Why Use The Long White Cane?

by Allan Nichols

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          From the Associate Editor: Allan Nichols is one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Wyoming. He recently graduated from the Colorado Center for the Blind, one of the NFB adult rehabilitation centers, where he mastered Braille and the use of the long white cane. He is now a forceful and dedicated proponent of both skills. (See the February, 1991 issue of the Braille Monitor for his article on using Braille as a diabetic.) Recently he has been thinking about cane travel and the importance of coming to terms with the long white cane, and he has made me stop and think about the same subject.

          The first cane I was trained to use was made of aluminum and came to my diaphram. It had a crook at the top; its tip got caught in every crack in the sidewalk; and I hated it.

          The summer before I left for college, my state agency counselor suggested that I switch to a folding cane so that I wouldn't be so conspicuous. He explained (with faulty logic that even I should have spotted at the time) that a folding cane didn't need to be as long as a straight cane. So I armed myself with a waist-length cane that would fall apart whenever the elastic wore through--generally in the most inconvenient and embarrassing places--and entered college.

          Not until I joined the Federation did my cane, like my mind and my spirit, begin to grow. Almost my first act in the exhibit hall at my first national convention was to purchase a fifty-seven-inch straight cane. It was longer than any cane I had ever seen, let alone used, and it took me a few weeks to get used to handling the greater length. But through the years my canes have grown to sixty-three inches. They come to my nose when I am wearing high heels, and I keep several on hand to use with different color combinations and in different situations.

          I often observe cane-users around me and wonder why so many continue to cling to canes that are obviously and painfully too short for them. Mr. Nichols has asked himself this same question, and his analysis appears in the article that follows. But I think that there are at least two additional factors to consider:

          Despite all our talk about the many ways in which Federationists help one another to improve their cane technique, many of us don't find ourselves in situations in which we can ask really competent cane travelers to show us what good cane technique looks and feels like. People who do not travel independently with confidence usually go to chapter meetings and state and national conventions with others who are willing to give them a hand. So they don't find themselves alone with good travelers where they can talk and work without inconveniencing a sighted guide. Cane travel seminars at state conventions, in which people are encouraged to move around the hotel using longer canes and improved technique, can be very helpful to many members. Good travelers should make a point of offering to work with interested people whenever there is an opportunity. This must be done tactfully, however. It is easy for a short-cane user to be made uncomfortable by implied or direct criticism. The truth is that the quality of one's travel skills, not the quality of one's mind or spirit, is reflected in the length of one's cane and the dexterity with which one uses it.

          The other issue that we confront very infrequently is the question of how to manage the increased length of a cane. Personally I think it is better to get used to a longer cane gradually. I don't mean using a long cane occasionally and a short cane the rest of the time. Rather, I recommend that people who do not have the luxury of working with a good cane travel teacher regularly begin with a cane that is two to four inches longer than the one they are used to traveling with. The increase in the amount of information obtained will be immediate and noticeable, and one can learn to manage the slightly greater length more easily than one can an increase of ten inches or a foot. As one's skill and confidence increase, one will instinctively replace each cane with a longer one until the right cane length is achieved. Many cane travel teachers suggest that the cane should come up to the chin. Faster walkers will want somewhat longer canes.

          I have heard three complaints leveled at the long cane: it is hard to stow safely in a car; it is hard to keep out of other people's way when it is not in use; and it is hard to use safely and courteously in a crowd. All of these complaints have some validity, but all are solvable.

          There are some cars manufactured in the developing world that really are too small for a long straight cane. I rode in several of them last year in the Philippines. In such situations there is no alternative but to use a telescoping cane and collapse it before entering the car. But most cars driven in America, even if they are small, are large enough to admit a long straight cane. The problems evaporate if one remembers to bring the handle in first if one is entering the front seat and the tip in first if one is assigned the back seat. When the handle comes first, push it back over the shoulder nearest the door, and guide the tip in with your hand until it is resting on the floor beside your feet. In this way it will not be crushed when the door is closed. If the back seat of a four-door car is your destination, get in and slide the tip along the side of the front seat until enough of the shaft is lying between the front seat and the front door to allow you to pull the handle through the back door. Hold the cane close to your body and close the door. Getting into the back seat of a two-door car will require a certain amount of trial and error since the size of the door will determine the best way to bring the cane in. But if you have mastered front and back seat entry in a four-door car, you will find yourself in control of the two-door situation.

