White Cane Day – Independence, Freedom, and Visibility
October 10th, 2018
Close up image of a white cane on yellow tacticle strips.
White Cane Day, known in the United States as Blind Americans Equality Day, is a day where we reflect and celebrate how far we’ve come in realizing independence and equality for blind and low-vision people around the globe. However, it would be remiss of me to say that our job is done and that all is right with the world.
Yes, it is a day to celebrate. And celebrate we must, because we have come a long way since 1921, when James Biggs of Bristol, UK, first decided to paint his walking stick white to be more visible to motorists around his home.
George A. Bonham, of the Lions Club International, is attributed as being the man to bring the white cane to America – for a remarkably similar reason as James Biggs. In 1930, a Lions Club member watched as a blind man tried to cross the street with a black cane that was barely visible to motorists against the dark pavement. The Lions, in response to this, decided to paint the cane white to make it more visible. So effective was this measure that, in 1931, Lions Club International began to formally advocate the use of white canes for people who are blind.
The history behind the white cane is an interesting one, and I encourage everyone reading this to learn more about it. But what I want to talk about today is the fact that in both the stories I just mentioned, it was the blind individual that had to be more visible – not their sighted peers who had to be more attentive. And so, a pattern emerges. A pattern of working toward being seen.
In researching this piece, I reached out to several blind and low-vision co-workers and friends to learn what White Cane Day meant to them. The theme of “Independence” prevailed through every story I heard. That, and “Freedom of Movement”: to go where you want, when you want.
I learned that the white cane is a direct symbol of independence and freedom – not just because it gives blind and low-vision people the means to navigate their environment, but also because it makes them visible in a world that is biased toward those with sight. It’s that fight for visibility that makes White Cane Day so important to so many – from crossing the street with the reassurance that motorists will see you, to being seen as an equal in the workforce, and being seen as able to provide the same love and care to children as any sighted person.
On October 6, 1964, a joint resolution of the US Congress was signed into law authorizing the President of the United States to proclaim October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day. And then in 2016, President Barack Obama proclaimed October 15 to be Blind Americans Equality Day. The change in name is important to note because it reflects the progress made by the Blind and Low-vision Community to be seen as equals in society, and not merely present.
Visibility is critical here because a key issue for those who are blind is not a lack of vision, but a lack of access to visual information in a vision-first world. And visibility is the first step in acknowledging what we need to accomplish to ensure equal access for all.
In other words, problems need to be identified before they can be fixed. From making web pages more accessible; to ensuring schools have access to educational materials written in Braille; to hiring more people from the wealth of talent in the Blind and Low-vision Community; we can, and will, level the playing field.
So, White Cane Day is not just a celebration of independence and freedom – it’s also the world’s time to say, “We see you.”
To learn more about the history of White Cane Day, visit these websites:
- Wikipedia on the White Cane
- 10 Fascinating Facts About the White Cane
- President Obama’s Blind Americans Equality Day Proclamation
- White Cane Safety Day: A Symbol of Independence
- White Cane Awareness: A History of White Cane Safety Day
To celebrate White Cane Day and all it stands for, Aira will be attending these events:
- October 11: Although it’s not an official White Cane Day celebration, Aira will be at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind and League of Innovative Schools event. As it ties into the spirit of White Cane Day, we want to show our support for the shared mission of improving outcomes for students, and solving the challenges facing K-12 schools through the powerful and smart use of learning technologies.
- October 15: White Cane Day Celebration at Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind
- October 17: White Cane Day Celebration at California School for the Blind
Written by Marc da Motta, a member of Team Aira