The long cane used by blind travelers is a tool with a variety of uses (listed below). This section is taken from an early effort to write a print book. It refers to one of my students, Jason (not his real name), and the many ways he used the long cane.
01. It's a bumper; it contacts things that are in the direct path of travel.
02. It's also a probe; an extension of the sense of touch.
03. The long cane finds, verifies, and discriminates landmarks and thus aids in orientation
04. It helps establish the line of direction of travel (it can trail a straight edge or square off)
05. As the cane contacts things, it motivates children to explore
06. It detects drop offs
07. It's a measurement tool
08. The cane identifies the blind traveler
09. The cane freezes turning cars, and puts drivers on alert when it moves into a street before the blind traveler
10. A well used cane projects a positive, sophisticated image; it counters pre-conceived negative images of blindness
11. The cane is a vision substitution system; it replaces optical perceptual flow with tactual perceptual flow
12. The cane allows the blind traveler the pleasure of anxiety free walks
13. The cane helps the blind traveler relax when walking with an inexperienced sighted guide
14. The cane can help to relieve childhood fears and anxieties
15. The cane allows the blind traveler to move faster
16. When you go faster, you go straighter- the cane helps the blind traveler to avoid veering
17. When crossing a street, the cane takes the focus off the feet
18. The cane grounds a blind person in space
19. The cane is anti-mannerism device
20. The cane is an echo location device
21. The cane allows (and is a symbol of) independence
Jason was three when he got his first cane. From age three to five he was a mess of stitches, bruises, and bumps. I have shelves filled with bent canes and shrapnel.
There is (or used to be) controversy about when to get a cane in a blind child's hands. The answer is simple. It depends on the needs and abilities of individual students. This being said, I agree with many mobility specialists who give blind children canes as soon as the kids walk. In my practice, no formal lessons are provided for preschoolers, and I don't make a big production out of the cane (some kids refuse to carry a stick around when they are little). I make the cane part of the child's everyday life: "Jason, get your coat, boots, and cane and let's go."
The cane is part of an overall attitude about independence. It's no big deal if a child can't properly use the cane during the preschool years. Young children don't have the neuromuscular ability to use proper cane technique. But carrying a cane is a big deal as a symbol of independence.
The first five years of life are critical for a blind child. Parents, grandparents, friends, and early teachers can set an emotional pattern that will either create habits of independence, or embed habits of dependence. With encouragement, a blind child will play and explore, move and develop in a similar pattern to that of sighted peers. Or, if surrounded by overprotecting adults, the child will learn to be dependent, passive, increasingly helpless as the years pass. Blind children should be surrounded by adults who have high expectations for them (age appropriate expectations). The long cane is the cheapest, best investment for the future. It is the beginning of the right attitude about self determination.
The long cane is, of course, more than a symbol of independence. It allows independence. Using a long cane, the blind traveler is free to move about the world unguided by sighted friends, unmonitored by mobility teachers or anxious parents, fully self-initiated. The long cane is the most affordable, easiest to use tool for independent travel.
When I talk to audiences about blindness, I hold the long cane over my head, stare out at the folks, and then launch into a commercial for the slickest appliance on the market; the incredible long cane. A fast talking salesman, I twirl the miracle stick and sing it's praises.
"This is no ordinary stick, ladies and gentlemen. This is the miracle long cane for the blind, twenty one tools in one, the amazing, the incredible."
I lean on the white stick like Jean Kelly about to tap dance across the stage. I stare at the audience but I slip into a daydream about Jason, thinking about when he was young, just learning to use his cane. He enjoyed making me crazy, dragging the cane behind him as he ran headlong toward half open doors or the steps; sometimes riding the thing like a rodeo cowboy, sometimes twirling it around, sending everyone diving for cover. He never had a cane that wasn't bent in the middle.
"For a couple thousand dollars, ladies and gentlemen, you can buy an electronic, robotic wonder that will tell you if there is an object in your path. Or, for a mere twenty five dollars, you can purchase this miracle, grass roots, ultra light, portable long cane that does the same job; a war horse that has been to battle and done itself proud. Here's what the cane can do for you.
"It's a bumper (01), ladies and gentlemen. It detects objects in your path. It scans, it sweeps, it whispers: "it's safe, it's safe," as the blind traveler flows through the mall, the airport, the parking lot at Wrigley Field (head up and smiling even though the Cubs lost again). The cane detects bicycles, roller skates, fallen tree limbs, parked cars, dead squirrels and more than that.
