REflections on White Cane Safety Day

ACB shared a statement today recognising International White Cane Safety Day. The statement , which bridges the initial congressional resolution with our current challenges around social distancing, serves as a powerful reminder that is seen in the visible expression of our struggle toward equal access and inclusion in society.   

Fifty-six years ago, Congress passed H.R. 753, which marked October 15th as white Cane Safety Day. The intent of the resolution was to raise awareness to the concerns faced by Americans who were blind and visually impaired. But it went beyond simply educating people as to the meaning of the white cane. It included the courageous and often silent voice of Americans who were blind in the chorus of campaigns fighting for freedom and equality in a rapidly changing world.

Use of the white cane grew significantly following the return of blinded soldiers after the Second World War. The purpose of the cane’s design was to extend the sense of touch beyond a person’s natural reach, allowing for a tactile interpretation of a person’s immediate surroundings. Such an extension of the senses provided a safe means by which an individual without sight could safely and easily navigate into unfamiliar spaces. It was compact, easy to carry for travel, sensitive to the slightest change in terrain, and extremely affordable. Such a tool enabled a new type of independence, empowering a new generation of newly blinded individuals to step out of the confines of social seclusion and into the streets, cafes, and other public spaces that had not been previously frequented.   

Such independence carried with it new opportunities. Fuelled by the significant number of blinded veterans and the increase in a birth rate that would, statistically speaking, result in a higher incidence of visual impairments, the United States experienced an increase in the rise of rehabilitation centres and other relevant services committed to furthering the independence of individuals who were blind. 

At the same time, our own urban centres were experiencing significant change after the exodus to suburban life. Pedestrian friendly city centres grew empty after five o’clock as bedroom communities grew like wild flowers.

It was during this social revolution following World War II that equality also planted itself in the new soil of American life. African-American soldiers who experienced discrimination at home returned from the liberated streets of Europe. They brought with them a taste of equality that was new, like that of fresh bread permeating from within the cafes of Paris and Rome. The taste of this new equality spread through the streets of America, taking form in the artistic expressions of music and art being born in the changing urban centres of towns like New York, Kansas City and San Francisco.

It was no surprise then that as this new under-current of American culture moved slowly during the 1950s and 60s toward the promise of equality for all, we too as Americans who were blind should have an opportunity to break bread on this sojourn in search of the American Dream.

Just three months prior to President Johnson signing the White Cane Safety Day resolution, he passed across his desk the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation remains the bedrock for countless campaigns of equal rights and inclusion for all Americans from every walk of life. And while H.R. 753 has nowhere near the legacy set forth by the Civil Rights act, it does stand proudly aside it as a reminder that all aspects of our society should be obtainable and accessible by all Americans, even those who society had historically cast as being lesser based on their varying degree of ability.

I was fifteen years old the first time I extended a white cane in front of me and took my first step toward something greater than what I had that moment before. It was scary, walking into the unknown without the hand of another, like a child stepping into the darkness of an empty hall after a bad dream with no parent to hold his or her hand. Those first steps make you feel vulnerable, exposed to the threats that loom in the darkness. But then, a few steps in, you realise everything is fine, the universe is still ordered, and you prepare to take that second step toward a new opportunity. 

I am quite lucky, as to say that I have had the misfortune of being struck by an automobile on five separate occasions, but I still remain healthy and determined to not live a life shut out from the world around me. Independence demands great courage. And I can’t help but think of this each time I still step into the street and move independently across busy lanes of traffic.

For many Americans who are blind, this past year has been riddled with great challenges to independence. The effects of the Corona Virus carry a major burden reminiscent of that young child stepping into a darkness shrouded in a very similar fear of the unknown. 

“Am I safely distance in the cue at the pharmacy?” “Is that oncoming crowd wearing a mask?” “Will there be anyone in the store willing to assist me to help find what I’m looking for?”

These are all very real questions that I have found myself asking over the past seven months. And amidst these new social anxieties, I find a new purpose for carrying my white cane. It’s not there to cry out, “Will somebody help me?” But rather, it’s a reminder that we are here in our community. That we have courage. And that we can and shall be independent.

Therefore, let’s not let the icon of our courage and independence be recognised only one day throughout the course of the year. It is important that we witness to the power that comes through abolishing the fear that keeps us from taking our first step. In some ways, our actions of independence become a unified voice when we step out into our community, be it with either a white cane or a guide dog harness in hand.

St. Francis, the patron saint of peace, said it best, “Witness unceasingly, on occasion use words. In light of these words, let us be encouraged by our own courage seen through the power of a cane, a guide dog, or simply a cautious unaccompanied step. 

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