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Some Thoughts on National White Cane Awareness Day

Oct 16, 2021 at 05:15 pm by Christopher

In 1964 at the urging of the National Federation of the blind, the United States Congress proclaimed October 15 as National White Cane Safety Day. Though its name was recently changed to National White Cane Awareness Day to recognize the importance of the white cane to the competent travel, independence and equality of the blind, the white cane has always been a symbol of the capabilities of the blind community.

Though enterprising blind people have used sticks and canes of one fashion or another to navigate their environment for centuries, it wasn't until the 1940's that a body of techniques, training, and professional standards emerged to instruct blind people on proper use of the long white cane. In 1944, Richard Hoover, a teacher of the blind and an Army sergeant assigned to the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania, developed the first technique for teaching blind soldiers to navigate by arcing the cane from side to side with the tip of the cane touching the ground in front of the trailing foot. Blind travelers and instructors now refer to this as the two-point touch technique. He also replaced the traditional wooden canes in use at the time with light weight prescription length canes that could be used in a number of environments. Now known as the father of the long white cane, Hoover's techniques were imitated by many military and civilian agencies providing rehabilitation and training and have become the standard for blind people to this day.

Blind people use a variety of techniques for navigating in different environments, including streets and sidewalks, stares, escalators, and even train platforms and moving sidewalks at airports--all based on the Hoover Technique. There are different techniques for use in crowded areas like department stores and large events, uneven terrain, and street crossings, to name a few.

Learning to use a long white cane effectively for a blind person involves a wide variety of strategies, techniques and judgement calls for traveling in multiple environments, and no competent blind person uses their cane in exactly the same way. However, all blind people are taught the basic techniques which Richard Hoover originally established.

As education and training of the blind has evolved, even toddlers have learned to successfully use the white cane in a variety of environments through training by orientation and mobility instructors and reinforced by teachers, family members, and peers. Walking from class to class, participating in field trips, and going on outings with friends offer a wide variety of opportunities for blind children to hone their cane travel skills. Effective blind cane travelers are perceived as more successful and competent and exhibit greater confidence than students without these foundational skills in place, and competent and confident blind students are more successful academically and socially than blind students without these skills. Furthermore, others perceive competent students more positively, and these students are given more opportunities to succeed in the classroom and in the community than those who show less skill and confidence. it is not an accident that many students with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and other conditions involving multiple disabilities are treated less favorably at school and often placed in segregated environments that reinforce negative perceptions and stereotypes of their abilities.

Yet some teachers of young blind and visually impaired children balk at teaching their students to use the long white cane, particularly those with additional disabilities, including Autism characteristics and sensory processing and attentional difficulties. Children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, for example, sometimes demonstrate characteristics that confound many teachers of the blind and visually impaired. They may resist Braille, withdraw or act out when frustrated or overstimulated, exhibit self-stimulatory behaviors such as rocking and hand-flapping, and show great difficulty transitioning to new activities.

Many teachers, administrators, and family members cite safety concerns as a primary reason for not introducing the white cane to a child with these characteristics who could otherwise benefit from such training. many express concerns that the child could use the cane as a weapon. In other cases, as in my own personal experience, teachers and family members might conclude that the child has more vision than he / she actually has due to resistance to Braille or other nonvisual instruction.

The reality is that, in my case, I learned to use the very little vision I had to read magnified print with a closed-circuit television, and it took all the limited energy I had just to read the print on the screen. Attempts to teach me to use a hand-held magnifying glass in middle school failed, because my visual field was so narrow that all I could see were signs that were directly in front of me at a given height. If I knew the direction and height of the object I was looking for, such as a house number or sign, I could use the magnifier to locate it with some effort. Using the magnifier was tedious, time-consuming and tiring and led to much frustration and several meltdowns.

It wasn't until the summer between my seventh and eighth grade year that an orientation and mobility instructor at the youth program I attended gave me my first white cane after noticing how tentatively I acted while walking during lessons and community outings. With the cane, I became more confident in my ability to walk without running into or tripping over obstacles, and my ability to cross streets and perform other activities improve markedly. By the time I was in high school, I was able to travel to various locations in Downtown Cincinnati independently to borrow books from our National Library Service regional lending library, eat in restaurants, travel more confidently on field trips, and even do research for school projects and career exploration.

It is true that many of our children have great difficulty adjusting and processing new environments, and some do act out or lapse into undesirable, inappropriate, or even harmful behaviors during lessons. However, I believe most of the challenging behaviors we exhibit stem from instructors' lack of knowledge regarding the child's developmental history, characteristics, and disabilities.

In most cases of behaviors in children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, for example, behaviors occur in fairly specific situations, mainly when the student is overstimulated, frustrated, or experiencing a medical crisis. many children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia give subtle cues or warning signs that they are about to lapse into such behaviors or have a meltdown, and a trained instructor with a basic knowledge of Autism Spectrum, Attention Deficit, or Sensory Processing Disorders can mitigate or prevent such behaviors with the right supports and interventions.

As many as two-thirds of blind primary and secondary school students demonstrate additional disabilities, and these students are often denied critical instruction in use of the white cane as well as other skills vital to social, academic and vocational success. Though resources on best practice for teaching these students exist, such as Future Reflections, a quarterly publication of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, and Paths to Literacy, a comprehensive web site for teachers and families operated by Perkins School for the Blind, there is precious little in the way of evidence-based best practice for teaching blind students with additional disabilities, including Autism Spectrum or Sensory Processing Disorders. As a result, in all too many cases, teachers and administrators working with these students resort to arguments about safety and legal liability for denying these students instruction in effective use of the long white cane, with the tacit approval of families and communities.

As I write this blog, we continue to observe October 15 as National White Cane Awareness Day and commemorate October as Blind Equality Achievement Month. Events celebrating these events are taking place throughout the country, and we recognize the great leaps forward blind people have made in employment, education, and integration into society since Richard Hoover developed the techniques for use of the long white cane in the 1940's.

However, I am concerned that we are still leaving behind many students with additional disabilities, including many with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, who many involved in teaching lack the knowledge or skills to educate. As we celebrate the achievement and equality of the blind and the role of the long white cane in achieving it, let's continue to work to develop best practices for promoting the equality and achievement of those with additional disabilities, including Optic Nerve Hypoplasia.


Christopher Sabine
ONH Consulting, LLC

Sections: Adult Perspectives