white cane history

History of the White Cane for the Visually Impaired

 How White Canes Help the Visually Impaired 

Canes, sticks, and shepherd’s staffs have been used as symbols of solitary travel for centuries. These tools were used to herd animals, clear paths, and provide stability in rocky or hilly areas. Although sticks were also historically used by blind individuals to warn them of obstacles in their path, the use of white canes was not prevalent until the twentieth century.

 In1921, an Englishman named James Biggs became blind following an accident and began using a cane to get around. In order to attract the attention and increase the awareness of cars and other pedestrians around him, Biggs had the cane painted white. Across the Pond in 1930, George A. Bonham, President of the Peoria (Illinois) Lions Club, suggested that the white cane, painted with a red band, become much more widely adopted. This was after a Lions Club member saw a man attempt to cross a street using a black cane that visually blended into the road’s pavement. After the Peoria Lions approved Bonham’s idea, the group began making and distributing white canes as a means of improving mobility in the visually impaired. In addition, the Peoria City Council passed an ordinance to give white cane bearers the right-of-way when crossing the street.

Other Lions Clubs across the United States began adopting the idea, which quickly gained wide acceptance amongst visually impaired individuals. Meanwhile, in 1931, a woman named Guilly d’Herbemont saw the need for white canes in France and launched a nation-wide “white stick movement” there. She recognized the danger blind people faced when navigating busy, traffic-heavy Paris streets, and so donated over 5,000 white canes to the city. 

Today, the white cane stands for many things. In fact, it:

  • Alerts others to be conscious of visually impaired individuals
  • Asks others to be considerate of those individuals as they navigate streets and sidewalks
  • Gives the cane bearer right-of-way in traffic
  • Provides blind and visually impaired people with increased mobility and independence
  • Stands as a symbol of the achievements of those who are blind and visually impaired

There are now laws in many countries and every U.S. state giving blind individuals legal status in traffic, and those individuals are universally recognizable if they use a white cane. In 1964, the U.S. designated October 15th as “White Cane Safety Day”, and the International Federation of the Blind followed suit in 1969 with the title “International White Can Safety Day”. The purpose of this designation is to raise awareness of necessary safety considerations while honoring the numerous achievements of visually impaired and blind Americans. Many Lions Clubs spearhead awareness events on October 15th as a way of reflecting their involvement in the cane’s widespread adoption.

The white cane stands as a symbol of the strength and confidence of blind citizens, as well as serves as a tool to help them achieve maximum mobility and independence. It marks paths, alerts users to obstacles, provides right-of-way on sidewalks and streets, and gives individuals the increased confidence to expand their surroundings.  Look to The Low Vision Store for the one that fits you best.

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