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Tools & Technology: The White Cane

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      The long, white cane is now a widely recognized symbol of blindness. People know that when they see a person carrying a long, white cane that the person is blind. White Cane laws throughout the country recognize the white cane as an indicator of blindness and require traffic to yield the right of way to a pedestrian carrying a cane. White Cane laws also give a blind person the right to enter any public space with their cane. President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed the first White Cane Safety Day as October 15, 1964. Iowans played a significant role in developing White Cane laws. You can read more about Iowa's White Cane law in Chapter216C of the Iowa Code.

      However, the cane was not always used by blind people. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, blind persons were not encouraged to use a cane, nor were any methods of instruction available for using a cane for independent travel. Views and attitudes toward the cane are reflective of society’s and individual attitudes about blindness. Until the late twentieth century, many blind persons were educated in segregated schools and often worked in "sheltered" workshops. Educators and professionals at that time did not see the need to teach a blind person to use the cane. Instead, blind persons were trained or oriented to traveling in their limited surroundings without the aid of a cane. While some blind people could rely on their hearing and other senses to make sense of their surroundings, most relied on sighted guides or partially sighted peers to get from place to place. Obviously, the reliance on someone else greatly restricted a blind person's independence. Events and people of the mid-twentieth century changed this approach to travel for blind persons. The cane and its use changed as well.

      Evolution of the Long, White Cane. Learn about events and ideas that led to the development of the modern long, white cane.

      Video: Travel Lesson - Des Moines, IA (circa 1958). Watch a video of a travel lesson in Des Moines using the "Hoover" method.

      Blind Iowans Talk about Their Experiences with the White Cane

      The perspective of blind Iowans toward the white cane reflects the mixed emotions and beliefs about blindness held by society. For some the cane meant stigma or derision; others came to view it as a source of pride, identification, and independence. In the following excerpts blind Iowans talk about the cane in a way that provides insight into their experiences in terms of the evolution of orientation and mobility training, personal and societal attitudes about blindness, acceptance of blindness, fighting discrimination, educating the public, and more.

      Acceptance / Attitudes

      Intesar Duncan
      Kristal Hagemoser
      Roger Erpelding
      Steve Hagemoser
      Steve Hagemoser (2)
      Bettina Dolinsek
      Jim Snowbarger

      Independence / Travel

      Lucy Bagley
      Mike Hoenig
      Peggy Elliot
      Peg Brandt
      Ted Hart
      Karla Ice
      Shirley Wiggans
      Dorothy Bryant
      Mary Clarke (traveling without a cane)
      Rose Stratton (traveling without a cane)

      Identification

      Karla Ice
      Rosemary Higley
      Robert Simmons

      Canes Compared to Guide Dogs

      Susan Stageburg
      Karen Keninger

      Orientation and Mobility

      Roger Erpelding
      Jim Witte (touches on history of cane travel)
      Jonathan Ice
      Karen Keninger (at Iowa Braille School) 
      April Enderton (at Iowa Braille School)
      Joe Van Lent
      Robert Simmons
      Shirley Wiggans
      Elsie Monthie
      Mary Clarke (learning cane travel)

      Iowa’s White Cane Law

      Jim Gashel

      To hear the full narrations, read transcripts, or find additional oral histories in which blind Iowans talk about their experiences with the white cane, visit the Oral History page.