© Copyright 2017 Kelly Craigen, Ryerson University.
The white cane is an object that is most often seen being held in the hands of a person in a public space, as demonstrated in the attached image. Without even seeing the eyes of this person holding the white cane, I am certain that viewers of the image, myself included, are making assumptions about them. Not all people who are visually impaired use a white cane, but every person who does use a white cane like this one is visually impaired; and thus this tool has come to symbolize and signify blindness. So why do some visually impaired people choose to use the white cane?
The white cane is a tool that can support the independent travel of visually impaired people through public spaces by acting as a probe that will help detect the nature of their walking path. The “Hoover Method” is the standard technique used when the white cane is being utilized for this purpose, where the cane is held out in front of the user’s body and moved from side to side to feel for changes or obstructions on the walkway. As it grazes the ground, the white cane makes different vibrations and sounds that can relay information about the nature of the environment that the person is not otherwise able to learn from their vision.
The white cane can also be used as a tool of identification, as it signifies the user’s vision impairment. Without a white cane, the visually impaired person would perhaps appear non-disabled to onlookers, as blindness is typically a disability that is invisible to the eye of a sighted person. There are various reasons why a person may choose to out their vision impairment, most of them safety-related. It allows sighted-people who are occupying the same space to know to give the cane-user more space in the crowd to allow the cane-user the right of way in pedestrian traffic.
I understand how this white cane can be an aid for the blind and visually impaired. It is a technology that assists blind peoples’ independent movement within a public space and facilitates inclusion into the mundane activity of walking down the street. But neither of those explanations of cane use provide a fully complete answer to the question of “why” the cane is utilized.
Visually impaired people who chose to do so use the cane because the world in which they live has been designed by sighted people for sighted people, and this is a disabling barrier for those who are not sighted. The cane is a tool for visually impaired people to navigate, perhaps both literally and figuratively, their space in an environment that is so often not accessible for them. As sighted people looking at the white cane in this way, it is no longer something that is solely representative of the user’s lack of vision, but it becomes a greater symbol of the dangers and disabling barriers that visually impaired people experience in our occularcentric world.
Sket, Christine. “How to Get a Free White Cane.” Braille Works, October 15, 2014.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.
Elkin, James. “How to Use Your Eyes.” Routledge, 2000.
Kleege, Georgina. “Blindness and Visual Culture: An Eyewitness Account.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 447-455.
Omansky, Beth. “Blindness and Visual Impairment.” Encyclopedia of Disability, edited by Gary L. Albrecht, Sage Publications, 2006.
Winter, Bill. “10 fascinating facts about the white cane.” Perkins School for the Blind, October 15, 2015.