How to Learn to Use a White Cane

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 03, 2022
5 min read

There are several different types of mobility aids that help visually impaired and blind people get about safely and independently. One of those options is to use a white cane. Here’s a look at the kinds of canes available, as well as a guide as to how to walk with a cane.

A white cane is a mobility aid that can be used by people of all ages who have low vision or blindness. This is a tool that helps you to move independently while providing safety and balance. There are different types of canes available depending on your level of vision loss. It’s used around the world so that people everywhere can recognize it and its purpose.

Using a white cane is a choice. Some people choose other ways to navigate with low vision, like using a guide dog. A white cane has many different functions since you can use it to probe and feel what’s in front of you. A white cane acts as a bumper against the environment, in addition to letting others around you know that you have low vision or vision loss.

There are two types of white canes that most people use. The first is the white support cane, which identifies that you are a blind person or have low vision. It aims to provide you with physical stability. The second is the long white cane, the kind that’s for probing and helps you to find objects that are in front of or around you.

The long cane can be straight or collapsable. Even though folding canes can be more convenient for traveling, they aren’t as sturdy as the straight fiberglass ones. There are also different kinds of tips that can be attached to your cane. Different sizes and fixtures are made for varying kinds of terrain. Each type has pros and cons, so you might need to test them out and see which ones work the best for you.

Using a cane correctly means learning the right techniques for holding and maneuvering it. While you’ll find tips for using a cane here, it’s worth noting that many non-profits or state programs offer courses for using a white cane so that you can receive top-notch training. Your eye health specialist will probably recommend that you go through proper training. Another option is to work with a certified orientation and mobility specialist (O&M), an expert who works with blind or visually impaired people so that they can safely travel and live independently.

When learning how to use a white cane, the proper techniques will allow you to be able to search the ground ahead of you with every step. You should have a cane that’s fitted to you to make sure that you’re learning how to use the right tool for you. The length of your cane depends on your height. It should go from the floor up to your sternum when holding it upright.

The four stages of learning. When learning how to use a white cane, O&M specialists describe the process in four phases:

  1. Beginning to learn. This is the most basic phase when you will learn how to move with the cane with instruction from your O&M specialist.
  2. Concentration required. You know how to use your cane correctly, but only when thinking about it. The techniques haven’t become second nature yet and distractions can cause you to use your cane incorrectly.
  3. Without concentration. You can correctly use your white cane even with distractions around that break your concentration. Your cane can protect you and guide you in most situations. However, you still haven’t reached complete proficiency in using your cane.
  4. Proficiency. Once you’ve reached this stage, you always use your cane correctly. You can detect all obstacles in your path using the right techniques without thinking about them. At this point, you can safely rely on your white cane to guide you on your way.

The first step in using a white cane is to hold it correctly. Hold it in your dominant hand with your hand centered in front of your body. Your index finger should point down the shaft of the cane and your thumb and other fingers should wrap around it. You can think of this technique as shaking hands with your cane. This is the beginning of the arcing technique, sometimes called the foot cane technique, which is used in most daily situations.

Once, you’ve got the right grip, you can begin to move your cane. When using your cane, your arm should remain still. All movement should come from your fingers and wrist. Keeping your arm close to your waist can help prevent it from becoming tired. Make sure that your elbow is bent comfortably. Beginning moving your cane in a sweeping or arcing motion that’s about the same width as your shoulders or an inch wider than your body.

The constant contact technique is letting the tip of your cane constantly slide across the ground. You can also try the touch technique, which is tapping the tip of your cane with each arc. If you’re using this technique, you should never lift the tip of your cane more than an inch off of the ground.

Next, make sure that you’re moving your cane in rhythm with your feet. If your right foot is forward, then the tip of your cane should be touching the ground on the left side of your body. If you’re tapping your cane, there should be one tap with each step. Alternating the cane with your feet gives you a two-step alert to objects in your path.

It’s important to keep a light touch. The lighter that you touch something with the tip of your cane, the more information you’ll be able to get from it. You’ll be able to notice not only things in your path but things like changes in terrain or cracks in the sidewalk. The goal is for your cane to become your eyes and gather information about the world around you.

Show Sources

American Printing House for the Blind: “How Do I Learn to Use a Cane?” “What Type of Cane Should I Use? The Different Types of Canes.”
The Lighthouse for the Blind, Inc.: “Everything You Need to Know About White Canes.”
National Federation of the Blind: “Common Questions about Canes and Cane Travel.”
Outlook Enrichment: “So you are ready to start using a white cane?”
Sight Scotland: “Types of mobility canes for vision impairment.”
Vision Australia: “White cane beginners guide,” “White canes: What you need to know.”
Wisconsin Department of Health Services: “OBVI: Why Would Someone Need  a White Cane?”

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