Veronica With Four Eyes

Decoding The Colors of Blindness Canes

My dad and I were getting food last night when someone noticed my blindness cane and asked if I was totally blind. I answered that I have low vision, and then my dad surprised me by educating the person about blindness canes and how the different colors can symbolize different types of vision loss, a fun fact I had shared with him and many others before. I was really excited that my dad was being such an awesome advocate for people who use blindness canes and teaching people about them, and he suggested I write a post about blindness canes and their different colors. So, this post is for you, Dad!

The color of a blindness cane can give some clues as to what level of vision someone has, though some people may choose to use a cane that does not necessarily correspond to their level of sight loss. Here are five types of cane colors, and the meaning of different colors for blindness canes. Read more about how I answer strangers’ questions about my blindness cane at college here, and questions about my glasses here.

First, a bit of cane history

The invention of the blindness cane in 1921 is credited to James Biggs, who was from Bristol, England. The cane was introduced in North America in 1931, and was painted white so that way people would be able to see it easily. Canes became widely accepted in the 1940s after World War II, and in 1964, President Lyndon B Johnson became the first president to declare October 15th to be White Cane Day. This is a very condensed history of blindness canes- read a more in-depth article on the American Council for the Blind website here. To learn more about blindness and low vision worldwide, read my post for World Sight Day 2017 here.

White cane with a red bottom

If someone uses a white cane with a red bottom segment, that typically means that the person has low vision, is visually impaired, or otherwise has some usable eyesight. This is the type of cane that I use as someone with low vision. My specific cane has four segments so I can collapse it to fit in my lap or purse when not in use, as well as a rolling tip that looks like a marshmallow. This is my everyday cane and it goes with me everywhere- walking to class, navigating a building, going to the store, and everything in between.

There is no requirement for how bad someone’s eyesight has to be to use a cane, as vision loss can come in many different forms- my case manager for vocational rehabilitation services recommended I start using a cane right before college and referred me for O&M training. Someone can have 20/20 eyesight on the standard eye chart but still require a cane due to central vision loss, like with macular degeneration. Some people who have no usable eyesight still prefer the white cane with the red bottom, but many use the all white cane- more on that in a minute. Read my essay on my blindness cane for White Cane Day 2016 here.

All white cane

The classic all white cane is used by people who consider themselves totally blind with no usable vision. These are the canes most people think of when they imagine a blindness cane- a long, rigid cane made of fiberglass or aluminum, with a solid metal tip and smooth white finish. Some types of white canes are telescopic and collapse to be about nine inches long, which makes them more portable- no worries about propping up a long rigid cane when sitting down.

The white cane is endorsed by the National Federation for the Blind and people can apply to receive a free white cane at their website here. The white cane has also been the cane of choice for many blind characters in TV and movies, including Isaac in “The Fault in our Stars.” Read more about my favorite Disney character who also has vision loss here.

White and red striped cane

Red and white striped canes look a bit like candy canes and are used by people who are deafblind. This does not necessarily mean someone is totally deaf and/or totally blind, but rather that they have both vision loss and hearing loss. People with vision loss who are traveling with someone who has hearing loss may also choose to use a striped cane.

The white and red striped cane is recognized as a symbol of deafblindness in several countries and by the World Federation of the Deafblind. Learn more about how to approach people with blindness canes and low vision without scaring them here.

Glow in the dark cane

I use a glow in the dark cane for navigating at night when I will be crossing the street or otherwise navigating a busy area. My particular cane has three white segments that glow green, a red reflective bottom segment, and a large rolling ball tip. The cane is not battery powered, but “charges” when exposed to light for several hours, and then glows brightly in the dark. This cane tends to be a bit heavier so I mainly use it outside. Read my post on how my blindness cane has increased my independence here.

Solid yellow cane, or other color

I use a solid yellow cane for navigating at night when I still rely heavily on using a cane indoors. The color of the cane does not necessarily tell people anything about my vision loss, though some colored canes also feature a different colored segment at the bottom or stripes to indicate partial vision loss or deafblindness respectively. The bright yellow color is easy to see and highly reflective, and my particular cane collapses down to a smaller size than my other canes because it has additional segments. My yellow cane also happens to match my band uniform, so I suppose that’s an added bonus! I read an interesting study about different cane colors and driver perception- read their findings here.

