It's white cane awareness day!
To mark this occasion I thought it was time I tell you about my journey with the cane and why I love using it. After all, today is all about sharing why the cane is such a vital tool for visually impaired people! I'll also explain what the white cane means and the different types blind and visually impaired people use.
What is the white cane?
According to the Industries for the blind and visually impaired, people with sight loss began using the white cane in England and France during the 1920s and 30s because cars and other vehicles made it difficult to travel with a standard cane. It was painted white, to make it easier for others to see. Today the white cane is universally known as a mobility aid blind and visually impaired people use to navigate unfamiliar environments. Sight loss is a spectrum, just because someone uses a white cane it doesn't mean they're fully blind. 93% of people registered as legally blind still have some useful vision left!
The Four Types of Canes:
Now that I've explained what a white cane is, let's discuss the different types of canes people with sight loss use in the UK. Yes, there's more than one type of cane! Each cane is built and used for different reasons. Depending on your level of vision, you may end using only one type of cane, or maybe more.
The Symbol Cane:
As you can probably tell from the name, the symbol cane is used to symbolise the user has "low but useful vision". In other words, they can see something but not as well as everyone else. It's the only cane you use by holding it front of you as you walk (not on the ground) and it indicates to people that you're partially sighted. A symbol cane is also the shortest of the canes, as it's usually just below the waist. When I used a symbol cane I found that in busy places, people always moved out of the way as I approached. It's a great cane to use if you can get by with your level of vision just fine, but want people to move out of the way anyway.
|IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a male person icon in white, which is in a walking position holding a white symbol cane in front of it. It's on a green background. Image from RNIB's Cane Explained page|
The Guide Cane:
Is a type of cane you use to find an obstacle before it finds you! Unlike the symbol cane, you have to let it touch the ground. It's also waist length, so naturally touches the ground as you walk. The user places it in front of them diagonally to find obstacles like a curb or gap in the pavement as they walk. During my brief stint with the guide cane, I found that the tip at the bottom of the cane (the part that touches the ground) would get stuck in small wholes, or gaps in the pavement. This would make me stop abruptly when walking. Not to mention have the handle jab me in the stomach! Not fun.
|IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a male person icon in white, which is in a walking position holding a white guide cane in front of it diagonally which touches the ground. It's on a green background. Image from RNIB's Cane Explained page|
The Long Cane:
Like the name suggests, the long cane is the longest cane, it goes all the way up to the user's chest. It's a type of cane which you use to find obstacles in front of you before you approach them. Unlike the guide cane you need to be trained on how to use it beforehand. The user rolls or taps the cane tip on the ground side to side, to identify upcoming obstacles on the path. Personally, I prefer the rolling method. It's also heavier than the other two. You need to learn different techniques to use in different situations. For example, when walking up the stairs, you hold the cane in front of you to hear it hit the steps as you walk up. Doing that, helps the individual learn when they're back on a flat surface.
|IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a male person icon in white, which is in a walking position holding a white long cane with a marshmallow tip in front of it diagonally which touches the ground. It's on a green background. Image from RNIB's Cane Explained page|
The image above has a roller marshmallow tip, which you can get as hook style, or thread style that's attached to the cane. I think it's a standard tip for a long cane. It's shaped like an upside down marshmallow and rolls around on the floor. Some visually impaired people feel it's too small and doesn't give enough feedback of what to expect. There are now different cane tips available, such as a ceramic tip shaped like half a ball, white disk tip, jumbo roller tip and omni-sense white cane tip. Also when changing a cane tip you have to be really quick, if you let go and can't put the tip back on tge m cane falls apart.
The Red and White Cane:
In the UK a red and white striped cane is used to indicate the user has a visual impairment and is hard of hearing. It's the cane people who are deafblind use. According to the deafblind UK website, many deafblind people use the cane to navigate obstacles and let people know they'll need more time make decisions and move in busy places. In America it's the cane people who are legally blind use. The red and white cane is available in a long cane style, or a symbol cane style.
|IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a male person icon in white, which is in a walking position holding a red and white striped long cane with a marshmallow tip in front of it diagonally which touches the ground. It's on a green background. Image from RNIB's Cane Explained page|
My Experience With The Cane:
I've been visually impaired my whole life, but never used a cane growing up. There wasn't a need because I always had someone sighted to help me and could familiarise myself with places in my local area. It wasn't until I was at sixth form, where I used a cane for the first time. I was learning the route to my sixth form with my orientation and mobility instructor, which involved taking the tube at a busy train station. My instructor suggested I get a symbol cane and use that when out and about. I'll be honest with you, I didn't like that idea. I mean, I didn't need one. I had enough vision and could see just fine without it. Looking back, I think that was some internal ableism that I had, I'd only ever seen people who had worse vision than me use it and learnt to use the vision I had. It never crossed my mind to use a cane. For people with disabilities, there's a point in your life of acceptance, where you yourself need to accept that you need to start using this mobility aid which will make your life easier. The item was designed to help you, but it's difficult to accept that it's something you have to start using. It symbolises to the world that you have a disability. You can no longer try to be like everyone else. To me, this is something that's hard to overcome and it's fine to feel like that. At some point, you'll get more comfortable with the idea, you just need to give yourself time to get there.
When I did eventually use it, I loved it! People moved out of my way when I walked, so it was a lot easier to navigate busy environments. My friend described it perfectly, when I use my cane it's like I'm on a red carpet and people are moving out of the way to let me pass. Unfortunately my cane journey didn't end there. As I became more confident with my mobility skills, I started going to new places independently. New places meant, unfamiliar environments and things I didn't know I needed to watch out for. Ironically, the reason why I had to switch canes was in my local area, a route I knew quite well. I was walking to my local station and there was a lot of small gaps and uneven pavements on this walk. Also once at my university campus too. I tripped and sprained my ankle. Not once, but two to three times. I once went to A and E after a lecture at university because my ankle was hurting. Honestly, it was getting to a point where my cause of death would have been walking. I looked into different types of canes and suggested to my mobility instructor that I get a guide cane, we talked it over the phone and she explained that I needed a long cane. Guide canes only help you find obstacles on one side of your body, long canes help you find obstacles in front of you before you reach them. Before I could buy a long cane, I needed training from my local council. In the mean time, I purchased a guide cane to use, whilst I waited for that to start. I found the guide cane was ok, not great. It helped me find obstacles on my left side, since I'm right handed and when holding it diagonally the tip was on my left. But it kept getting stuck in small wholes, or cracks in the ground. I'd always stop in surprise as the handle punched me in the stomach. Once I started my long cane training, I gave my guide cane to a man at a Harrow Middlesex association of the blind meet up that I went to. His didn't have a tip and he couldn't get a tip for his cane anymore. My long cane has been my go-to cane ever since. I find it helps me identify things like changes in the pavement, objects in the ground and steps when crossing the road. All of which make it easier (and safer) for me to navigate independently. I love the feeling of confidence and independence my cane has given me. Along with how people are more helpful because they can see I have a disability.
For the most part, I use my cane when out with friends, or family. Having said that, there are still certain situations where I don't feel comfortable using it, namely at weddings. I'm not at that point. However, Visualise with Bhavini does have a blog post about her experience doing that. So, if you'd like to know what that's like check out her blog. As you can see, I've only ever used the traditional white cane, but there are so many different types out there now! If you'd like to find out more about the different types of canes check out The Blind Life YouTube Channel which has videos about different types of white canes. That's all I wanted to share with you all about my cane journey. If you aren't a cane user, hopefully you found it useful to learn about the white cane. Also for those of you who need to start using a cane, but are reluctant to do so I hope my experience has helped you become more comfortable with it.