Today, visually disabled people are offered a multitude of means for orientation and mobility, ranging from the rather basic to the most technologically advanced. Nevertheless, an ordinary white cane correctly adjusted to the person’s height and with a good tip is the best technical means that allows a severely visually impaired person to move around independently. It’s the white cane that, when used correctly, provides safety and gives the most accurate information whilst ultrasound glasses, torches and other similar devices can be used in addition to it. To learn about the types of canes, how to choose the optimal tool for adults and children and what to pay attention to when choosing the right tip, please read the article by typhlo-teacher, orientation and mobility specialist Marta Lyubimova.
Now that we have established that the main means of mobility is a white cane, we need to understand how to choose the right cane for a particular person. It seems like a piece of cake – just buy a white cane, and you are ready to move around independently! Amongst teachers and parents, there exists a false opinion that it makes no difference what type of white cane and tip to use when a child does not walk much without an assistant and has just started learning to use a cane. Indeed, there are many fine points in this matter, and the success of a severely visually impaired person’s independent mobility, especially in the early stages of training, largely depends on the chosen tool. In this article, I will answer the most frequently asked questions concerning the choice of a white cane, a tip and other technical means for independent movement.
What type of white cane to choose?
There are several criteria, and one of them is the material. The most common materials for making white canes are:
Aluminium – the most frequently used material. In the process of use, the cane can slightly bend if it happens to get caught and trapped in street fencing, the gap between a door and a threshold etc.;
Graphite – it weighs less than aluminium and is quite durable. It does not bend during use and keeps its original form;
Composite – the lightest and strongest of all of the above-mentioned materials;
Fibreglass – in Russia, it is used to make straight canes. It is a lightweight and quite durable material.
There are two types of white cane for the visually impaired: straight and collapsible. Collapsible canes can be telescopic, combined or with a rubber cord inside.
Straight canes consist of a tapered tube with a tip and handle. The advantages of straight canes include their weight (they are lighter than the collapsible type), enhanced sensitivity, and the fact that no slack appears between the sections during use, which is the case with collapsible canes with a rubber cord. During use, especially when a cane is used and stored incorrectly, the cord inside the white cane overstretches, the joints become loose, and the cane loses its rigidness. None of this will happen to a straight cane, therefore, it is the right choice if you do not need a folding cane.
Russian straight canes of fibreglass are the most lightweight. The easiest way to get a cane of the right length is to buy the longest available cane and cut off the excess length. This is possible since only the first 60cm from the handle consists of a tapered tube, and further up its diameter remains unchanged. When adjusting a white cane to the height of a visually impaired person, it is important to remember that about 10cm of the shaft will be inside the handle. In this way, it will be easy to adjust the length of a white cane for children of pre- and primary-school age.
Collapsible white canes
Audio description: This is a colour photo. In a blue background, there are two aluminium collapsible white canes, each consisting of six sections, a black handle and a marshmallow tip: one is assembled, and the other is folded.
When talking about a collapsible cane, they usually refer to a cane consisting of a tip, a few tubular sections, joined together by a rubber cord, and a handle. This is the most common type of collapsible cane.
The number of sections can differ, usually starting with three (for children) and more. As a rule, the more sections there are in the shaft of a white cane, the more compact it becomes once collapsed. This type of cane can have an odd or even number of sections. Note that, once collapsed, a white cane with an even number of sections folds down in such a way that the tip touches the handle and soils it. Therefore, canes with an odd number of sections are more popular since the tip stays away from the handle, keeping it clean.
Telescopic white canes
Audio description: This is a colour photo. In a grey background, there is a white plastic telescopic cane with a brown handle and a red band above the hemispherical tip. The cane is folded.
Telescopic canes are considered collapsible since their shafts are not straight. The shaft consists of sections, which, once collapsed, fit one into another. Such canes can have either a fixed length, or their length can be adjustable within the range suggested by the manufacturer, for example, from 110 to 140cm. This type of cane would be useful for a teacher instructing blind and partially sighted people in spatial orientation or for teenagers who do little walking, but continue to grow rapidly. Yet this type of cane has a shortcoming – each time the cane is folded, it needs to be unfolded and the length will need to be readjusted.
Before buying a cane, ask the retailer about the length of the cane and the possibility of its adjustment, as well as how the sections are joined together.