          The biggest trick to conscientious management of a cane at rest is to remember it. Take note of any nearby walls or corners against which the cane can be propped or slid. If not, can it lie safely along a row of chairs? I keep my foot on my cane to insure that it does not decide to migrate while I am doing something else. One should always know where both ends of the cane are and should keep them out of patterns of traffic. If you can't tell whether the cane is stowed safely, ask someone else if it is out of the way.

          Traveling safely and considerately has its own tricks and rules. In the wide open spaces of an empty sidewalk, the cane tip can arc freely, making a small angle with the ground. The problem is that a cane held in this position can be dangerous to people in front of the blind traveler if the tip accidentally gets between their legs or under one foot. The more densely crowded an area is, the more nearly vertical the cane should be held. The larger angle formed by the cane and the ground decreases the distance one can sweep, but in a crowd one does not need as much stopping time or distance since one's speed is necessarily slowed. The pencil grip is the best way to hold a cane in a crowd since one has maximum control in this position, and the hand can slide quickly and easily down the shaft of the cane in order to shorten the length being used. As soon as the path opens again, with a flip of the fingers the cane will slide back out to its full length.

          There is ample reason for each of us to practice and master these skills. We have all seen people use canes rudely, and one can hardly blame others for wanting to avoid behavior that can anger or injure other people. But the long white cane is a wonderful tool, and everyone who uses a cane at all should be encouraged to try it. Here is Allan Nichols' article about his experience:

          Last week I received a telephone call from our chapter president. He told me about a bad accident that had happened to a blind woman who lives across from him in his apartment building. She took a bad fall in an antique store. It is not my intention to embarrass her in this article. However, I do want to point out the way in which this unfortunate accident could have been prevented by the proper use of a long white cane.

          I telephoned her in the hospital the day after it happened because I was concerned about her. She told me that she had been in a local antique store, where she asked an employee for directions to a particular item. She said that this employee had given her confusing instructions. Before she knew what had happened, she had walked into a stairwell and had fallen, unable to stop herself. Her injuries included a broken right wrist, two broken fingers on her left hand, and multiple bruises on her neck, head, back, and legs. As bad as things are, she was fortunate that her fall did not paralyze or kill her. A woman in her seventies and almost totally blind, she uses a short support cane when she goes out by herself.

          On the surface this is just an unfortunate accident caused by miscommunication between a blind woman and a store employee. However, a closer look at this woman's background sheds light on the possible reason that this accident occurred.

          She uses a short white support cane for the limited independent travel she does. According to her friend in the apartment building, her cane is just long enough to check a few inches in front of her. She uses it because it gives her support when she walks. When asked why she does not use a longer one, she has told him, "I know a person who was in an accident because he used one of those long canes." I know that she has not had proper training in the use of the long white cane. In talking with her just the other day, I learned that in the three times she has attended the blind camp offered here in Wyoming, no one ever gave her training in mobility and the use of the long white cane. She has picked up the limited knowledge she has of how to use her short cane on her own.

          In the National Federation of the Blind we have the opportunity to share good ideas and travel techniques with each other. When one of us encounters a problem or learns a lesson the hard way, we share the knowledge in an effort to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. That is one of the reasons why we have the NFB training centers located in Colorado, Louisiana and Minnesota. I am sure that there are other training programs across the country also effectively teaching good techniques to blind people. The Federation's fifty-one years of progress in sharing information and the good rehabilitation teaching that exists in several locations suggest that we have already worked out many of the problems with travel techniques. The task now is getting this information to the people who really need it.

          What am I suggesting? Could this woman have avoided this bad accident? I believe so. First of all, if she had been using a long white cane, she would have had adequate warning before she came to the steps on which she fell. A properly sized cane should sweep two to three steps in front of the user who is walking at a normal pace. I received a good portion of my mobility training at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB). The travel instructors encouraged each of us to use a cane that came up to between the chin and the tip of the nose when held vertically.

          When I first arrived at the CCB in Denver, I was using a short (forty-eight-inch) straight cane and a folding cane, about fifty-two inches long. Neither of these, however, was satisfactory for me to use in walking confidently. The short straight cane did not allow me to walk upright. It also did not give me adequate warning of obstacles in front of me. My folding cane, while a bit longer, was too heavy to allow me to get a good rhythm when I walked. Its length proved inadequate.

