By Sherry Leinen, Secretary
Wyoming Council of the Blind
The white cane is not just a tool that can be used to achieve independence; it is also the symbol of the blind citizens in our society. To honor the many achievements of blind and visually impaired Americans and to recognize the white cane significance in advancing independence, we observe October 15th of each year as “White Cane Safety Day”.
Throughout history, the cane, staff, and stick have existed as traveling aids for the blind and visually impaired. Dating back to biblical times records show that the shepherd’s staff was used as a tool for solitary travel. The blind used these tools to alert them to obstacles in their path.
James Biggs of Bristol claimed to have invented the white cane in 1921. After an accident claimed his sight, the artist had to readjust to his environment. Feeling threatened by the motor vehicle traffic around his home, Biggs decided to paint his walking stick white to make himself more visible to motorists.
In February 1931, Guilly d’Herbemont launched an idea for a national white stick movement for blind people in France. The campaign was reported in British newspapers leading to a similar idea being sponsored by Rotary clubs throughout the United Kingdom. In May 1931 the BBC suggested in its radio broadcasts that blind individuals might be provided with the white stick, which would become universally recognized as a symbol indicating that somebody was blind or visually impaired.
In North America the introduction of the white cane has been attributed to the Lions Club International. In 1930 a Lyons Club member watched as a blind man attempted to make his way across a busy street using a black cane. With the realization that the black cane was barely visible to motorists, the Lyons Club decided to paint the cane white to increase its visibility to oncoming motorists. In 1931, the Lyons Club International began a national program promoting the use of white canes for persons who are blind. Local and statewide proclamations began to appear across the country identifying the white cane as the universally recognized symbol of blind travelers.
When the blind veterans of World War II returned to America, the form and the use of the white cane was further altered in an attempt to help returning veterans to participatory lifestyles at home. Dr. Richard Hoover developed the “long cane” or “Hoover” method of cane travel. These white canes are designed to be used as mobility devices and returned the cane to its original role as a tool for mobility, but maintained the symbolic role as an identifier of blind independence. During this period, the white cane began to make its way into government policy as a symbol for the blind. Proactive ventures of Lyons Clubs International in Illinois and Michigan during the early 1930s are attributed with starting white cane observances in the United States. Local and statewide proclamations began to appear across the country identifying the white cane as the universally recognized symbol of blind travelers.
During the early 1960s, several state organizations and rehabilitation agencies serving the blind and visually impaired citizens of the United States urged Congress to proclaim October 15th of each year to be White Cane Safety Day in all 50 states. This event marked a climactic moment in the long campaign of the organized blind movement to gain state as well as national recognition for the white cane. On October 6, 1964, a joint resolution of the Congress, HR 753, was signed into law authorizing the President of The United States of America to proclaim October 15th of each year as “White Cane Safety Day.” The resolution read, “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives that the President is hereby authorized to issue annually a proclamation designating October 15th as White Cane Safety Day and calling upon the people of the United States of America to observe such a day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.” Within hours of passage of the congressional resolution, President Lyndon B Johnson went down in history as the first to proclaim October 15th as White Cane Safety Day. The Presidential proclamation emphasized the significance of the use of the white cane as both a tool and as a visible symbol. President Bill Clinton later reemphasized this in 2001 within his annual proclamation. Governors and Mayors also make similar proclamations in observance of White Cane Safety Day all across the country. White Cane Safety Day is also observed internationally on October 15 under the auspices of the World Blind Union (WBU).
With proper training, people using the white cane can enjoy greater mobility and safety by determining the location of curbs, steps, uneven pavement, and other physical obstacles in their path. The white cane has given them the freedom to travel independently to their schools and workplaces and to participate more fully in the life of their communities. As we observe White Cane Safety Day on October 15th, let us recall the history of the white cane, its emergence as a tool and a symbol through history; a staff of independence.
Wyoming Council of the Blind (WyCB) is currently working on updating our states White Cane laws in an effort to rectify the existing inequities found in statute and in the Drivers Training Manuals.
In observance of White Cane Safety Day on October 15th make sure you take a walk with your white cane.