White Cane Day and What It Means to Me
Authors: William Daugherty, Superintendent of Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired
Keywords: White Cane Day, blind, visually impaired, mobility, independence
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White Cane Safety Day was enacted into law in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson. The “Safety” part of the law was intended to inform motorists that they must yield to a person with a white cane crossing the street. In 2011, President Barack Obama also named the day celebrated annually on October 15, as Blind Americans Equity Day. As you can see, the day has become symbolic for more than a simple tool used by people who are blind or visually impaired to safely walk from place to place. It has become a symbol for independence and capability.
This year the Austin White Cane Day Celebration will be held on the campus of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, not on the 15th, but on the 12th of October. The Austin event is often thought to be the largest in the U.S., with crowds ranging from 500 to 700. Typically, it is held downtown, and there is a march by the entire group along Congress Avenue in the brightly colored t-shirts that are custom designed each year to commemorate the celebration. When this happens, the Austin downtown shoppers and office dwellers get an up-close lesson in how cane users apply their skills. As a former instructor of cane travel (Orientation and Mobility specialist, or O&M) who has walked a lot in urban areas under blindfold with a cane, I can tell you that it is a highly skilled activity that requires focus, sensory awareness, courage and problem solving abilities of the highest order. Put another way, when you see someone walking around town with a white cane, you are looking at a very capable person. This is at least one way to look at the meaning of White Cane Day.
People have a range of responses to seeing a person walking around using the cane. Some see it as miraculous that anyone could do that. But it is not because of an individual’s miraculous abilities. Instead, it is the result of hard work, overcoming fears, and continuous practice. Some see it as sad that a person has to tap their way through the environment. But it is not sad. Instead it is a strong symbol of independence; of not having to rely upon a sighted person to go from place to place. The more we see people with the white cane out in our communities, the more all of us will begin to see it as part of the normal fabric of the neighborhood. In Austin, I see the white cane in use practically everywhere I go. Add to this the folks who are using dog guides, those with low vision using telescopes, smart phones with navigation apps, and new technologies coming on-line all of the time. White Cane Day becomes a symbol of the many ways individuals who are blind or visually impaired are achieving independence.
Many teenagers who would benefit greatly from the use of a cane or a low vision device such as a telescope, will fight against it because they feel it makes them look different. As more and more people are out in our communities using the cane or other devices, I can see a time when teens will begin to think differently about it. One day soon, I’m almost certain, there will be a blockbuster movie that comes out featuring a cool, leading character that uses a white cane with great style and ability. Not like some cheesy guy that is scripted to have super-human powers, but like real-life people I personally know; like many among those who will be marching in celebration on White Cane Day. That will be a cultural tipping point worth looking forward to.