When folded, telescopic white canes consisting of only 2 or 3 sections have a considerable length, which makes them rather bulky. If a telescopic cane has 5 to 7 sections, it is quite compact, yet the last section – the closest to the tip – becomes very thin and, thus, more susceptible to damage.
Combined collapsible canes
A few sections of these canes are telescopic, and the rest get folded with the help of a rubber cord.
White canes for partially sighted people
There is a special type of tactile white cane designed for partially sighted people. They have the same configurations as the white canes for the blind, but have almost no tip (usually it is a “pencil” or a very small ball) and are much thinner. These canes are very thin and light, and they are compact when folded. They are not suitable for the totally blind, the visually impaired with residual vision and for people with the loss of their lower visual field, as these canes are not designed for high endurance and intensive probing of the space in front of the feet. They are called 'signal canes' and are meant to indicate to others that the person is visually impaired, for example, to drivers when a visually impaired person is crossing the road. During movement, a partially sighted person can use their cane to check the depth of a hole in the surface, the height of a kerb and so on.
The shaft of a white cane of any configuration must be painted white and can be covered with a light-reflective film. The lowest section is often coloured in red to make the white cane more conspicuous for surrounding people. You should always carry a spare white cane on any route.
The next question is which tip to choose. Only the person themselves can answer this question after getting familiar with the available options. To make the right choice, you need to understand why there are so many different types of tips and what are the advantages of each shape.
First of all, the tips differ in their shape and type of attachment. When buying, it is important to take into consideration the way the tip attaches to the cane (whether it is a slip-on, threaded or hook-style tip) to make sure that it is compatible with your cane.
Another important aspect to bear in mind: there are rolling and non-rolling versions of the same shape of a tip (excluding the “pencil” type) for imported canes. If you have a choice, I recommend choosing a rolling type, regardless of the shape, especially if you are buying it for a child. It is much more convenient in use.
Let’s consider the most common shapes of tips: “Pencil”, “Marshmallow”, “Ball”, “Hemisphere” and “Jumbo”.
Audio description: This is a colour photocollage. Against a grey background, there are two white marshmallow tips with a plastic hook-style attachment. The left tip is of the rolling variety, which is indicated by an arrow and a white broken line drawn around the tip.
The tip on the left consists of two parts: the upper part with an attachment and the movable element. The tip on the right is solid and non-rolling.
This is the most common type of tip. It is convenient for both indoor and outdoor use. It is big enough in diameter not to get stuck in all sorts of cracks, but is fairly lightweight. It is suitable for any time of the year and any weather conditions. It wears out slowly, especially the rolling variety, therefore, this type of tip will last a long time. It is also important that it is quite sensitive.
This is a universal tip. If you are not sure which type to choose, go for the rolling marshmallow tip – you will not be disappointed.
Audio description: This is a colour photocollage. Against a grey background with a white horizontal line in the middle, there is a spherical rolling white tip with a plastic hook-style attachment. The tip is slightly inclined to the right.
This type of tip is also very popular amongst users. It is considered to be a winter tip since it has a big diameter (about 7cm), which prevents it from getting stuck in snow, wet ground and so on. Due to the same reason, it easily rolls over all cracks in the asphalt. This would be especially useful for people living away from well-maintained roads, for example, in privately owned houses in the country.
However, the ball tip has its drawbacks. It is heavy. To be more exact, it is heavier than other types of tips. So it is recommended that pre- and primary-school children should use lighter tips. Another drawback is that this tip is less sensitive than other tips of a smaller diameter. Thus, if you have to examine the differences in textures on your route, it might not be easy using a ball tip.
In the case of decreased tactile sensitivity, you should go for this tip only if its advantages are more important to you than this disadvantage.
Audio description: This is a colour photocollage. Against a grey background with a white horizontal line in the middle, there is a small round photo of a white hemispherical tip with a metal hook. The tip is inclined to the right. Two white broken parallel lines, pointing diagonally from the edge of the round photo up to the right, depict the cane’s outline.
This type of tip can have different diameters (from 2.5 to 5cm) and slightly vary in configuration. If you choose a hemispherical tip of a big diameter, it will have all the advantages of a ball tip, but with less weight. If the diameter is smaller, the tip will be as comfortable to use as a marshmallow tip. At any rate, this is a good option.
