What to Know About Canes for the Blind

Medically Reviewed by Whitney Seltman, OD on May 31, 2024
5 min read

Canes can assist people with all levels of visual impairment. There are a variety of canes for blind people and people with low vision. Learning to use a cane is a great way to gain freedom and access to the world.

Canes come in a variety of different materials with unique tips and specific color codes. The one that’s right for you depends on how much usable vision you have as well as other physical and environmental considerations.    

There are two broad categories of canes that blind people can use — support and probing canes. Support canes are sturdy devices that you can use for physical stability. They have substantial handles and are meant to help support your weight.

Probing canes are meant to help people who are blind or have low vision navigate their surroundings. They’re used to detect objects and other obstacles in your path. There are a few different types of probing canes. These include: 

  • Long. This is the type of walking stick for the visually impaired that people are most familiar with. They come in solid and collapsible varieties. They extend from the ground to your breastbone. You can use them with either a tapping or rolling motion with different tips. The different types of tips are often interchangeable. 
  • Symbol. These are most useful for people who have low vision but can still see in some situations. You can hold this shorter cane in front of you to let the people around you know that you have some level of visual impairment. It’s smaller than a long cane, which can be useful in busy areas.   
  • Guide. This is another short cane that’s used to detect obstacles that are immediately in front of your feet. It’s best for finding obstacles like curbs and steps. It doesn’t move as much as a long cane and provides less feedback. You hold it diagonally in front of you while you move.  

White canes for the blind are often synonymous with long canes. But white coloration on any type of cane usually implies that the user is blind. For example, support canes can help people with many physical conditions, but white ones usually imply that the user is blind or has low vision.

In terms of probing canes, a pure white color usually implies that the user is completely blind. If the cane is white with a red bottom, the user likely has low vision that’s sometimes usable. Red and white-striped canes usually imply that the user is completely blind and deaf, or possibly just deaf.  

There are a wide variety of tips that you can use with your probing cane. The different types of tips can help you in different environments and allow you to perform a variety of movements with your cane. 

Varieties of tips include: 

  • Pencil. This tip is long, light, and thin. It provides good feedback but has a tendency to get stuck in small spaces like sidewalk cracks. 
  • Roller. This type smoothly rolls over the surface in front of you. It's heavier and provides less detailed feedback than a pencil tip. But it's also less likely to get stuck in a sidewalk crack. 
  • Marshmallow. This is a thicker tip that doesn’t often get stuck. It’s less sensitive than a pencil tip and quite a bit heavier. 
  • Metal glide. This tip moves smoothly across many different surfaces. It’s also very light.  
  • Unique pieces. There are other types of tips that can help in unique environments. For example, the Bundu Basher is a long, curved addition to the end of your cane. It looks a bit like a thin hockey stick, with an upcurve at the end. It was designed for exploring natural environments and hiking areas. 

The first thing to consider when choosing a cane is whether you want a support cane, a probing cane, or one of each. It can be challenging to use two canes at first but is possible if you need both support and navigational help. 

When selecting a support cane, you want to make sure that it’s strong enough to support your weight, which means that it’ll likely be heavy. The cane needs to be tall enough for you to comfortably rest your hand on it when it’s close to your body. The tip should firmly grip the floor and not slip when you put pressure on it. 

When choosing a probing cane, you need to decide between the types based on your needs. You also need to decide if you want a solid or collapsible long cane. Collapsible ones are easier to store and transport — but they’re more fragile and less sensitive than the solid versions.   

The type of material also matters, particularly when it comes to tiring out your wrist. Probing canes are always much lighter than support canes.

Folding long canes are often made from aluminum or graphite. Graphite is the lighter of the two. A popular kind of straight cane is made from fiberglass. This is very lightweight and has enough flexibility. These qualities allow it to provide fantastic feedback and still bend slightly if it slips under a car or into a grate. 

The right cane for you will depend on your level of vision and other needs.  

There’s a standard grip that many people use with their long canes. Try holding the handle diagonally across your palm. Let it rest on your extended index finger and curl your other fingers around the handle. Your thumb should point down the length of the cane. 

You can slide your hand further down in crowded areas to create a narrower swing with a long cane. 

You’ll want to work on your orientation and mobility skills when you first start using your cane. There are special techniques to help you orient yourself in terms of where you are and where you want to go. Other skills help you move around safely and efficiently. These can include particular postures to use while holding your cane and techniques to use while sweeping the areas in front of you.

You’ll also need to know how to manage a large number of environments under different conditions, like ice, rain, and snow. Orientation and mobility specialists can help you adjust to using a cane and give you advice on the best ways to navigate with one. 

Keep in mind that you shouldn’t try to use a support cane as a probing cane. They’re typically too short, so you have to lean forward to navigate properly. This is bad for your posture and dangerous near stairs and other hazards. 

There are some basic steps that you can take to make sure that your cane is always ready to go.

Suggestions include: 

  • Always carry a spare tip — They wear out on a regular basis and could suddenly get lost when you’re out and about.
  • Keep your cane clean.
  • Add reflective tape — This can help others see you when you’re walking around at night.
  • Add a unique mark — This could be your name in braille or some other marking that lets you easily identify your own cane.
  • Have a backup cane — This can help in case your cane is lost or unexpectedly damaged.