White Cane Basics

Questions and answers about white canes
By Jerry Howell

As the title indicates, these questions and answers are very basic. Many of you reading this will be quite faamiliar with blindness and methods of travel used by blind and visually impaired people, but some of you may know very little about the subject, and this discussion is mainly for you, so let's get started.

What is a white cane?

A white cane is a long rodlike device used by blind or visually impaired travelers to give them information about the environment they are traveling through. Using a cane can warn them of obstacles in their path, tell them of stairs they are coming to, warn them that they are coming up to a curb, and tell them of many other things in the environment that they must deal with. The cane will also do something else, it will alert others around them that they are blind, and this can be very helpful. Many, if not all, states have laws concerning how drivers must act when encountering a person using a white cane

How is a white cane actually used to travel?

There are different techniques that are used with the cane to accomplish tasks such as going up or down stairs, navigating escalators, finding doorways, helping to find dropped objects, and many other things, but the technique I will describe here is the method used to allow me and other blind people just like me to walk confidently down a hall or sidewalk.

To start, the person holds the cane handle at the level of their waist using whichever hand they are most comfortable with. They hold the cane with their hand wrapped around the handle with their index finger pointed along the cane shaft and pointing toward the cane tip, which is resting on the ground. While walking, the cane is swept from side to side in an arch about the width of the body. As they walk along, the cane will touch the ground at the end of each sweep from right to left. It is done in such a sequence that the cane taps the spot where the next foot step will land. This allows the person to check things out with each step before their foot lands on the spot. If there is a hole there, the cane will find it first. If there is an object lying on the floor, the cane will encounter it and prevent a stumble or fall. Some people even use the sound of the cane tapping on the walking surface to give them cues about the size of the area they are walking in, and other things that can't be determined easily in other ways.

Will one cane fit all?

The answer is a resounding no! The cane should be long enough so that it comes up to your arm pit when the tip is resting on the floor. This will allow the tip to land on the proper spot as described in the above technique. Some people, after they are experienced with the cane, like to have a cane that is somewhat longer than what I have described, but measuring from your arm pit to the floor will give you a cane length that is definitely usable.

What does a basic cane look like?

White canes come in two basic types, the straight cane and the folding cane.

The straight cane is made of a long tube of aluminum or fiberglass with a handle on one end and a nylon or metal tip on the other. The handle may have a wrist loop on the end or a small crook, which can be used to store the cane when not in use. The body of the cane is covered with a white paint or white reflective tape to provide visibility. Some canes have a few inches of red at the tip, although this is not mandatory.

The folding cane looks similar to a straight cane except that it is broken up in to several sections which are held together by an elastic chord running through the middle of the tubing, which allows it to be held tightly together when unfolded, or folded away when not in use.

What is a white cane usually made of?

As I have stated above, the cane is usually made of fiberglass or aluminum, although other lightweight materials such as graphite are now being used as well. Because a cane is being swept back and forth continually and used in other active ways to detect things in the environment, it is important that the cane be made of light, but durable material to prevent fatigue and stand up to a certain amount of ware and tare during travel. At the time of this writing, the line of canes we offer are made of a light, but durable aircraft aluminum.

Are there different kinds of tips for canes?

Cane tips come in several different kinds. The basic purpose of a tip is to protect the end of the cane shaft as the cane is being tapped or slid across the travelers path. The tip must be durable and must be of such a size and shape that it won't catch on every crack or small hole that is encountered. Here at Howell Mobility Products, we sell several kinds of tips, some that are designed for travel on relatively smooth city streets and inside buildings, and some that are designed especially for rough surfaces such as dirt paths, roads, and grassy surfaces such as parks and yards.

How long will a white cane last?

The answer to this question depends on many factors. If a cane is used primarily inside a building, it may last for years. If it is used outside to travel from place to place, it will probably not last as long. A straight cane usually last much longer than a folding cane given the same circumstances. Sometimes a cane will not survive it's first trip, and other times a cane will be retired only because it has become worn, bent, and shabby looking.

I did say that this list of questions and answers would be basic, so I will resist the temptation to write more. If you would like to learn about our products or contact us with quesstions, access our products link. This link is also available on our home page.