Braille Monitor                          July 2020

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Using Bullet Shell Casings as Cane Shaft Reinforcements

by Justin Salisbury

Justin SalisburyFrom the Editor: Justin is a frequent contributor to these pages, and in every article he demonstrates his passion for teaching blind people the way to be more independent. But here we see he also has a mechanical side and suggests ideas for some cane maintenance and repair. Here is what he says:

In the process of learning cane travel, there are ever-expanding varieties of canes that students can use. Presently, when I teach Structured Discovery Cane Travel, I tend to recommend fiberglass or carbon fiber long white canes. There are varying design components of the different long white cane models. I am offering this article today to share a simple and common-sense technique for modifying the contemporary fiberglass long white cane for those who may find it useful.

When I first began using a cane, I was still largely dependent on what residual vision I still had, but I eventually sought the kind of training that would change that. I did this after noticing in the National Federation of the Blind that there were a lot of people with less residual vision than I had who seemed to have their act together much better than I did. Almost all of them had attended a good residential training center, so I decided to do what had worked for them. During my training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, I learned how to travel without depending on my residual vision. In my early days of cane use, I was not receiving as much tactile feedback through the nylon marshmallow tip as I now desire. In fact, I felt as if I was getting too much feedback because, as the marshmallow tip would wear a flat spot, it would catch in more and more sidewalk cracks.

When I first began using a non-collapsible fiberglass cane with the tight rubber and metal tip, it seemed like I could feel everything in the road with that cane. I did not know exactly how to interpret it at first, but I came to really appreciate it. Different models of fiberglass and carbon fiber canes transmit different levels of feedback and offer different levels of flexibility. I have never found a collapsible cane of any material makeup that could flex or transmit vibrations as well as its non-collapsible counterpart. To my knowledge, every brand of fiberglass cane is hollow except for the old Rainshine canes. The hole at the bottom of the fiberglass cane shaft is often filled by a bolt, sometimes with a small washer to create desirable dimensions or a small metal piece that resembles a nail with no pointed tip and possibly a hemispherical head. This creates a harder and slightly larger surface so that the rubber part of the cane tip can pressure-fit over the tip of the shaft and yet be changed by hand by someone of average strength.

Inevitably, sediment particles find their way between the rubber part of the cane tip and the fiberglass shaft of the cane. This allows the debris to rub between the rubber and fiberglass. Since the debris is sometimes harder than the fiberglass, it causes the fiberglass to erode or wear away. Once the rubber tip is removed, the cane shaft will appear to taper sharply inward, becoming narrower exactly where the tip was. This allows the tip to wobble and interferes with the information transmitted.

One solution that some people have used is to cut the shaft of the cane, essentially making the cane shorter, and then gluing a small screw into the newly-created opening. If done repeatedly, this process will eventually need to be repeated until the cane becomes many inches shorter, since exposed fiberglass will continue to wear away.

Another approach to fixing this problem is to attach a small bullet shell casing to the bottom of the shaft after the metal piece is removed or falls out on its own. Consistently, the factory adhesive used to attach this metal piece gives out within the first month of my use of a new cane, especially in wet seasonal weather. Thus, I have a relatively new cane shaft with an exposed hole at the bottom, prime for receiving a bullet shell casing. Right after I arrived in Ruston, Louisiana, for my graduate studies, I got a new cane. After a week, my tip fell out. Since my canes had only ever been repaired at training centers, I wondered what people around the country were doing. I called the NFB Independence Market, and the staff member who answered the phone told me that she just superglued hers back into her cane when it fell out. She wasn’t using bullet shell casings, so I just figured it was like a secret handshake for LCB alumni. The secret is out, but I want it to be available to everyone.

The casing should be attached so that the wide end is furthest away from the cane handle and flush with the bottom of the fiberglass cane shaft. It is ideal to use bullet shell casings that are as close to the size of the cane shaft as possible to make a snug fit. This can also be achieved by cutting and/or crimping the casing to fit more snugly. My current cane has a .38 Special bullet shell casing on it. Today, I put glue inside the casing and insert the cane shaft quickly so that it can set and harden. When choosing a type of glue, I encourage people to consider the strength and hardness of the glue. We want it to be strong enough to hold for a long time, even despite elements and the physical abuse of long-term travel. We want it to be hard enough so that it only absorbs a minimal amount of the vibrations that are supposed to travel from the metal cane tip all the way to the blind traveler’s brain. I have become most interested in Gorilla Glue and Krazy Glue. I am told that Gorilla Glue is stronger, but Krazy Glue is harder.

Bullet shell casing is made of a relatively soft metal, but it is still harder than the debris which generally erodes the cane shaft. This may be purely in my head, but I think the casing prevents the cane from bending quite as much as it could because it is splinting the very bottom of the cane, but the canes are long enough that they can flex with the rest of the shaft. Adding the bullet shell casing and anything else to help attach it can add a little more weight to the end of the cane. Since that weight is all the way out on the end of the cane, it can make the cane tip feel a little bit heavier.

If you’re wondering where I get the shell casings, I cannot simply go down to the corner store and buy them. To get the bullet shell casings, I ask around to find someone who owns guns and shoots them for a hobby. If I ever found myself in a situation where I could not easily find such a person, I would probably call some gun ranges and local firearm enthusiast organizations. Sometimes, people are willing to donate their bullet shell casings to the freedom of blind people.
If this feature becomes a factory default design feature, it may improve the quality of the outcome beyond this aftermarket solution. One of my colleagues back in Hawaii, a bright rehabilitation counselor, proposed that the canes could be dipped in molten metal because some of these soft metals have lower melting points than fiberglass. It would be like fondue for your cane tip. Either way, this modification helps to preserve the tactile feedback of the fiberglass or carbon fiber long white cane.

Some people try to make an elaborate science out of how blind people travel through space. It was once pretty bizarre to me, but I now teach this skill on a daily basis. I hope that readers will understand that it really is a common-sense skill set, not too different from swimming. Many good swimmers today were not taught by certified swim instructors. We simply had people who knew how to swim who showed us how to do it, too. Many good travelers can offer tips and tricks to other blind people, and it requires no certification. I like being certified to teach cane travel, and I like teaching it even more. If anyone wants to learn to use a cane, I am always happy to tell them about the benefits of attending a training center accredited by the National Blindness Professional Certification Board, but I also want them to understand that it’s not going to be too difficult for them to learn. There are little, common-sense tips and tricks that we can use to modify our canes, which are very simple pieces of equipment. I am not the one who came up with this idea, but I am the one who took the time to write about it. If you want to try this on your cane, give it a shot.

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