White canes are one of several mobility aids used by people of all ages who are blind, visually impaired, or have low or partial vision. In addition to assisting with safety, balance, and movement, the white cane is also a symbol of blind citizens in society. It allows those with visual impairments to move freely, travel confidently, and live a life of independence and self-sufficiency.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at the white cane, its history, the types of canes available, and how the free white cane program works.
What Is a White Cane?
A white cane is a specially designed tool that looks similar to a long, often adjustable stick. It gives people with visual impairments information about their surroundings, allowing them to navigate and move around without additional assistance.
The bottom of the cane, the cane tip, scrapes along the ground, creating vibrations that go up the cane handle. The user can feel these vibrations in their hand and arm, helping anyone with impaired vision become aware of the physical terrain or potential obstacles in their path.
The white cane is one of several mobility tools for the blind, but it’s also a representative symbol of the independence and autonomy of the visually impaired community.
The History of the White Cane
Canes, staffs, and sticks have been around throughout history as traveling aids for the blind and visually impaired. But for years, the cane was simply a tool for travel and a means of identifying obstacles in your path.
In the 20th century, that began to change. The modern symbolism associated with the white cane started in 1921 with James Biggs of Bristol. After losing his sight in an accident, Biggs painted his walking stick white to make it easier for motorists to identify him as blind.
Ten years later, Guilly d’Herbemont launched a national white stick movement for the blind in France. The BBC reported the story, and rotary clubs across the U.K. started sponsoring similar schemes.
Around the same time, Lion’s Club International in Chicago began a similar practice after a member witnessed a blind man struggling to cross a street with a black cane. The club started an initiative to paint canes white to increase their visibility in public areas and alert others to someone with visual impairment. Throughout the 1930s, the white cane — which you hold in a distinctive, fixed position — took on a symbolic role as an identifier of the blind and visually impaired.
In 1964, Congress passed a resolution, which president Lyndon Johnson signed into law, naming October 15 "White Cane Safety Day." The canes began to represent the growing independence and self-reliance of the visually impaired community, and the strength of this symbolism has only grown since.
What Is the White Cane Program?
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) started the White Cane Program as an initiative to provide free white canes to anyone who needs them.
Any blind or visually impaired individual is eligible to receive a free white cane, and canes can be replaced free of charge every six months.
The NFB is also affiliated with training centers across the country committed to making sure every blind person gets the training they need to effectively use their white cane.
How to Get a Free White Cane
If you're over 18 years old and blind or visually impaired, you can request a free white cane directly through the NFB website’s Free White Cane Program online application.
You can also request a free white cane through the same portal for a visually impaired person you know under 18.
Since 2008, the NFB has delivered more than 64,000 free white canes across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
Are There Different Types of Canes?
There are several types of canes, in terms of both design and function.
The free white canes distributed by the NFB are made of fiberglass, don't fold or telescope, and are a fixed size. Other cane designs are foldable, can be adjusted for height, and are made of aluminum or carbon fiber.
Knowing the right white cane size is critical to choosing one. For first-time users, a shoulder-to-floor cane height is best, though many experienced users prefer a longer cane that goes from their chin, or even nose, to the floor.
All white canes come with a loop at the top of the handle and a cane tip, which can also vary. A ballrace overfit (also known as the marshmallow tip) is one of the most common, but larger tips are also available.
Besides size and design, white canes fall into three general categories, depending on their function:
Long mobility cane. This is the most common type and what most people think of when imagining a white cane. They can be fixed or foldable and are used to detect and preview upcoming obstacles or hazards like steps, curbs, or uneven ground.
Identification cane. These white canes are designed to be visual identifiers of someone who is blind or has low vision. People sometimes use them to detect the height of steps but generally not for identifying obstacles in a path or navigation.
Support cane. These canes are used for support and balance for those with visual impairments. Similar to the identification cane, these canes are not for detecting or previewing hazards in the path of travel but are mainly used to help with balance.
Other Interesting Facts About White Canes
- You can take a white cane through airport security, though it must pass through the X-ray machine.
- Some new models of white cans have ultrasonic devices inside that can detect obstacles 9 feet away.
- The technique of using a white cane, which is now the standard, was pioneered by Richard E. Hoover, a war veteran and rehabilitation specialist.
- In some states, like Florida, a person who isn't blind or visually impaired can’t legally use a white cane. Doing so can result in a misdemeanor charge or even jail time.
Where Can I Buy a White Cane for the Blind?
If you’re visually impaired, you can request a white cane from the National Federation for the Blind free of charge. But some may prefer a foldable or telescoping design or wish to have their canes specially customized.
You can buy a white cane for blindness from stores catering to the visually impaired. You can also buy and customize white canes online, with the price of a white cane generally between $20 and $60.