Participants walk the streets of East Hollywood, Calif., during the 2010 White Cane Day event.

Tap, tap, tap.

That’s the sound of independence. It’s the sound of people with visual impairments, using a white cane to confidently navigate to work, to school or out for a daily walk.

I thought everyone knew what the white canes were used for. But I was surprised to learn not everyone understands what the canes are all about.

One day, a friend and I, both swinging our long white canes, were enjoying a walk, when a lady stopped us and asked, “What are those sticks for?”

I have to admit, I was so astonished I almost laughed, but I only said, “These are white canes we blind use to walk around. They help us avoid stumbling into objects or other things that may be in our way.”

“You are both blind? You are walking rather fast — I never thought of you as being blind. Thank you for explaining,” she replied.

One more person learning about the white cane.

Oct. 15 is national White Cane Safety Day, acknowledging the independence and skill of people with visual impairments who use a white cane to navigate. There’s no better day to celebrate the power of the white cane than Oct. 15, the day set aside by the federal government to recognize the independence and skill of people who use these canes.

Laws in all 50 states requires drivers to yield the right of way to people with white canes, even when they’re not on a crosswalk.

In honor of White Cane Safety Day, here are some facts about the white cane.

• In 1930, George A Bonham, president of the Peoria, Ill., Lions Club, watched a man who was blind as he tried to cross a street. The man’s cane was black and motorists couldn’t see it, so Bonham proposed painting the cane white with a red stripe to make it more noticeable. The idea quickly caught on around the country.

• The standard for using a white cane was pioneered in 1944 by Richard E. Hoover, a World War II veteran-rehabilitation specialist. His technique of holding a long cane in the center of the body and swinging it back and forth before each step to detect obstacles is still called the “Hoover Method.”

• The majority of blind people don’t use a white cane. In fact, only an estimated 2 percent to 8 percent of blind use a cane. The rest rely on their usable vision, a guide dog or a sighted guide.

• There are different kinds of white canes: the standard mobility cane, used to navigate; the support cane, used by people with visual impairments who also have mobility challenges; and the ID cane, a small, foldable cane used by people with partial sight to let others know they have a visual impairment.

• White canes are going high tech. Inventors in India, Great Briton and France have equipped white canes with ultrasonic devices that detect obstacles up to 9 feet away. Vibrations in the cane’s handle warn users of potential hazards in their path.

• Unless you’re willing to “walk the walk,” you can’t become a certified Orientation & Mobility specialist. O&M specialists teach white cane technique to the people who are blind or have limited eyesight. But to become certified, they must spend at least 120 hours blindfolded, navigating with a white cane.

• Today’s modern lightweight canes are usually made from aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fiber, and can weigh as little as 7 ounces. Some white cane users prefer straight canes, which are more durable, while others prefer collapsible canes, which can be folded and stored more easily.

• White caning can be fun. The Braille Institute sponsors an annual cane quest, where youngsters ages 3-12 compete to quickly and safely navigate a route in their community using the white cane. The contest helps kids master proper white-cane techniques and encourages independence.

• It’s legal to take a white cane through an airport security checkpoint, according to the TSA, but the cane must first pass through the X-ray machine.

• In some states, it’s illegal for a person who is not legally blind to use a white cane to gain right-of-way while crossing a street. In Florida, for example, perpetrators face second-degree misdemeanor charges and up to 60 days in prison.

I hope these facts help you realize that, with varying levels of assistance including white canes, blind people can live lives as full as those as sighted people. In this area there are quite a few blind who use the white cane. They may not be walking exactly where most pedestrians walk, but remember, they too enjoy life.

Have a great day — and remember, White Cane Day is Oct. 15.

Ernie Jones, a registered nurse who retired due to vision loss, can be reached at 529-9252 or

Photos are unedited, and used under Creative Commons license —

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