Why Should I Use a Cane?

by Jeff Altman

From the Editor: Jeff Altman is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. In his job he teaches cane travel. This is what he says about the importance of learning to use a cane confidently.

"Why should I use a cane?" is a rather common question among people new to blindness and, for that matter, to some folks who have been living with blindness for many years. One is tempted to respond with a matter-of-fact answer such as "Because you are blind, and the white cane is an appropriate tool for a blind person to use when traveling." However, upon reflection, one must recognize that in reality this is not a simple question to answer since the white cane does not have the same social significance to the blind person as say the hammer does to a carpenter or the stethoscope does to a doctor. Occupational tools are socially acceptable, and some, such as a judge's gavel, even become symbols of high social status.

Some frequently used tools have little to do with occupations but are widely accepted because they improve the quality of our lives or are more convenient than other methods of getting things done. I will state with some certainty that most Americans prefer to cook their meals using the kitchen stove rather than building a fire in the back yard each evening. Certainly most people choose to drive or use some other form of mechanized transportation rather than walking when embarking upon a long trip.

These everyday devices seem so ordinary that we hardly think of them as alternatives to more basic methods of cooking or traveling. Yet these very devices were nearly unheard of only a few generations ago. In fact, in the beginning neither the modern stove nor the automobile was immediately accepted; people distrusted the new technology, and only when they began to understand how the stove and car worked and discovered that they were in fact safe and dependable devices did they stop chopping stove wood or retire their horses.

The long white cane is an alternative device and involves mastering some alternative techniques for efficient travel. It need not be any less effective than the more commonplace method of travel using vision. Somehow, though, our society has not come to terms with this device. Often it is perceived as inferior. More important, society remains somewhat uncomfortable with the people who use the white cane. Unlike many new devices which are resisted by society because the technology or operation is poorly understood or perceived as unsafe, the long cane and its use are quite simple to understand: the cane tip moves in a body-width arc, checking for obstacles and changes in terrain. The white cane has been in common use for many years and certainly does not represent a serious safety threat to the user or to others exposed to it. Isn't it odd that a device in common use for more than fifty years and absolutely straightforward in function continues to be resisted both by society in general and by the people who could benefit most from using it?

We must understand that, in spite of our society's apparent fascination with logical thinking, the majority of the decisions people make are based on emotion. Those who make important life decisions without carefully considering the facts and possible consequences are labeled impulsive and irresponsible. But in reality we often make choices based upon our emotional reactions and then assemble logical reasons and confirming opinions to justify our actions. This behavior is a significant part of what makes us human. Still it is careful gathering and examination of available information and thorough consideration of the results of our actions that serve as a gauge of our maturity and wisdom.

All this said, I believe that society finds the long white cane unacceptable because blindness is surrounded by myths, misconceptions, and fear. Unfortunately, as members of society we who are blind inevitably share the negative responses to blindness that permeate society. A very fine line separates social, scientific, or universal truth, on one hand, and unsubstantiated opinion on the other. It is troubling that even the people who hold themselves up as experts in the blindness field and in the use of the white cane often express by word and action the opinion that the white cane should be used only as a last-ditch method of travel. Blind travel students are often instructed to use a human guide in unfamiliar or noisy areas, to keep the long cane as short as possible in crowds to avoid tripping others, and when possible to hold the cane vertical and depend on residual vision in familiar areas. These recommendations represent and reinforce a damagingly negative view of blindness and blind people. After all, if all your experience indicates that a particular set of concepts and practices is obviously true—especially when this misinformation is presented by supposed experts—it becomes difficult to consider any other possibility, even when you hold the key to true independence in your hand.

The best person to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article is the person who asks it. It can be argued (and I would do so) that only an expert in the use of the white cane can answer the question wisely, but I also stand by my previous statement that only the blind individual can and should make the decision whether to use a cane. Therefore making a wise decision involved becoming an expert in the use of the cane. With all non-visual techniques, one cannot fully appreciate the benefits without first having learned to use them efficiently, to trust them fully, and to believe in their effectiveness. For the individual with some functional vision, this goal can be achieved only by using sleepshades since people have such a strong tendency to use vision when possible rather than depending upon the feedback available through other senses.

I can respect the decision of any blind person who has made a sincere effort to learn to use the white cane and then chooses to travel without it. Those who refuse to learn the techniques for good cane travel are also entitled to make that choice, but I hope that they will also accept the responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. It may be a fine choice for them, or it may prove to be a very poor one. Unfortunately many blind people who have refused to learn to use the long white cane have clearly made the wrong choice, and sadly many of them do not recognize that it is this error that seriously limits the quality of their lives.

If you choose not to master cane travel, please be careful, and please do not then blame your blindness for what does not go well in your life. Those of us who choose to use the long white cane would prefer that society hear and learn the truth about cane travel and not self-serving excuses from people with little or no actual firsthand experience.