This week is White Cane Week!
White Cane Week, celebrated across Canada in the first full week of February every year, raises awareness about how blind people travel and make a difference in their communities. In 2019, White Cane Week takes place from Sunday, February 3rd to Saturday, February 9th.
White Cane Week is named after the white cane, a tool many blind and visually impaired people use to travel. While they walk, they move the cane from side to side in front of them. The feel and sound of the cane on the ground or floor gives them information about what is ahead, including:
- Steps or curbs
- Obstacles, such as furniture
- The texture of the ground (pavement, grass, snow, puddles, etc.) or floor (tile, carpet, etc.)
The canes blind and visually impaired people use are white so that they are visible to other travellers. Moreover, they are long and straight. In contrast, people with physical disabilities use curved canes for support and balance. Some white canes fold up while others do not.
Other blind people have guide dogs. Guide dogs are specially trained from the time they are puppies. When they are grown, they guide their blind handlers around obstacles and alert them to upcoming features of their surroundings, such as stairs and street corners.
Other Travel Skills
When in their homes or other familiar environments, people do not use their canes or dogs because they know exactly where everything is. However, when they travel outside their homes, people will almost always use their canes or dogs. In addition, they may sometimes ask a sighted person to be a sighted guide: the blind person grasps the guide’s arm near the elbow to feel and follow where the guide is going.
Young blind children often start using canes when they are pre-school age. In addition, they receive specialized training, called orientation and mobility (O and M) training, where they learn to navigate their surroundings and use their canes safely and skillfully. People who become blind later in life can also learn to use canes and benefit from O and M training. Likewise, guide-dog handlers go through further extensive training to work with their dogs. Most blind people who have guide dogs are adults, because people need to have strong cane and orientation skills in order to work with a dog. Whether people use canes or dogs, they also use their senses of hearing and touch to gain useful information about where they are and where they are going, such as:
- Whether they are inside or outside
- The size of a room they are standing in, and where nearby open doors are
- Where other people are if they are doing anything that makes noise
- Where something has landed when it falls
- What the weather is like outside (if they haven’t checked the weather apps on their phones before going out)
- How close they are to the street and whether it is safe to cross, based on what direction traffic is moving
- When the bus arrives and whether it is the bus they need (using the audio announcements on public transit)
Since most people rely on their sight when travelling, some sighted people assume that it is hard or impossible to travel without sight. Similarly, people often assume that blindness makes it difficult to do many other things, such as:
- Read and write
- Use computers
- Play sports
- Watch TV
- Go shopping
- Cook and clean
- Look after children or pets
When people cannot imagine what it is like to do these things without using their eyes, they come to believe that blind people cannot do ordinary things: have jobs, raise families, have social lives, or keep up with news and current events. As a result, they feel uncomfortable hiring a blind worker. Similarly, they feel uncertain about starting a conversation with someone they meet who is blind. Therefore, many highly qualified blind people are unemployed, and many out-going blind people are socially excluded.
Blind people can do almost everything sighted people do using white canes, guide dogs, information in Braille or other accessible formats, and countless other skills and techniques. White Cane Week is an opportunity to spread this understanding and celebrate all the things blind people can do.
Happy White Cane Week to all our readers!