Jumbo tip (flattened ball)
Audio description: This is a colour photocollage. Against a grey background with a white horizontal line in the middle, there is a white wide rolling tip resembling a hockey puck as it is slightly flattened at the top and bottom, with a plastic hook-style attachment. The tip is placed perpendicular to the line.
This type of tip has all the advantages of a ball type and the same 7cm diameter, but it is more lightweight and has a flat base. This means that the white cane stands better when it is in a waiting position.
Audio description: This is a colour photocollage. Against a grey background with a white horizontal line in the middle, there is a thin white elongated tip with a rounded point. This is a pencil tip with a plastic hook-style attachment. The tip is slightly inclined to the right.
Its only advantage is that it is the most sensitive tip. It has a number of disadvantages. It has a tiny diameter, almost equal to that of the cane, therefore, it gets caught easily in the ground and in any cracks in the pavement on the route. Using this tip, it is difficult to make an arc when crossing the road. It wears out quickly.
We do not recommend using this tip, especially for walking on the streets. It is particularly undesirable to use this tip at the beginning of training. Because of its discomfort, it can invoke negative emotions when using the cane.
When you buy a cane, it usually comes with a pencil tip. In that case, it is better to replace the tip and keep it as a spare.
Other types of tips are usually versions of the main shapes differing slightly in size, diameter and material.
The most important thing is that there must be a tip on a cane! On several occasions – luckily, not often, – we have seen old canes without tips being used to teach children orientation. So it is hardly surprising that the children have been put off using a cane for independent movement.
Sometimes you can even see white support canes being used instead of a probing type. Support canes are heavy and short. Their tips and handles are not intended to probe surrounding space during movement, which makes their use unsafe and extremely uncomfortable, especially when these canes are used by children. White support canes are designed to be used by people with visual impairments in combination with a white probing cane if they also have some dysfunctions of the musculoskeletal system.
Before offering any of this equipment to a child, we recommend that parents and teachers try it out themselves. Complete the whole route with a white cane yourself and check its effectiveness. Try out the cane and tips beforehand. When choosing the right tip, it is desirable to consider other people’s opinions, but, before purchasing it, it is still better to try it out for yourself to ensure that you form your own opinion about the usefulness of a particular orientation device.
If possible, you should have a few tips of different types, for example, a ball and a marshmallow, and swap them over depending on the situation. Also, it is very important to have a spare tip as well as a spare cane. Anything can get broken on the route.
Audio description: This is a colour photo. It features a man's zoomed-in torso and hands. He is holding a cane in his hands. In his left hand, the man has a white cord that is attached to the handle of the cane. The man is wearing a pink shirt and a grey jacket made of thick fabric. Under the hem of his left sleeve, he is wearing a watch.
Handles come in different shapes and materials. The handles of probing canes come with or without a cutaway for the index finger on one side, and that is normally the only difference in their shape. The cutaway does not have an impact on the quality or safety of movement. On the other hand, it can help a visually disabled person learn different techniques of cane use and place their index finger correctly.
The most common materials for cane handles include rubber, plastic, wood and cork. You can choose the material based just on your own tactile preferences. However, there are also several points to bear in mind. Different materials have a different temperature, and, for example, a black rubber handle can stain your hands and gloves. When it is cold, cork and wood feel warmer to the touch than plastic. Bearing in mind that gloves decrease sensitivity, this is a point to consider. By the way, mittens should not be used with a white cane at all because they considerably decrease tactile sensitivity.
The cord on a cane’s handle can be made of rubber or any other material, but it has only one purpose: to hang the cane on a hook or secure the cane in a folded position (if it is collapsible). The loop is not designed to be worn around the wrist. A white cane can get into any kind of undesirable situation, and, in the case of danger, you should just let it go – that could save your life and the cane. If the cord is looped around your wrist whilst your cane gets stuck in the closing doors of public transport that has started moving, it will be difficult to take off the loop quickly and let go of the cane. In a situation when your cane looped around your hand gets under a passerby’s feet or in any other circumstances when the cane is unexpectedly pulled hard, this might damage your wrist.
Maintenance rules to extend the life of your white cane:
Always store a collapsible cane unfolded in order to prevent the rubber cord inside from overstretching.
