The “White Cane” & Vision Impairment

To the Editor:

Since 1964, October 15 has been designated White Cane Safety Awareness Day to celebrate the achievements of people who are blind or visually impaired, and to recognize the importance of that tool for independence. The white cane is a symbol of strength and independence for blind and visually impaired people. As a blind white cane user, I can testify that it has increased my independence and self-confidence, and reduced my dependence upon sighted people.

The white cane idea was born in 1930 when George Bonham, president of the Peoria Illinois Lions Club, watched a man who was blind attempting to cross a street. The man’s cane was black and motorists couldn’t see it. Bonham proposed painting the cane white with a red stripe to make it more noticeable. The idea quickly caught on around the country.

In 1944, Richard E. Hoover, a World War II veteran and rehabilitation specialist pioneered the standard technique—still called the “Hoover Method”— of holding a long cane in the center of the body and swinging it back and forth before each step to detect obstacles.

White canes now come in several varieties: the standard mobility cane, used to navigate; the support cane, used by vision impaired people who also have mobility limitations; and the ID cane, a small, foldable cane used by people with partial sight to let others know they have a visual impairment. There are now high tech ultrasound canes, and canes outfitted with GPS and other smart phone apps.

White Cane Safety Awareness Day also serves as a reminder that laws in all 50 states require drivers to yield the right of way to people with white canes or a dog guide, even when they’re not on a crosswalk. And a reminder is, indeed, needed. The majority of motorists do not stop for me even when I am in a crosswalk, let alone outside one. The driving public could help me and other visually impaired pedestrians enormously simply by recognizing that we are especially vulnerable to traffic. It takes little effort to give us the right of way on the road, especially in crosswalks. It’s the decent thing to do and it’s the law.

Charlie Murphy

Bennington, Vt.

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