Michelle Young, Orientation and Mobility Instructor introduces her cane story and some useful and interesting facts to get cane savvy. 

My vision

I was born visually impaired. If all had remained stable, I would have been allowed to drive with certain restrictions on my licence – amazing to think that now as I currently see the world with around 5% vision from one eye only! My sight began to deteriorate when I was five years old, losing one eye completely, then gradual sight loss in the remaining eye. 

I have glaucoma, which is degenerative, so it’s likely I’ll lose more vision as I get older. It’s really important that I keep up with my ophthalmology appointments and eye drops!

My cane story

I began long cane training when I was 14, however the only time I used it was when the Mobility Instructor came to teach it! (Does this sound familiar to some of you?!). Only after my ‘lightbulb’ moment just before my 16th birthday did I realise that I looked far cooler walking tall and proud with a cane, than falling over kerbs and bollards while trying to fit in with my friends. 

My cane opened up new experiences for me. With proper instruction in many different mobility techniques I’ve been able to travel the world, teaching Orientation and Mobility to children, young people and adults for more than 15 years. 

Michelle in action giving training in cane use with a young person at LOOKFest

One of many tools

Many people who are blind or visually impaired choose not to use a cane, preferring to use a Guide Dog, human guide or maximise their remaining vision, especially in familiar environments and optimal lighting conditions. 

Personal choice is incredibly important, especially for people who are experiencing sight loss and for whom beginning to use a cane might be one of many steps on their journey. It’s important to know that how and when to use a long cane is an individual choice. We all have a “that moment” story, of when we realise our canes are a tool to help build independence. However, like all structures, independence takes time, tools and skills to build and a cane can be an invaluable first step.

Using a cane only at night, or only in unfamiliar places but not in others is completely ok. It simply means the user is choosing to use the cane when they need extra information or confidence – this should be supported and applauded!

The mobility aid a person chooses isn’t a reflection on their level of sight. Many people with remaining vision are Guide Dog users and there are many completely blind long cane users – it’s all about personal choice. 

A cane for every need

There are actually three types of white cane:

  • Symbol canes
  • Guide canes
  • Long (mobility) canes

Symbol canes are used for just that, as a symbol to signal to members of the public that the user is visually impaired. The user might not need the full support of a long cane, but a symbol cane can provide extra confidence in certain situations. 

Guide canes can be used to tap objects, measure depth and also like symbol canes. They aren’t intended for full time mobility use and are shorter, slimmer and much lighter than the long cane for this reason. 

A Long cane will usually be issued by a Vision Rehabilitation Specialist or Mobility Instructor alongside instruction on how to use it effectively and efficiently 

Size DOES matter!!

A vision rehabilitation specialist might initially measure a cane to your breast bone/sternum, however, for most proficient cane users a longer cane is preferable.  More length enables a cane user to walk faster and have more warning of obstacles in front of them, giving more time to react – a must in busy environments with street furniture etc. 

My own experience: I was introduced to the concept of a longer cane more than 10 years after my initial cane training – it was a revelation!!  Suddenly I could walk faster, have more warning of what was around me and feel more confident in busy environments as I was in control of the length of my cane. I could use the full length and adjust my technique to move fast, or shorten the cane for more congested environments – total freedom of choice.

Tips, top tips

As with canes themselves, there are a huge range of tips available to deal with different terrain or surfaces. High mileage roller balls, which look like white tennis balls, nylon marshmallow tips, the clue is in the name here, and ceramic tips are just a few options to fit the myriad of canes available today. The tip a person uses doesn’t signify anything other than their personal choice for their own travel, which is why we see such a variety even on the same style of cane. 

While there are some occasions when a different tip or cane might be an advantage, having proper instruction and learning good cane techniques means that even on challenging terrain, you will know how to make your cane work for you. 

Whose cane is it anyway?

Gatherings of cane users inevitably fall into discussion of which cane is best, who has which cane and why a particular cane is better for them than another model. 

Long canes can be made from a variety of materials and come in different styles to suit the user. Gone are heavy, solid metal canes, replaced by slim, light designs made of carbon fibre, fibreglass and aluminium in combination with new materials such as Kevlar to reinforce joints. Folding canes can have as few as two sections and as many as eight, the more sections, the smaller and more “pocket sized” they become. 

Straight or ‘non folding’ canes are also popular as they provide excellent feedback, are often the lightest available and rarely get hidden away in a backpack or pocket!

Coloured canes

While the traditional and most recognised cane is white, many people choose to have coloured canes to reflect their personality. It’s important not to “DIY” your cane with regular paint though, as it needs to be reflective to keep you visible at night!  

Red stripes aren’t a fashion statement, they mean that the user is visually impaired and hearing impaired, particularly important for drivers and other road users to note!

Michelle ready for the fancy dress disco at LOOKFest - with her long cane

Fun facts

  • The white cane law in the USA means traffic must give way to white cane users – and in some states, fraudulent use of a white cane to cross traffic can land you in prison or with a hefty fine!
  • Canes have been used since biblical times to aid mobility for blind people, however it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that they were painted white to increase visibility. 
  • There’s an annual White Cane Safety Day, this year it’s October 15th
  • There’s are cane user emojis 👨🏼‍🦯 🧑🏼‍🦯👩🏻‍🦯!

Michelle Young is an Orientation and Mobility Instructor. We were delighted to have her with us at LOOKFest where she was enthusing about canes and inspiring and training young people in cane use. Thanks for sharing your cane story, Michelle! 

If you would like to contact Michelle or hire her for Orientation and Mobility training, her email address is: micyou80@gmail.com

Where to buy a cane?

RNIB and Queen Alexandra College (QAC) are are the mainstream offerings, however some buy from the USA, Canada and EU.

Finally, here is a gallery of photos from LOOKFest with children, young people, LOOK staff and volunteers with their canes.