When standing, do not keep your white cane in a working position (two steps in front of you). Place the cane vertically, with the tip touching your feet. This way, nobody will trip over it, breaking the cane.
Unfold the cane with care, holding it vertically, starting with the section with the tip, gently pulling down. Do not unfold the cane by just letting it fall whilst holding the handle – otherwise, the rubber cord can easily be damaged. Holding the cane horizontally whilst folding or unfolding it can lead to hitting or injuring people around you.
After walking on wet ground, wash the tip so that the device does not get clogged up.
If the tip is not of the rolling variety, turn it around regularly on the cane to ensure that it wears out evenly.
Think beforehand where you will place your cane when you arrive at your destination. If you are planning to get about with an assistant and will not need your cane, put it in your bag straight away to ensure that you do not leave it behind. If your white cane is straight, put it in a corner or on the floor alongside the table, bench etc. to ensure that it is not in other people’s way and it does not fall.
Use the cane only for its designation: do not use it to get objects from under a bed or wardrobe, to rearrange curtains on a high rail etc.
Do not let other people use your cane. A white cane is a tool of personal use. Do not lend your cane to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary.
Frequently asked questions about the use of white canes
- At what age should a child start using a white cane?
- When a child starts to feel the need to get around independently. You should offer the child a cane, show them how to use it, carry it with you when you go for walks and gently, in a positive atmosphere, introduce the child into using the cane. It is better if the child receives a white cane too early rather than too late, when they are already accustomed to having an assistant or have developed their own ways of getting about. Retraining is always harder than training. Instead of a cane, a child can be offered rolling toys on a stick or a probing cane with a special tip with two wheels, but they must learn to examine space with the help of a tool. When training a pre-school child in using a cane, the main task is to teach them to interpret information obtained with the help of a cane (to guess the material of a found object and assume what it might be) and react (stop walking) when the white cane encounters an obstacle or falls down (from a kerb or stairs).
However, cane training should not be random. You cannot just give a child a cane without providing any training. There should be a balance in using a white cane in pre-school age: both the absence of a cane and its overzealous and excessive use are wrong.
- Starting from which level of visual impairment should a white probing cane be used?
- In plain terms, you should use a cane when you start experiencing problems with seeing where the level of a floor surface changes, for example, at kerbs and on stairs. Observe your child. If they use their foot to check if there is a kerb or stairs, then your child, most likely, does need a white cane. A cane is a must for people with the loss of their lower visual field.
Sometimes, a person can use a cane occasionally: only when it is dark or on an unfamiliar route or in dangerous situations, for example, in the underground or when crossing a road.
How to choose the correct length of a cane?
There are a few ways to do so, but the main thing is, when using a white cane, it should be two steps in front of you. So it is easy to calculate. For an adult, it is the person's height minus 50cm, and for a child under the age of 12 – the height minus 30cm. Thus, a white cane should roughly reach the owner’s armpits. Also, a cane's length can depend on the width of the person’s shoulders – someone with very wide shoulders and hips might need a longer cane.
Canes are manufactured with 5cm increments in length. If you need a cane 123cm long, you should go for a cane 125cm long. If there is not much choice and you cannot find a suitable cane, but there are canes that are a bit longer and a bit shorter, go for the longer one. It will be safer. However, bear in mind that the longer the cane, the harder it is to handle it. Also, the cane will be less sensitive to small changes in the surface level (here we are talking about situations when the cane is considerably longer than needed). If a white cane is too short, there is too little time left to react after encountering an obstacle.
Audio description: This is a colour photo. It features an urban street in winter, with a little snow on the ground. A blind man is walking with a guide dog along a red footpath. He is holding a white cane in his right hand and the dog’s metal harness handle in his left hand. The dog is a golden Labrador.
- Do I still need a white cane if I have a guide dog?
- Yes, when walking with a guide dog, you should still actively use your white cane.
- Should I use a white cane when accompanied by an assistant?
- If the assistant is permanent and reliable, then, by mutual agreement, you can avoid using a cane and rely solely on the assistant. However, if your assistant is occasional and is not properly trained or is also visually impaired, you should use a cane.
- How long will my cane and tip last?
- It depends mostly on the conditions of their use. A good cane can serve you several years. Yet any, even the most durable cane, can break on the first day of use.