by Steven Kelley, Vision Rehab Therapist, Iris Network
Today, the white cane isn’t just a tool used by travelers with a vision loss, it is also a symbol for members of our community who are blind or visually impaired. White Cane Safety Day is observed annually on October 15th, to recognize the many achievements of blind and visually impaired citizens, and the white cane as a tool promoting independent travel.
There are references of blind travelers using a stick, cane or shepherd’s staff as a tool for independent travel since biblical times. It has only been during the last century that the white cane has served the dual role of both a tool for travel and symbol identifying the user as a blind traveler. As early as 1921, artist James Briggs, who lost his sight in an accident, claimed to have used the first white cane as a symbol, when he painted his cane white to alert passing motorists that he was a blind traveler. Ten years later, in France, Guilly d’Herbemont undertook a national “white stick” movement to promote the use of white canes. This idea spread to England when the BBC suggested in press coverage of this movement that all citizens who were blind or visually impaired be provided with a “white stick” as a universal symbol for a blind or visually impaired traveler.
In 1931, the Lion’s Clubs in North America independently began promoting the white cane for travel when one of its members observed a blind traveler at a street crossing using a black cane for mobility which was barely visible to motorists and passers-by.
After blinded World War II veterans began returning home in greater numbers and seeking greater reintegration into their communities, Dr. Richard Hoover developed a longer white cane or “Hoover Cane” to be used both as a tool for travel as well as a symbol. In the decades prior to the Hoover Cane, the white cane was often held outright by travelers in a fixed, diagonal position.
Peoria Illinois was the first community to pass a special ordinance for white cane travel, in 1930, which granted travelers with a white cane the right of way. Five years later Detroit passed a similar law, later adopted by the state of Michigan. On October 6, 1964 after lobbying by various organizations a joint resolution of Congress was enacted, which read, “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives that the President is hereby authorized to issue annually a proclamation designating October 15th as White Cane Safety Day and calling upon the people of the United States of America to observe such a day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” Within hours, then President, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed October 15th as “White Cane Safety Day” (to see the proclamation go to http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=75235#axzz1aIdZ3N00). In 2000, President Clinton reminded the nation that on October 15, “With proper training, people using the white cane can enjoy greater mobility and safety by determining the location of curbs, steps, uneven pavement, and other physical obstacles in their path. The white cane has given them the freedom to travel independently to their schools and workplaces and to participate more fully in the life of their communities. It reminds us that the only barriers against people with disabilities are discriminatory attitudes and practices that our society has too often placed in their way. As we observe White Cane Safety Day, 2001, let us recall the history of the white cane, its emergence as a tool and a symbol through history; a staff of independence. Let us also recall the events that have permitted us to celebrate October 15th as White Cane Safety Day.”
This October 15, 2011 White Cane Safety Day will be observed by several events in Maine:
White Cane Awareness Walk Portland Maine, sponsored by the Iris Network to begin in Monument Square, Portland Maine with registration at 9:30 AM. Participants wishing to support the Iris Network may register for $25. Registration is not mandatory for those wishing only to support the walk and White Cane Safety Day. For more information or to register go to http://www.theiris.org/news/67/107/Walk-this-Way or call the Iris Network at 774-6273.
Bangor White Cane Awareness Walk Bangor Maine: in front of Bangor City Hall at 9:30 AM. For more information go to the events listing at http://www.theiris.org/community-connection/discuss/forum/topic/12/31/1/151 or contact Pat Monahan @ 561-4022.
White Cane Awareness Walk Presque Isle Maine: 407 Main St., in front of Wilders Jewelry, October 15 at 9:30 AM. For more information go to the events listing at http://www.theiris.org/community-connection/discuss/forum/topic/12/30/1/151.
White Cane Safety Day in Augusta sponsored by the Pine Tree Guide Dog Users. Walkers will meet at 9:30 AM for registration at the Eagles Club located on 71 Water St. For more information go to the events listing at http://www.theiris.org/community-connection/discuss/forum/topic/12/29/1/151.
Cane Travel Video from the Nebraska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired http://youtu.be/VV9XFzKo1aE
White Canes: The History and How to Measure for Peak Performance from Independent Living Aids http://allthingsilatech.blogspot.com/2011/09/white-canes-history-and-how-to-measure.html
Haverhill Massachusetts Lions Club History of White Cane Safety Day by Phillip Strong http://www.haverhilllionsclub.org/white-cane-day-history.html
Presidential Proclamation White Cane Safety Day October 15, 2010 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2010/10/15/presidential-proclamation-white-cane-safety-day