or low vision. Small children are trained with colored canes to encourage them to use their cane. An O&M instructor in Sweden reported that one day when a group of her children were waiting at a bus stop with their pink canes, a sighted child waiting with her mother began crying because she wanted a pink cane like the blind children had.
Colored or Colored Enhanced Canes Now Appearing in the United States and Canada
Now colored enhanced or solid color canes are appearing all around the U.S. and Canada. Many users are ordering them to make a fashion statement or to support their favorite sports team. Others feel they will be less visible as a person who is blind. What kind of impact is the color revolution having on the iconic long white mobility cane that’s been visible for more than 60 years?
Stay tuned for the next post: Perspectives of Cane Users and Professionals on Using a Colored Cane
The UnSeen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in the U.S.. The book includes historical chronologies of events extending to the present and bringing readers up to date on the current trends in the field.