"It's also a probe(02), sticking it's tip where fingers don't dare to go: in the mud, in fresh cement, in pet droppings, in puddles of rain water. It probes objects in the path and finds the way around them. With a little practice, the probe can tell the difference between carpet and wood floors, between grass and sidewalk, between sign poles and fire hydrants."
It checks with landmarks as Jason speeds down hallways, whacking water fountains, windows, Mary Jane, there's the principal's favorite plant (whack) and this must be the window he broke yesterday . . . sorry about that. The long cane finds, verifies, and discriminates landmarks and thus aids in orientation (03). So the cane talks; it says "Whack! That's a tree; Whack! That's a car; Whack! That's . . . Ooops, sorry Doug."
Gliding the cane along corners and straight edges can provide the only clues necessary for squaring off without having to awkwardly and obtrusively use the whole body to take a line of direction (04).
Yes sir, it's the long cane, an extension of the sense of touch. Think about it, ladies and gentlemen, the sense of touch expanded to the left, the right, for several feet in front as the blind traveler moves through space. A wider range of touch leads to an extended sense of curiosity, a greater desire to explore, the drive to move through space enhanced. Anyone who has ever worked with a blind preschooler (like Jason) knows the power of canes to motivate (05). Preschoolers stop at every object the cane hits to explore and to question.
"It detects drop offs (06), curbs, steps, open manholes, foxholes and snake pits" (unless you are moving so fast you overrun signals coming from the cane and end up at the bottom of the steps again. "Are you OK, Jason?"). "Well," Jason said, "if the cane is a drop-off detector, it is also a step-up detector." Up or down, the cane is watching out for major shifts in surface elevation.
"It's a measurement tool (07), checking depth, width, height, exploring the dimensions of steps, sidewalks, ceilings, and Rover ("Here, boy . . . Mom! Rover won't come here!"). The long cane can also find the tops, bottoms and the orientation of steps.
"It also helps to have a cane when crossing a major highway. The long cane tells respectable drivers to be aware that a blind individual is independently crossing a street (08). However, the cane has no affect on drunk, drugged, or angry drivers. Also watch out for speeding teenage boys with one arm around their girlfriend and the other arm holding a beer. . . the girlfriend is usually steering the car. Before stepping off the curb into the street, the cane flashes forward, signaling that the blind traveler is about to move (09). This freezes turning cars, and puts drivers on alert.
"The cane identifies the blind traveler, not just at street crossings, but all the time. Seeing a blind person using a long cane causes associations about blindness, invokes stereotypes, dredges up old prejudices. As the blind traveler moves, he or she projects an image. That image can be positive, saying "I am graceful, independent, upright and confident;" or it can be a bent over, shuffling, cane dragging image; not positive. A well used cane projects a positive, sophisticated image; it counters pre-conceived negative images of blindness (10).
"Now put on your thinking caps, this hurts a little. In a normal human eye there is a subconscious sweep of visual images across the retina as we move. Peripheral (side) vision is specialized to monitor this perceptual flow. As objects move, or as we move in relationship to objects, images flow along the retina of the eye. This optical flow is what allows sighted persons to glide effortlessly around objects, follow pathways, and pass through open doorways. The absence of optical flow means that we, or the objects around us are not moving. The sighted person is not interested in identifying, examining, or naming the objects that flow past. Optical flow is only concerned with where objects are in space, i.e. navigation.
Experienced cane users sweep the magic stick in a subconscious, rhythmic pattern that replaces optical perceptual flow with tactual perceptual flow. The cane allows navigation to continue to be subconscious, as nature intended (11). In essence, the cane turns the sense of touch into a (very) short range receptor, replacing to a tiny degree the spatial scanning of the vision system.
"Let me put this another way. Walking is an unconscious activity. We don't think real hard about each footstep, where the heel goes, when to push off from the toes, or how to swing the arms. But blindness can force movement (at least initially) onto a cognitive plane. Travel can become overly cautious, halting, each step an anticipation of danger; movement can become awkward and slow. A long cane can return walking to a subcortical level. It would be no fun to take a mental health walk, or a brisk cardiovascular stroll, if you had to spend the entire trip worrying about bicycles, snake pits, and teenage boys in big Buicks. The cane allows the blind traveler the pleasure of anxiety free walks (12). It also helps the blind traveler relax when walking with an inexperienced sighted guide (13).