My blindness cane has given me tremendous amounts of freedom and I am grateful that I have been able to use it. I hope that this post has taught you something new about blindness canes and their colors.

Decoding the colors of blindness canes. What the color of a blindness cane can tell you about someone's sight loss



7 thoughts on “Decoding The Colors of Blindness Canes”

  • I am blind in one eye. I had a brain aneurysm 26 years ago and at first, I was blind in both eyes, but I had surgery in the right. Now,because of a few retinal detachments, I can see with the left. I have lived in the same town for a number of years, so I know where everything is. It’s in the winter with the snow and ice I struggle with. I would like the white cane with the red on the bottom ,but the state’s Blind Association refused me because I know this town so well.

    • You can order blindness canes online through Maxi-Aids. I use the Ambutech marshmallow tip cane and love it!

    • The state agency would reject you for services (and equipment) because you do not meet the definition of legal blindness, which always is defined by your better eye. As indicated below, you may purchase your own cane. Realize though, that in many states the ‘white cane laws’ prohibit people who are not legally blind from using a white cane, and technically you could be breaking the law. In my 30 years of practice I;ve never heard of anyone actually charged, so you are probably fine using your own purchased equipment. A word of caution – using a cane properly and affectiuvely is not a simple matter and you may still want to seek out professional consultation about it.

  • This movement, often driven by marketing, for differently colored canes appears well-intentions but is most unfortunately.

    This issue of a special cane for deafblind people or people with low vision comes up regularly. The USA has not adopted these symbol or modification to canes. And for good reasons I believe, because when we consider the research, it is something between benign and dangerous for travelers who are travelers.

    Canes have two purpose that are critical. One is to gathering environmental information for the travelers, identify hazards, and detect clear or obstructed pathways. The considerations for this purpose are the length, weight, the size and nature of the tip, and other customizable physical features. The second is to identify the user of the cane, and at its most crucial impact on safety, to alert drivers and cause them to yield to pedestrians who are crossing streets.

    In England and some other European countries canes with multiple red and whites stripes or yellow or green canes are used, this is not typical in the United States. There are numerous reasons why a special cane is unlikely to enhance travel and is not used at most training facilities for people.

    First, the special cane would need to be known by the general public. Even in countries where it is used, from my inquires it appears virtually no members of the general public know that the cane represents a traveler with dual sensory losses. Efforts to educate members of the population would, of course, need to be extensive and ongoing. This has not been done in any countries. It is a very unlikely prospect that 275,000,000 adult American and about 250,000,000 drivers would learn to understand that this particular cane has a particular meaning

    Even if the pubic understood that a special cane designated a person who is deafblind, exactly what would a pedestrian or driver do with that information? People have no knowledge of how to engage with a deafblind traveler, and since each deafblind person presents a unique set of skills and preference, communicating and interacting with any particular deafblind person is probably a unique situation for members of the public. There literally dozens of ways a ‘deafblind’ person might interact with another person – pedestrian or driver. WHAT SHOULD A DRIVER DO DIFFERENTLY IF A CANE IS YELLOW OR GREEN?

    I called this the “if they only knew he/she/I was deafblind” myth. When presented with the fact that a person is deafblind, most people in the public do not understand how to appropriately respond and the information is not, in and of itself, helpful. Whether the traveler wishes to cross the street or make a purchase in a store, a cane signifying deafblindness is not very effective at communicating the needs of the deafblind person. What would a driver think in the unlikely scenario that they knew the cane meant the person was deafblind. Would they honk loudly, or would they refrain from honking? What would they do differently from when presented with a blind pedestrian at a corner or crosswalk. Would a pedestrian stop and try to help, or walk away realizing that communication was impossible? I and Dona Sauerburger, have written about effective and efficient ways that deafblind travelers can communicate and interact with the public, and offer some principles to follow (Bourquin & Sauerburger, 2005). Striped canes do not follow these principles and are unlikely to be effective for travelers who are deafblind. Deafblind travels get best results when their needs are explicitly presented.

