Choosing a white cane: Texture and material featured image
Blindness & Visual Impairment,  Low Vision Products,  Technology

Choosing a White Cane: Style & Material

Choosing a cane is a very personal decision, but there are numerous factors to take into consideration when making this decision. If you haven’t checked out my other post on White Cane History and Laws, feel free to do so.

To consume this information and more in an audiovisual format, check out my YouTube playlist All About the (White) Cane.

Folding, Straight, & Telescoping

The choice between a folding, straight, or telescoping cane is really about preference. These canes evolved from a shepherd’s staff to a walking cane, a walking cane with white coloring, and then finally to the long straight cane that we know today. Generally straight canes are recommended for learning, so that you do not feel the urge to hide a folding or telescoping cane away at every chance. There is something to be said about having some pride and respect for the white cane, though I know firsthand how hard that pride and respect is to find in the beginning.

Four mobility canes lay on a wooden deck. One straight white cane is on top. Three folding canes are below the long cane folded up side by side. The two on the outside are black, red, and white. The one in the middle is blue, purple, and white.

A straight cane may be slightly more challenging to stow while traveling, but it is doable. They can be stowed on planes, in cars, under tables and chairs, and more if you’re creative enough.

A folding cane is my go-to, because I have the most experience with this style. It can be found in several different materials including aluminum, fiberglass, graphite, and carbon fiber. You can even choose how many sections it breaks down into.

A telescoping cane will be the most compact and is most likely to fit within a handbag or pocket. These may be best suited for those who do not use a cane in every situation and may need to stow it away often. These can be had in fiberglass, carbon fiber, and graphite compound materials.

Materials

Today, you can purchase canes in various materials and options. Each of these materials and components will affect the type of feedback you get while using the cane for mobility.

Aluminum

Aluminum canes are the heaviest and they are quite sturdy. These can take quite a beating, and if they are bent out of place, they can generally be repaired. This is generally what folding canes are made from. My first two folding canes were aluminum.

Fiberglass

My very first white cane was a free straight cane made of fiberglass from the National Federation of the Blind’s (NFB) Free White Cane Program. It is a light and plain hollow design. I’ve had it for over ten years, but I did not use it steadily over that period. I did travel with it by plane with no major incidence. Soon after that trip, I did buy a folding cane for convenience.

You can get these in solid and hollow tube designs. The solid one will take a beating and it weighs a bit less than aluminum, but if either the solid or hollow tube designs do break, they can splinter. FIberglass splinters are not fun.

Graphite

Graphite canes tend to be a composite of materials including graphite. These are more lightweight than aluminum canes. They tend to have a lot of flex and a good sense of “feel” when navigating around objects.

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber is lighter still and even stronger. This cane material can take a beating. Carbon fiber seems to be the most expensive material for a cane. It’s the most fascinating material choice to me, and I’d love to try it out in the future.

Choosing a Length

As a general rule, you want your cane to reach two steps in front of you at any given time, but you have to consider your experience level and walking speed when choosing the length. The NFB recommends shoulder height for beginning adults and chin height for those who are more experienced or faster-paced walkers. For children and teens, they recommend chin height. I’m assuming this allows for room to grow and margin of error.

I pulled this next quote from a booklet published by the NFB called “Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane.” The example offered here in deciding if your cane is long enough is so descriptive, helpful, and obviously practical that I just have to share if with you:

When you select a cane, start with one that comes into your armpit. Walk up to a blank wall, swinging the cane from side to side two inches wider than the width of your shoulders. As you step left, tap right; as you step right, tap left. When the cane hits the wall, complete the step you are making, and take one more. Was there space for that next step? If so, you have enough stopping distance. If not, add another two or four inches to the cane and try again. I am not the only one who needs the length of that second step for stopping distance.

Thomas Bickford “Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane: Instructions in Cane Travel for Blind People”

So, start with one cane size. As you progress in skill and experience, your walking speed may increase and you may then need to increase the length of your cane. Remember, a cane is a personal thing. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing what is right for you as an individual.

Choosing a Tip

There are so many varieties of cane tips. Choosing one depends on your technique, your terrain, and your preference. In a future post, I’ll detail as many cane tips as I can find and what they are generally used for. This choice is a personal one, and it may change as you become more comfortable with your cane. I encourage you to try out as many as you want. Experimentation is the fun part of this process.

A blue, purple, and white mobility cane lays on a wooden deck folded up. The elastic cord is sticking out of the end. Two hook on tips sit in front of it: the roller ball and the roller marshmallow tip.

The Roller Marshmallow tip is a good place to start for most people using the constant contact technique in which the cane is swept in an arch across the ground in front of him or her. This tip is my favorite so far, and it is used by many of the blind and visually impaired people I have spoken with. I recently purchased the roller ball tip to try as well. It looks promising, but I haven’t had a lot of experience with that one yet.

Remember, it is absolutely best to get Orientation and Mobility training from a professional. There are so many individual skills to learn in this process. If you’re like me at all, you’ll read all the research you can get your hands on, and that’s why I’ve written these articles for you guys. A lot of O&M skills may be common sense, but there are certain safety concerns to keep in mind. A professional can teach you the skills you need to be safe out there and provide you with supervision while practicing those skills as you learn.

Thanks for reading.

Stay curious.

Resources

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB): “Free White Cane Program

Thomas Bickford: “Care and Feeding of the Long White Cane: Instructions in Cane Travel for Blind People

APH: “Long Cane Techniques

I have Albinism and am legally blind. I have a Master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I'm currently pursuing my passion of writing through this blog and for the Albinism InSight magazine.

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