Future Reflections Winter 1996, Vol. 15 No. 1
How Long Should the Cane Be?
I have slowly graduated from a cane that was 42 inches long to a cane that is over 60 inches long. I added a few inches every few years when I bought a new cane. I have not yet had a cane that was too long. My chin-high cane is barely long enough for me, now. There are blind people who use canes that reach their eyebrows.
Once while I was teaching travel, it occurred to me that what mattered was not where the cane came on your body, but where it reached in front of you. The speed of your pace and the length of your stride will make a difference. The cane needs to reach a good two steps in front of where you are stepping. As a practical matter, if you find yourself overstepping the cane, dropping off curbs you didn't find, try a longer cane.
When you select a cane, start with one that comes into your armpit. Walk up to a blank wall, swinging the cane from side to side two inches wider than the width of your shoulders. As you step left, tap right; as you step right, tap left. When the cane hits the wall, complete the step you are making, and take one more. Was there space for that next step? If so, you have enough stopping distance. If not, add another two or four inches to the cane and try again. I am not the only one who needs the length of that second step for stopping distance.
Remember that not all obstacles are found at the distance of the end of the cane. You find some things as the cane swings to the side after the tip has passed them. If part of the obstacle is above ground level, such as a chair or a car, part of the cane will pass under it before making contact, and you will be glad to have the added length. You may think that the longer the cane, the more it will get tangled up in whatever is ahead of you, but that can happen with any length of cane.
There is one other factor that I must consider for my cane: will it fit in the family car? The answer is: "Yes, but I have to work at it a bit." The way that is best for me is to bring the handle end in first and push it back as far as possible between the seat and the side of the car. I try to get it under the seat belt anchor and as low as possible, where it won't trip back seat passengers going in and out. The last thing is to make sure the tip end is in the car and not sticking out between the door and the frame. I am not the only person to destroy a cane that way. I am afraid I have made the process sound harder than it is. A couple of pushes and a pull get the cane in position, and it takes less time than fastening a seat belt.
What Should the Cane Be Made Of?
I have used canes made of wood, aluminum tubing, solid fiberglass, fiberglass tubing, and carbon fiber compound tubing. Each material has different characteristics of strength, weight, and flexibility. Each one sounds different as it strikes the ground. I have not used wooden canes or canes with curved handles since the 1950's. White support canes are available for people who need a cane to lean on.
Aluminum tubing canes are relatively heavy and strong. They do not break. If they are bent a little, they will straighten out. With a little more pressure, they will stay bent; very few people have the coordinated strength to return aluminum canes to their original condition. Slightly bent canes may not look as pretty as straight ones, but you can use them for a long time.
Solid fiberglass canes (called rigid because they have no joints) are both strong and flexible, and I like that combination of qualities. They weigh less than aluminum canes, and more than the next two hollow canes. Solid fiberglass will take quite a bend and still straighten. If they are bent past a certain point, they will split into long splinters which are dangerous to touch. The cane will probably get you home in that condition, but beware the splinters.
Hollow fiberglass is lightweight and very easy to handle. It has a nice bounce to it, but will only take a moderate bend without breaking. That is, it may not withstand tripping someone. When it breaks, hollow fiberglass tends to crush and fall apart very soon.
Carbon fiber canes are fairly stiff and have only a little bounce. They are light weight and easy to handle. Compared to hollow fiberglass, the carbon fiber cane is somewhat stronger and lasts a little longer after a break.
I do not know any cane that will withstand being caught in a car door unscathed. I keep a spare cane at home.
Let us consider folding canes. Do not let yourself fall into the trap of thinking you are hiding your blindness by using a folding cane. Also, for at least the duration of the learning stage, I strongly recommend a one-piece cane. There are many blind people who use a folding cane all the time and find it fully satisfactory. For several years I was one of them. The previous section on the length of the cane should still be considered. I often take my folding cane to church, restaurants, theaters; places where it may not be as convenient to stow the one-piece cane.
Many folding canes are made of aluminum tubing sections with some kind of elastic in the middle to pull the sections together. Each producer has his own variation on the way the sections join, so you must make your own choice. Some canes are made of concentric tubing that collapses each one into the next. If you pull each section out firmly and give it a slight twist, it should stay in position during your trip. Both fiberglass and carbon fiber compound are available in this telescoping style.
How and Where Do You Hold the Cane?
The handle goes diagonally across my palm and rests on the extended index finger. The other fingers curl around, and the thumb points over the handle and down the cane. The palm is vertical as when extended to shake hands. That is the classic grip which I use most of the time. In close quarters I slide my hand down the cane and narrow the swing. I may shift my grip and hold the cane like a long pencil. You can't swing the cane much in that position, but you don't want to swing it much because of the crowd. In very close, slow-moving crowds such as in theater lobbies or a line to board a bus, I may just hold the cane diagonally across my body and slide the cane along in front of my left foot. At other times I may shift my grip to ease fatigue or for no special reason.
The firmness of the grip should be moderate, neither so tight that you never let go--you'll break the cane when it gets caught in a crack--nor so loose that every obstacle knocks it out of your hand--you'll have to chase it too often.
I swing the cane from side to side with pressure of the wrist and fingers. The hand swings like a door with the hinge at the wrist. Pretty soon you will be almost flipping the cane back and forth with an easy, unconscious motion.
My first teacher told us to hold the cane just below the belt buckle with the forearm braced against the hip. From that central position the cane can be tapped evenly from side to side. This position is good for beginners, and some people stay with it. Over the years my cane hand has drifted to the side by my pocket. In either position, hold your hand out a few inches so you do not impale yourself when the cane hits a stop. Your whole arm can move to take up the shock.
When you are standing still, hold the cane vertically near your body with a light grip. That is, I don't think you want to look like a shepherd leaning on his staff.
There will be times, walking or standing, when you want to reach out and check a particular landmark or shoreline. Be sure you are not going to trip someone with the sudden motion, reach out, and then bring your arm back to the original position. The point is that you should hold the cane in a manner and position so as to reach where you need to with comfort and without undue fatigue.
Many canes have a loop of chain or string through the handle which is for the purpose of hanging up the cane when it is not in use. Do not put your hand through the loop when you are walking. If something should happen to pull the cane out of your hand, it is better to drop the cane than to be pulled down with it.
You may think I don't care how you hold your cane. I do think that there is more than one way and more than one place to hold the cane. However and wherever you hold the cane, give yourself protection for the full width of your body. The purpose of the grip and position is to make it possible to tap the cane from side to side, which is the subject of the next section, and that is very important.