White Canes: Tapping Toward Independence

by Jessica Minneci

     The white cane is a mobility aid that helps people who are blind or visually impaired navigate the world around them. The cane serves as an extension of your body. When swept across the ground, the cane provides you with tactile feedback. It hits against obstacles to let you know you’re approaching uneven ground like a curb or set of stairs.
     Ali Krage is a young woman who has used a white cane for most of her life. Blind since birth, Ali has retinopathy of prematurity. "My retinas were somewhat detached when I was born 3 months early," Ali recalled. "They tried to do laser eye surgeries. They didn't work and I lost my vision a month after I was born." Luckily, Ali still has light perception in both eyes.
A white cane in front of a young woman's feet.
     When she was three years old, Ali was taught how to use her cane. Looking back, Ali remembered that it didn't take long for her to learn how to use it. Her teacher taught her two cane techniques: constant contact (where the cane is continually sweeping across the area at the user's feet), and two-point touch (where the cane is used to tap once on each side of the area in front of the user). At present, Ali prefers to use constant contact, but will sometimes switch to two-point touch. Two-point touch helps Ali search for "a stairwell" and listen for "echoes/open spaces." Together, this combination of techniques assists Ali in independent travel.
     As she explores her surroundings, Ali can be seen with her 60-inch-long white cane from Ambutech. The cane features a rubber golf grip and rolling marshmallow tip, which gives Ali the perfect amount of tactile feedback. Ali's first step toward independent travel with her cane came when she began learning her way around her neighborhood in Illinois. "My mom had me practice a route from my house to the coffee shop downtown," Ali explained. Once she mastered that route, nothing was stopping Ali from continuing to explore the world around her.
     A student at Northern Illinois University, Ali uses her cane to help her find her classes. She also leaves campus quite frequently. Laughing, she admitted, "I Uber like all the time to Dunkin' Donuts to do homework on Tuesdays." Some weekends, Ali goes home to see her family. "I take the shuttle from NIU to the Elburn train station and the driver leads me to the platform," she said. Some summer excursions have allowed Ali to travel outside of the state of Illinois. Recently, Ali spent a weekend in Seattle and went on an Alaskan cruise.
     Reflecting on using a cane, Ali disclosed some of the advantages of cane travel. One huge advantage is that when she is crossing the street with her cane in hand, cars will yield to her. In addition, canes are an automatic indicator that someone needs assistance, such as when that person is in an airport. On top of that, Ali stated, "Canes allow you to detect some landmarks that might be useful in traveling such as a certain bench by a bus stop." Often, orientation and mobility specialists will teach people a route by showing them different landmarks that they pass along the way. Now, when people pass these landmarks, they know that they are on the right path. A cane has proven to be a great tool for Ali to use when she is making her way to different destinations.
     If you’re blind or visually impaired and don't utilize any mobility aids, I hope you’ll consider using a cane. Not only will it allow you discover your surroundings, but it will also assist you in traveling without any sighted assistance. A cane can mean going where you want to go, and overcoming barriers in your way!


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