#TIL: Did You Know? 7 Cool Facts About The Humble White Cane

By Apoorv Kulkarni

Tap tap tap — that’s the sound of freedom and mobility for millions of persons with visual disability. The white cane has given a sense of independence and agency to the visually disabled community around the world. While the concept of using a stick for probing one’s environment has been centuries old, the white cane as we know it turned popular between the first and the second World War.

Image description: Two women and two men crossing a street with a white cane in their hand.

Here are 7 cool facts about the humble white cane:

1. The canes are painted white so that they are easily visible to the sighted folks such as the motorist. In 1921, James Biggs, a photographer from Bristol became the first person to paint his cane white. He became blind after an accident and was concerned about the amount of traffic around his house. In 1930, a Lions Clubs member in the United States watched a man who was blind attempting to cross the street with a black cane that was barely visible to motorists against the dark pavement. The member therefore decided to paint the cane white so that it became more visible.

2. White canes come in a variety of models. The canes can be made out of different materials such as aluminium, fiberglass and carbon fibre. The construction material determines the white cane’s durability and weight. Canes can be foldable which are easy to carry or can be straight (non-foldable) which are more sturdy and provide better feedback. Lastly, the canes can have different tips such as pencil tip, roller tip, marshmallow tip and metal glide tip. The different tips impact the overall weight of the cane, the quality of feedback, and the surfaces on which a cane can be used, etc..

Image description: Folding white cane. The cane is predominantly white with red colour towards the bottom and a black handle. It is in a partially folded state.

3. Different colours and patterns have different meanings. A cane which is completely white is used by persons who live with blindness. A cane which is painted red towards the bottom indicates that the user has some vision. A cane which has multiple stripes of red and white colour indicates that the user lives with vision as well as hearing loss.

Image description: Aperson holding a red and white cane. The cane has multiple broad stripes of red and white colour.

4. Not all persons living with a visual disability use a white cane. Reliable statistics for India are not available, but it is estimated that only 2–8% of the persons with visual disability in the United States use it. Rest of the people make use of their residual vision or rely on other aids such as a guide dog.

5. The standard way to use a white cane was developed in 1944. Richard E. Hoover, a World War II veterans rehabilitation specialist, used a white cane while being blindfolded for a week. He used this experience to develop what is now the standard method of “long cane” training or the Hoover Method. The technique involves swinging the cane from the center of the body back and forth before the feet to detect any obstacles in the path.

Image description: A person holding a white cane extended in front of him/her. The cane is fully white in colour.

6. The white cane is going high-tech. Researchers and designers from India, The UK, the USA and Turkey are using technologies such as ultrasound, image recognition, etc. to make the white cane even more useful for the persons living with visual disability. These smart white canes are able to recognize faces, detect objects, connect with smartphones and function with apps like Google Maps.

Image description: A person with a computing device fixed near his pocket which is connected to a 3D imaging sensor mounted on the retractable (folding) white cane. The person is also wearing a Bluetooth headset on his right ear which is connected to the computer. This setup is powered by a Li-ion battery which is also attached to the cane, right under the 3D sensor.

7. There’s even an emoji for a person using a white cane. In 2018, Apple suggested including various disability emoji including a person with a probing cane (white cane) in a proposal to the Unicode Consortium. In early 2019, the Consortium announced the approval of the said emoji along with emoji for people in manual and motorized wheelchairs, people walking with guide dogs, an ear with a hearing aid, and a mechanical arm and leg. These emoji were developed by Apple in concert with organizations like the National Association of the Deaf, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and the American Council of the Blind.

Image description: a grid of emoji of persons with different disability, along with emoji for guide dogs and a mechanical arm and leg.

So, how many of these cool facts did you know?

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