"For many preschool children the cane is a tool to reach out into the unknown. It is a tool to thrust into the fear filled spaces all around them. The cane has emotional impact for the blind traveler. It not only reduces stress for the adult traveler, but it can help to relieve childhood fears and anxieties (14). For both the adult and child (and because fear is reduced), the cane allows the blind traveler to move faster than they would without the cane sweeping out a safe path (15). And when you go faster, you go straighter. So the cane helps the blind traveler to avoid veering (16). The straighter you go, the quicker you get to your destination.
"When crossing the street, the cane has another function. It takes the focus off the feet, finds the curb, and allows the head to be held high, freeing the sense of hearing to monitor traffic. When there is no vision, hearing is the most important distance receptor. The cane frees the sense of hearing so it can pay attention to what's out there (17): landmarks, dangers, friends, fast cars, and bull dogs.
"Ladies and gentlemen, try a little experiment with me. Everybody please stand . . . Thank you. Close your eyes, please, and don't touch your chair or the person next to you. This is an exercise that I do when I am talking to sighted people about blindness. The only rules are you can't touch anything and no talking. I'll look at my watch and for the next minute please stand silent in space. Here we go . . .
"Please remain standing, eyes closed . . . That was one minute. You now have a feeling in your gut; you wish you could sit down, lean against some object, or at least feel a hand on your shoulder. I know you feel that way because I have done this exercise many times. I do it to make the point that vision grounds us in space. Vision gives us a sense of stability within our spatial world. This is lost when vision is lost.
"I told Jason about this exercise. He listened patiently, and then said to me "You know, Doug, the whole time you were talking to me, you left me standing in the middle of this hall unsupported. But I don't feel uncomfortable or ungrounded. Want to know why?
"Ok, I said, why not?"
"Because I'm leaning on my cane. A cane grounds a blind person in space. It replaces visual psychological grounding with a tactual psychological grounding." (18)
"I never thought of that," I told him.
"There's more. A lot of blind people rock and sway in space. They have unnatural mannerisms. If you lean on your cane, you can stop the desire to float in space. So the cane is a stabilizer, an anti-mannerism device (19) . . . "Like I've said many times before, ladies and gentlemen, I learned a great deal from my students over the years.
"Like expensive two thousand dollar sonar path detectors, the cane is also an echo location device (20). Experienced users tap the cane on a solid surface and tell from the returning echo where objects are located (and often how far away they are). Jason used to tap the cane on sidewalks and listen for the distant echo that told him when he was passing a house in his suburban town. He could also tell when he was passing trees (and how big they were).
"Finally, most importantly, as I've said, the cane allows (and is a symbol of) independence (21). Grandma doesn't have to take Jason to the bathroom, even if she could catch him, because Jason can get there safely on his own.
"There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the amazing long cane."
Of course, there are students like Jason for whom blindness has no effect on walking speed. For some reason, (for some people) blindness does not cause a shift from subcortical to cognitive awareness. For kids like Jason (who travel at light speed) the cane is self-defense. The sooner fast moving blind students get the magic stick the better (for foreheads and Ming vases).
Speaking of self-defense, when I interviewed Jason for this book, I asked him to list uses of the long cane. He listed the ones above, but added that the cane was also a weapon. "Sure," I said, "Ha ha." But Jason got into a fight in New York City on a trip, and broke his cane in the shuffle. He was serious. "If it's all you have to defend yourself, use it," he said. So maybe there are twenty two uses for the long cane. When he was little, Jason used the cane as a spear, sword, hobby horse, and teacher tickler; four more dubious uses of the magic stick. He also told me that you could pitch the cane over the edge of a cliff to get an idea how deep a canyon was. "And, if you want to get picky," he said, "the cane is also a baton, a pointer, a fishing pole, and an arrow (the long arrow) . . . Some of my days are longer than others.
Of course, the miracle long cane does have limitations. It only protects the traveler from holes and from obstacles on the pathway and from the waist down. It doesn't protect the face from hanging tree limbs, potted wall plants, or low door thresholds. Unlike electronic travel aids that signal the presence of objects many feet distance, the long cane is not an early warning device (it only picks up objects 3 or 4 feet in front). The cane is a last second, last chance warning system. If a blind student is walking too fast, being inattentive, the cane and the student will plunge together into the six foot deep mud hole next to the backhoe. A cane provides a measure of protection, but it is not a guarantee of safety. The blind traveler still needs keen senses, good concentration, monitoring skills, and stubborn determination. The cane also has no idea where you are or where you want to go. It is entirely possible for the cane and the blind traveler to be lost in space together. Finally, after years of cane study, years of cane drills, your student may do what Jason did.
"Well," he said, handing me his beat up old folding cane, "I guess I won't be needing this anymore; I'm getting a dog guide."