    In an organized published study, when pedestrians were presented a card asking for assistance that began “I am deaf and blind,” the response from the uninitiated public was worse than when that information was print last. The concept that if people knew a person was deafblind it would improve many mobility-related situation is a logical fallacy. It may actually reduce the rate of requested assistance.

    But my greatest concern is that a modified cane changes the amount of risk for travelers crossing streets. In studies I conducted with West Michigan University, we looked at drivers’ response to various condition for crossing pedestrians. The results were very significant and clear: drivers respond to a long standard cane by yielding. For example, when we compared a bright large waving orange flag to the effects of a standard-colored long cane, even though the cane was less salient and less prominent displayed, drivers yielded 50% more to the cane. Driving is 95% automatic and unconscious. Drivers have milliseconds to notice, identify, and respond to stimuli. Yielding responses to a cane happen because the human visual cognition system selectively notices objects through a psychological process called attentional capture and responds best to things in the brains ‘attention set’ – that is, objects that have meaning. Presenting confounding or unknown stimuli to drivers can cause driver reaction delays. Any attempt to modify how a cane looks carries the risk that less drivers will be likely to instantly identify and respond appropriately to the visual stimulus.

    A recent study (see the 2017 reference) when we changed the appear of a cane by making it green, DRIVERS YIELDING 300% LESS THAN THE STANDARD WHITE CANE; A YELLOW CANE GOT HALF THE YIELDING OF THE STANDARD WHITE CANE. The standard white cane with the lower red strip garnered the greatest yielding. Changing the appearance of a cane to look like something different than the standard is a recipe for potential increased risk, injury, and deaths. Striped canes in particular have not been studied but changing the appearance of the standard, with no apparent benefit to the traveler, and clear potential risk, does not seem responsible or professional.

    When professionals issue equipment with the implied promise that it will improve safety, we change the pedestrians judgment of risks. When deafblind travelers infer greater safety they change their own behaviors and make assumptions that are probably untrue. Thinking that striped canes or yellow will enhance safety is unsubstantiated. Based on the most reliable available information now, there is little to support the idea that a differently colored mobility cane will assist travelers and create safer situations, and while further study may be warranted, this practice seems based on concepts that do not make sense or that are contradicted by experimentation.

    Having probably taught and consulted on more deafblind travelers than anyone over 24 years when I worked nearly daily with deafblind people, I look forward to the day the O&M field doesn’t just accept ideas without true scrutiny and attention to the available research and studies.

    References

    Bourquin, E., & Sauerburger, F. (2005). Teaching deaf-blind people to communicate and interact with the public: Critical issues for travelers who are deaf-blind. RE: view, 37(3), 109-116.

    Bourquin, E., Wall Emerson, R., & Sauerburger, D. (2011). Conditions that influence drivers’ yielding behavior for uncontrolled intersections. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 105(11).

    Bourquin, E., Wall Emerson, R., Sauerburger, D., & Barlow, J. (2014). Conditions that influence drivers’ yielding behavior in turning vehicles at intersections with traffic signal controls. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 108(3), 173-186.

    Bourquin, E., Wall Emerson, R., Sauerburger, D., & Barlow, J. (2017). The Effect of the Color of a Long Cane Used by Individuals Who Are Visually Impaired on the Yielding Behavior of Drivers. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 111(5).

    Sauerburger, D., Bourquin, E., & Sauerburger, J. (2013). The effectiveness of deaf-blind pedestrians warning signage on drivers’ behaviour International Journal of Orientation & Mobility, 5(1), 11-15.

    Sauerburger, D., & Jones, S. (1997). Corner to corner: How can deaf-blind travelers solicit aid effectively? RE:view, 29(1), 34-44.

  • Thank you, Dr. Gene Baroquin for a direct, concise answer about the white cane and whowho and how it should be used. I am surprised at the number of my low vision, blind peers that share this nonchalant attitude of the white cane and what it means. Sure our canes help us navigate and keep us safe but the white cane also alerts others to our blindness or low vision. Has any agency reached out to Ambutech and spoken with them about these “color” canes? I personally think it’s a disservice and confusing to the public. After all isn’t October 15th White Cane Day, not any color cane day ?
    Thanks, Joey Aranzubia

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