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“With my cane, I can!”

Amanda lives in a world of dark shadows. It would be a scary place for you and I, but not for Amanda. You see, she’s lived there for quite a long time and has learned to navigate the terrain. Amanda is blind. Those shadows, and her white cane, are her constant companions.

One day Amanda’s granddaughter noticed that the pharmacy sold canes of various colors. There were silver ones, gold ones, dark wooden ones, and even a purple glittery one. She also noticed that those canes were shaped differently — they were thicker, with a heavy bottom. Her grandmother’s cane was very thin and flexible, and it sometimes had a ball on the end of it. “Why is your cane different?” she asked.

Amanda thought about it for a few moments, and then said:

“For as long as there have been people on this world, there have been people who couldn’t see. In ancient times, when men focused on survival every day, the blind were left behind. As civilizations formed, the blind were found at the city gates begging so that they could eat. Even in our ‘modern times’ of 100 years ago, blind people struggled. Blind children didn’t receive an education; they were told that they couldn’t do what sighted children could do. Blind people stumbled in the darkness, jostled by those around them, often knocked to the ground. When they did use a cane, it was like the ones you saw in the store – dark, wooden, used to keep them from falling.

But things began to change in the 1930s. And it all started with a man named James Biggs who lived in Great Britain.  When he lost his sight in an accident he, too, adopted the dark glasses and the cane. But Mr. Biggs was not one to be told that he couldn’t — because because at one time he could — and he still wanted to. He knew that not being able to see other people meant that he might get hurt. He realized he needed to find a way so that THEY could see HIM — and so he painted his cane white.

Similar things were happening on this side of the world as well. There was a major difference between this world of the 1930s and the one from centuries, or even decades, earlier — automobiles. Now instead of moving around other people on foot or slow horse-drawn carriages, a blind person had to also deal with traffic. One day a man was watching through his window and observed a blind man trying to cross the street. He was using the cane, but it was black and so hard to see against the dark pavement. The watcher had an idea — paint the cane white so others could see it. This watcher wasn’t just any man — he was George Bonham, President of the Peoria Lions Club in Illinois. Later that year the Peoria City Council adopted the first laws giving blind people with white canes the right-of-way when crossing the street.

The ‘White Cane Movement’ grew. A woman named Guilly d’Herbemont provided 5,000 white canes to blind WWI vets in France. Then BBC Radio began advertising that visually-impaired individuals should carry white canes for visibility. The Lions Club International developed a program. Cities across the US began approving laws like those in Peoria, and eventually those laws went to the state level.

However, one thing remained the same — at the time the white cane was simply a symbol that told people you were blind.

In 1944 that began to change. Dr. Richard Hoover of the Valley Forge Army Hospital worked with WWII vets suffering vision loss. He lengthened the white cane, and taught the vets to use it in a sweeping fashion. No longer was it merely announcing their presence — it was now an active part of mobility. The cane enabled them to feel when the ground changed or where obstacles were. Using the cane also gave them more confidence, which they needed in order to succeed.

So what makes my cane so different from those you saw? Because it isn’t just a cane. It is a special tool that lets me be independent. With my cane, I can shop for groceries, visit a park, go on walks with my family. With my cane … I CAN.”

In 1964 congress passed HR753 authorizing the US president to designate October 15th each year as “White Cane Safety Day” to make citizens more fully aware of the meaning of the white cane and of the need for motorists to exercise special care for the blind persons who carry it. President Lyndon Johnson was the first to do so that very year.

This year we celebrate the self-sufficiency figures of men with canesof those who are blind or visually impaired and their right to participate fully in society. Contact your local blind association to see what activities they have planned in observance of White Cane Safety Day on October 15, 2014.