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Blindness & Visual Impairment,  Low Vision Products,  Technology

The White Cane: History & Laws

How do blind and visually impaired people navigate the world? The white mobility cane. These canes come in various colors, sizes, materials, and tips. We will explore these aspects of choosing a cane along with other types of white canes.

The History of the White Cane

Blind and visually impaired people have been using canes to navigate their world for thousands of years, but the addition of the color white appears to have occurred in the first half of the 1900’s. The addition of the white color is significant during the 1920’s and 1930’s because this was the point at which motor vehicles began to fill the roadways.

Around 1921, it is claimed that a British man named James Biggs experienced an accident that took his sight. He found the increasing motor traffic to be unsettling and decided to paint his walking stick white to increase his visibility.

Later in 1931, a French man named Guilly d’Herbemont began a national movement to promote the use of a white cane for blind individuals. News of this movement in France reached British newspapers and lead to the suggestions on BBC radio that blind people be given “white sticks” that would stand as a symbol of blindness.

The use of a white cane in the United States was attributed to the Lion’s Club International, and it occurred around 1930. It’s said that a Lion’s Club member watched a blind man crossing a busy street with a black cane and realized that the black color was a challenge to see. So in 1930, the Lion’s Club International began a movement in the USA to encourage blind individuals to use a white cane.

Initially these white cane movements just assumed the cane would be a method of identifying a blind person, but after WWII as increasing numbers of veterans were returning blind, things began to change.

Dr. Richard Edwin Hoover, who was already established as an advocate for the blind community, was an army commander assigned to care for blind veterans in 1944. During his time there, he developed the long cane that we know today and a technique to use that cane for mobility and independent travel. His technique involved sweeping the cane from side to side with the tip touching the ground.

White Cane Regulations & Laws

White cane regulations and laws began in the USA in 1930. The first white cane ordinance was passed in Peoria, Illinois, that allowed blind pedestrians the right-of-way while carrying a white cane. From that point, various other states and cities began promoting the use of the white cane and passing ordinances. The first state law to be signed was signed in 1937 by Michigan governor Frank Murphy. This law granted any user of a white can protection while traveling the streets of Michigan.

A document on a table being signed

In 1964, congress signed into law a joint resolution authorizing the President of the USA to proclaim October 15 as White Cane Safety Day. Once President Lyndon B. Johnson named White Cane Safety Day, the white cane grew in recognition as a mobility tool and an identifier of blindness.

Every state in the USA has some form of white cane law designating that a blind person has the right-of-way and that vehicles must yield, stop, or use caution when approaching intersections and crosswalks. These state laws all vary so widely, that it can be helpful to scan through any state laws that may be relevant to you specifically.

Some states specify that a blind person must be carrying a white cane. Some don’t mention a cane at all. Other states mention a white cane, guide dog, or guide dog in training.

You can check your state laws here, though you may need to find the original law text via a google search, because many of the links on this list are broken.

Do the Colors Have Meaning?

The mobility cane is white in order to make it more visible and recognizable to the public, but canes can be purchased in various colors and designs that cater to a person’s style and preference. Be sure to check the previously mentioned white cane laws before customizing your cane. You may need to customize the cane while still leaving some white coloring exposed to benefit from white cane laws in your state or country.

Customizing the mobility cane allows people to personalize it and make it theirs. As a result, a custom cane makes the user more comfortable with using it. It can also be an excellent conversation starter and allow the user to spread awareness about blindness and visual impairment.

Mobility, ID/Symbol, & Support Canes

There are three main styles of white cane. We’ve been discussing the mobility cane, which is used to navigate the world as a blind or visually impaired person. You can find some varieties on the Ambutech website, but this is by no means a definitive offering.

The ID/Symbol can is used to identify a person as legally blind or visually impaired but is not used to navigate. These do not have a grip or a tip. Check out the aluminum version Ambutech has available.

Support canes can also be found in white. These are used by those who need a support cane to get around and also have a visual impairment. You can check out a couple different support cane styles from Ambutech.

Resources

American Council of the Blind: “The History of the White Cane

American Printing House for the Blind (APD): “Richard Edwin Hoover

The joint resolution that designated White Cane Safety Day.

American Council of the Blind (ACB): “White Cane Laws for States

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

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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