          On my first day of mobility training, my travel instructor gave me a fifty-seven-inch cane to use. My first reaction to it was that it seemed to be too long for me. However, the more I used it, the more I began to rely on its additional length to warn me of hazards in my path. After a few months of using this length cane, the size did not seem so unwieldy any more. Before I finished training at the Colorado Center, I changed to a sixty-one-inch cane with which I now feel more comfortable. Being about five feet, ten inches tall, I can walk confidently using this length with a good measure of safety. I have also found that, if I project an image of confidence when I walk, people treat me with more respect. If I look lost or bent over, groping with a cane that is too short, strangers I meet often react to me as if I were disoriented and unsure of myself. This view of blind people perpetuates the myth of helplessness that has for too long kept us from achieving first-class status.

          Since I have been traveling independently, I have had many instances in which the extra length has saved my bacon. While walking on campus at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, I normally keep a fairly quick pace, especially in familiar areas. I can remember two instances in which I could have had disastrous falls. One day I was walking down a hallway briskly, not paying much attention to where I was going. I was a bit farther to one side of the hall than I normally walked. Suddenly, I felt the end of my cane drop. I had located a stairwell that I did not even know existed. I simply stopped, adjusted my path, and continued to my destination. With this simple warning I avoided bodily injury by only a step or two. A second incident happened in a different building. Again I was traveling quickly to get to an appointment. I assumed that the hallway was clear as I walked down it. Unknown to me, someone had placed a cart with audiovisual equipment in my path, just outside a classroom doorway. I hit the equipment cart with my cane in full stride, but because I had the proper length of cane, I had adequate time to react, and I was able to stop before I cracked into it.

          Certainly there is no way for blind people to avoid all accidents, just as there is no way for sighted people to do so. About eleven years ago, when I became the manager of a Randolph-Sheppard cafeteria in Cheyenne, I had an experience that graphically illustrates this point. The day that I received the door keys to my coffee shop for the first time, I felt quite proud of myself as I left for the evening. I walked out of my coffee shop located in the basement of the GSA Post Office complex in downtown Cheyenne and prepared to mount the stairs, ready to go home. I was not paying much attention to what I was doing and definitely not covering the area in front of my feet with my cane. I subsequently plowed my head into the wall next to the stairwell. Seeing stars for the first time in years, I felt the blood trickling down my face. Fortunately, a building maintenance man saw my problem and helped me. In this instance I do not know if my problem was my lack of attention to what I was doing, my short cane, or my lack of skill in using it. Perhaps it was a combination of all three. I do know that I have avoided similar disasters since then by having the proper size cane and acquiring the training to use it correctly.

          It seems to me that fear of the unknown is our greatest enemy. Many newly blinded individuals, and some not so newly blinded ones, fear going places by themselves. Either they do not go out at all, or they wait until a sighted family member or friend can accompany them. I believe that it is their fear of being involved in an accident that keeps some blind people confined to their own homes. The use of a long white cane and the knowledge to use one can ameliorate this fear. After sufficient training and getting experience using the cane, a blind person can safely and confidently travel virtually anywhere. The valuable training I received at the Colorado Center for the Blind has proven this to me. I have traveled through the streets of downtown Denver independently with no fear of imperiling myself. I have used Denver's regional bus system to travel from my apartment in the suburb of Littleton to Denver, then to Boulder to walk around the campus of the University of Colorado, before returning home. All of this travel was done using my own wits and my long white cane.

          Others may prefer using a guide dog. But whether we use a dog or a cane, we need to be in charge of where we go and what we do.

          The cane and the dog are just tools. They can be used properly or misused. For instance, no one would dare imply that we ought to outlaw the use of hammers for constructing buildings. Some people have accidentally hit themselves with a hammer, but this is no reason to get rid of hammers. They are simply tools, and people need to know how to use them properly. The same can be said for the long white cane. It is not simply a device telling others that we are blind and that they either ought to stay out of our way or ought to rush sympathetically to preserve such helpless creatures. The long white cane must be recognized as a device that blind people use as a tool of independence.

          I am not ashamed to be seen with my long white cane. I think of it in the way others might regard their eyeglasses. When I travel on an airliner, I view anyone who wants to take my cane away the same way as another person might a flight attendant who tried to confiscate his eyeglasses. Until we blind people feel comfortable and unashamed walking with our canes, we will not achieve the first-class status we so rightly want. Until the sighted world views our canes as normal and a part of our independence, we will continue to have an image problem. With adequate education of blind people in using the long white cane, we can overcome the fear of traveling anywhere we wish. When others see us participating in our communities, not fearing our blindness, we will make headway in overcoming the negative stereotypes that have traditionally plagued us. Let us grab our long white canes and confidently and fearlessly stride out to join the rest of the world.

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