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Monday, 4 June 2012

Reading the White Cane

What does my white cane mean? I have enough sight to notice the sideways glances my cane attracts. (This post by another 'blind blogger' gives a great idea of what cane users can see). I don't use my cane all the time and quite often carry it neatly folded in my bag. So it must look odd when I unfold it and transform from sighted to blind.
So why do I only use it sometimes? And what does my using it signify?
After dark or around steps and other obstacles I use my cane to feel my way around. I sweep it in a wide arc in front of me to find kerbs, bollards, puddles and lamp posts. This is the kind of cane-use most readily associated with the blind but it is not the most important way I use my cane.
I have a long cane but mostly I use it as a symbol cane. (You know that a cane is being used in this way when it is carried so that it does not touch the ground). When held like this my cane has no practical function: it is purely symbolic, a sign saying "I don't see as well as you so you might like to move out of my way / use non-visual ways of communicating with me / expect me to step off the pavement in front of you if you are a car or bike / tell me who you are even if I know you really well or we had a conversation this morning." I tend to use my cane like this in busy or unfamiliar places and / or when I'm on my own. I'll always have it with me at conferences, in stations, airports, supermarkets and busy city streets. Once I took it with me to the library. This turned out to be pretty confusing for the librarian who couldn't quite grasp the fact that I needed help finding a book but that I was more than capable of reading it. I can see why my cane might cause a kind of interpretive panic: after all, I clearly have some sight (otherwise why bother with bifocals?) Stereotypical images of the blind always feature a white cane but actually only about 5% of cane-users have no sight at all. So a symbol cane says "I am happy to acknowledge my blindness to the world and in return you can feel free to talk to me about it."
It is a kind of visual shorthand which not only signals blindness, but also signals a willingness to talk about it. It is an offer of a conversation as well as permission to offer help. The problem is that the general public don't always know what my cane is trying to say. So every time I take my cane out and about I try and tell someone what it means. And now you know too.


  1. I wear varifocals with very expensive, thin lenses and they make a very slight difference to my vision, but enough of a difference to mean they are worth the expense. My white stick is also mainly to be found in my handbag, neatly folded, but makes an appearance when in strange places. People are more helpful when I have the stick on display, but there is a tendency for them to speak to me as if I were of limited mental ability too!

  2. I really like that you state your cane is also a symbol to invite conversation about your blindness. It's the best way to bring about awareness and so many people post online they have questions but are always afraid to approach. This is encouragement for that approach. : )

  3. I would like to thank you for your article. I have been in discussion with my low vision case worker about using a symbol cane in unfamiliar environments as that filled me with dread being newly registered as partially sighted. I can appreciate better now after reading your article the value of using one in certain situations. Thanks