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Rethinking the cane

15 October 2015

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s epic novel Treasure Island,[1] the boy hero, Jim Hawkins, describes Pew, the blind pirate, in the following words:

“He was plainly blind, for he tapped before him with a stick and wore a great green shade over his eyes and nose; and he was hunched as if with age or weakness, and wore a huge old tattered sea-cloak with a hood that made him appear positively deformed. I never saw in my life a more dreadful-looking figure. … I held out my hand, and the horrible soft-spoken, eyeless creature gripped it in a moment like a vise.”

Several pages on, blind Pew is killed. In a vain attempt to escape the pursuing revenue officers, he runs straight at them and is trampled by one of their horses. This episode is a stark reminder that we blind have been using sticks as mobility aids since ancient times. It also reminds us of the fear of the loss of sight which was, and perhaps still is, prevalent in the public mind.

It was only after World War I that the white cane was introduced, first designed by James Biggs in 1921 in England. The idea of painting it white was to make it easily visible. It became popular because of the many soldiers blinded during the War.

In 1964, a joint resolution of the United States Congress authorised the President to designate 15 October as White Cane safety day.[2] Thus President Lyndon B Johnson designated 15 October 1964 as America’s first national white cane safety day.[3] In 2011, President Barack Obama who has a deep and abiding concern for we persons with disabilities, also named 15 October as “Blind Americans Equality Day”. Gradually, 15 October has become known throughout the world as international white cane day.

My white cane is really an extension of my fingers. It enables me to travel to and from work and to play my part as a citizen in our nation. Through its tip, I feel the softness of grass, the clicks of the picket fence of our home, and the roughness of the surface which is often placed before ascending and descending steps. Without it to guide me, I can’t safely go anywhere by myself outside our home. Some of my blind colleagues have Seeing Eye Dogs to assist with mobility. Others use electronic sonic aids. Many of us also use mobility apps on our smart phones which tell us our exact locations. For me, the white cane is still my best and most long lasting blind aid.

I believe that it is not fully appreciated that many white cane users actually have some usable vision. At times this has left my sisters and brothers with very limited vision open to discrimination. I have been totally blind since birth and have used a white cane since my childhood. I can only recall one incident of poor behaviour which occurred when a bus driver suggested that I should catch a later bus instead of getting into his vehicle.

At Vision Australia, we asked readers of our client newsletter whether they had faced discrimination as white cane users. We had over three hundred responses. We learned that 55% of responding white cane users have experienced negative comments and behaviour while using a white cane in the community. Three out of four of these persons who had suffered discrimination had this experience in a shop, cafe or restaurant. Over half of these respondents who had suffered this behaviour, had this experience while travelling on public transport.

Of course, this survey is not scientific and would not stand up to social science scrutiny. It is best viewed as a sample, however it does give us much food for thought. First and foremost, it is essential for the public to realise that not all white cane users are totally blind. Particularly in our large cities with their fast flowing traffic, a white cane is an important safeguard for persons with all different levels of visual impairment. Second, the white cane notifies pedestrians and drivers that we are blind or have little vision and that we request your patience and understanding. It is a talisman which keeps us safe. It is a visible emblem which explains our limited or total loss of vision.

On Thursday 15 October 2015, International White Cane Day, please look out for us walking along streets, sitting next to you on public transport, or laughing in a cafe queue as we wait for our coffee or tea morning fix.

Ron McCallum, OA is an Emeritus Professor and former Dean of Law, University of Sydney.

He is married to Professor Mary Crock and they have three grown up children. Ron is a director of the Vision Australia Board; a director of the Ability First Australia Board; a Director of the Foresight Australia Board; a consultant with HWL Ebsworth (Lawyers); a part-time member of the Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal; and a former Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ron is an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) and was Senior Australian of the Year in 2011.

Emeritus Prof Ron McCallum AO

[1] Treasure Island was first published in 1883.

[2] 36 U.S.c . s142.

[3] Marc Maure, “White Cane Safety Day: A Symbol Of Independence”, available at the National Federation of the Blind website.

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