A white cane is used by many people who are blind or visually impaired, both as a mobility tool and as a courtesy to others. Not all modern white canes are designed to fulfill the same primary function, however: There are at least five different varieties of this tool, each serving a slightly different need.
- Long cane: This "traditional" white cane, also known as a "Hoover" cane, after Dr. Richard Hoover, is designed primarily as a mobility tool used to feel obstacles in the path of a user. Cane length depends upon the height of a user, and traditionally extends from the floor to the user's sternum. Some organizers favour the use of much longer canes.
- "Kiddie" cane: This version works in the same way as an adult's long cane, but is designed for use by children.
- Identification cane ("Symbol Cane" in British English): The ID cane is used primarily to alert others as to the bearer's visual impairment. It is often lighter and shorter than the long cane, and is more limited as a mobility tool.
- Support cane: The white support cane is designed primarily to offer physical stability to a visually impaired user. By virtue of its colour, the cane also works as a means of identification. This tool has very limited potential as a mobility device.
- Mobility canes are often made from aluminium, graphite-reinforced plastic or other fibre-reinforced plastic, and can come with a wide variety of tips depending upon user preference.
Blind people have used canes as mobility tools for centuries, but it was not until after World War I that the white cane was introduced.
In 1921 James Biggs, a photographer from Bristol who became blind after an accident and was uncomfortable with the amount of traffic around his home, painted his walking stick white to be more easily visible.
In the United States, the introduction of the white cane is attributed to George A. Bonham of the Lions Clubs International . In 1930, a Lions Club member watched as a man who was blind attempted to cross the street with a black cane that was barely visible to motorists against the dark pavement. The Lions decided to paint the cane white to make it more visible. In 1931, Lions Clubs International began a program promoting the use of white canes for people who are blind.
The first special White Cane Ordinance was passed in December 1930 in Peoria, Illinois granting blind pedestrians protections and the right-of-way while carrying a white cane.
On October 6, 1964, a joint resolution of the Congress, HR 753, was signed into law authorizing the President of the United States to proclaim October 15 of each year as "White Cane Safety Day". President Lyndon Johnson was the first to make this proclamation.
Canes around the world
While the white cane is commonly accepted as a "symbol of blindness", different countries still have different rules concerning what constitutes a "cane for the blind".
In the United States, laws vary from state to state, but in all cases, those carrying white canes are afforded the right-of-way when crossing a road. They are afforded the right to use their cane in any public place as well. In some cases, it is illegal for a non-blind person to carry a white cane.
There is much debate among blind people about issues relating to white canes. Though most blind people who use canes support using the long white cane, there is much disagreement over whether canes should be collapsible or not. During the 1970s, the National Federation of the Blind started a campaign to promote the use of noncollapsible, straight canes. Though they are harder to store, the NFB and some others believe that the lightness and greater length of the straight canes allows greater mobility and safety. Those who support the collapsible canes, which can be folded for storage, say that the benefits of the straight cane do not outweigh the inconvenience of having to store them carefully in crowded areas such as classrooms and public events.
There is also a movement among blind people which believes that guide dogs, the other major mobility tool for blind people, should be used by blind adults. They claim that canes are not safe enough to cross streets and go in other insecure places with, because the dog can interactively warn the user. Despite the high profile of guide dogs, however, most blind people still use canes at least sometimes, and many still use canes entirely. Additionally, some people are allergic to dogs which may make them unsuitable for certain blind people.
Some educators of blind people, particularly those who are not totally blind, have been reluctant to have children use canes until they are older. Many organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind, have attempted to change this, largely with success.