White Cane Safety Day: A Symbol of Independence
by Marc Maurer
In February of 1978 a young blind lady said, "I encounter people all of the time who bless me, extol my independence, call me brave and courageous, and thoroughly miss the boat as to what the real significance of the white cane is."
The National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled on the 6th day of July, 1963, called upon the governors of the fifty states to proclaim October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day in each of our fifty states. On October 6, 1964, a joint resolution of the Congress, HR 753, was signed into law authorizing the President of the United States to proclaim October 15 of each year as "White Cane Safety Day." This resolution said: "Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives", that the President is hereby authorized to issue annually a proclamation designating October 15 as White Cane Safety Day and calling upon the people of the United States to observe such a day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.'
Within hours of the passage of the congressional joint resolution authorizing the President to proclaim October 15 as White Cane Safety Day, then President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the importance of the white cane as a staff of independence for blind people. In the first Presidential White Cane Proclamation President Johnson commended the blind for the growing spirit of independence and the increased determination to be self-reliant that the organized blind had shown. The Presidential proclamation said:
The white cane in our society has become one of the symbols of a blind person's ability to come and go on his own. Its use has promoted courtesy and special consideration to the blind on our streets and highways. To make our people more fully aware of the meaning of the white cane and of the need for motorists to exercise special care for the blind persons who carry it Congress, by a joint resolution approved as of October 6, 1964, has authorized the President to proclaim October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day.
Now, therefore, I, Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States of America do hereby proclaim October 15, 1964 as White Cane Safety Day.
With those stirring words President Johnson issued the first White Cane Proclamation which was the culmination of a long and serious effort on the part of the National Federation of the Blind to gain recognition for the growing independence and self-sufficiency of blind people in America, and also to gain recognition of the white cane as the symbol of that independence and that self-reliance.
The first of the state laws regarding the right of blind people to travel independently with the white cane was passed in 1930. In 1966, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, the founder of the National Federation of the Blind, drafted the model White Cane Law. This model act--which has become known as the Civil Rights Bill for the Blind, the Disabled, and the Otherwise Physically Handicapped-'contains a provision designating October 15 as White Cane Safety Day. Today there is a variant of the White Cane Law on the statute books of every state in the nation.
From 1963 (and even before) when the National Federation of the Blind sought to have White Cane Safety Day proclaimed as a recognition of the rights of blind persons, to 1978 when a blind pedestrian met with misunderstanding regarding the true meaning of the white cane, is but a short time in the life of a movement. In 1963, a comparatively small number of blind people had achieved sufficient independence to travel alone on the busy highways of our nation. In 1978 that number has not simply increased but multiplied a hundredfold. The process began in the beginning of the organized blind movement and continues today. There was a time when it was unusual to see a blind person on the street, to find a blind person working in an office, or to see a blind person operating machinery in a factory. This is still all too uncommon. But it happens more often and the symbol of this independence is the white cane. The blind are able to go, to move, to be, and to compete with all others in society. The means by which this is done is that simple tool, the white cane. With the growing use of the white cane is an added element'-the wish and the will to be free'-the unquenchable spirit and the inextinguishable determination to be independent. With these our lives are changed, and the prospects for blind people become bright. That is what White Cane Safety Day is all about. That is what we do in the National Federation of the Blind