Celebrating White Cane Awareness Day

October 16th, 2017

Four people cross a crosswalk using white canes.

Four people cross a crosswalk using white canes.

It has been said that the simplest tool is often the best one for the job. For many of us who are blind, the white cane has remained the most profound tool for independent and safe travel. Simple but powerful, the cane conveys information through the senses of touch and sound, enabling an individual who is blind to detect obstructions, find street crossings, walkways and doors and hear information about surroundings. It is universally considered so fundamental that the National Federation of the Blind, or NFB, distribute them at no cost.

The legs of a man in a suit, walking with a white cane in the city.

We celebrate this magnificent tool annually on October 15, which was proclaimed as White Cane Safety Day by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. While respecting the cane as a tool for independence, establishing a White Cane Safety Day was also intended to promote safety, reminding drivers to exercise caution and yield the right of way to blind pedestrians. Today, each state in the nation has a variation of the White Cane Law, which details these rights to safe movement in public spaces.

I was taught to use the cane when I was ten years old. I now own several different types that I use for different situations. I wish it went without saying, but if I could teach the general public one lesson it would be this: please never grab the cane to attempt to lead someone. Canes are our way of seeing our surroundings.

Today, millions of people use white canes. Over the years, they have remained an elegant and valuable tool for independence. Like any groundbreaking product, the cane’s success can be owed in part to the community of professionals and experienced users who have tested and developed techniques for effective use in a variety of situations. Even as information technologies have proliferated, the cane has remained simple, accessible and essential.

Four people cross a crosswalk using white canes.

And, yet, modern tools continue to emerge that enhance our independence and control over our lives and choices as blind people. Technology created specifically for the blind, including magnifiers, screen readers, voice-control services, and braille printers have been invaluable in adding new layers of independence to our lives. But also consider the impact that everyday tech, such as smartphones, have had in expanding our options around transportation, communication, and navigation.

Recently, we have seen a new crop of technologies that leverage these advances in consumer tech to meet the unique needs of the blind community. A technology like Aira enables someone who is blind to obtain assistance with visual tasks and information from a sighted person via a pair of camera-enabled smart glasses and a mobile app. This means that information about signage, construction, and head-high obstacles like trees, not detectable with a cane, is now available to those of us who are blind. And, just as profound, speaking to live human agent enables me to learn more about my surroundings — the attractions, colors, and people around me.

What was originally known as White Cane Safety Day is now known as White Cane Awareness Day. The distinction is an important one. Safety is just the first step in ensuring that people who are blind have the opportunity to lead fully independent lives. According to Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind, “White Cane Awareness Day is our way of emphasizing the critical role that this tool plays in living the lives we want and informing the public about its true significance.”

This White Cane Awareness Day consider all the doors that white canes and other assistive technology can open for the blind community.