Remember what you ‘Cane Do’ this October

Image of a woman grabbing the arm of a man with a cane. This IWCD the public is reminded to ask first, and to not grab someone with vision impairment who is navigating in their community.

VisAbility and Guide Dogs Tasmania (link opens in new window) remind community what they ‘Cane Do’ to lend a helping hand: ‘Just ask us first’.

New research from two different surveys has revealed an over-eager Australian public misunderstand how to best assist people who are blind or who have vision impairment, in the lead up to International White Cane Day on 15 October.

Two thirds (64%) of people who use white canes have been grabbed or handled by a member of the public even though they didn’t ask for help, according to a new national client survey* by Guide Dogs Australia.

A similar number of people who use white canes (67%) also reported that people talk to their sighted companions instead of them directly when out in the community.

This is despite YouGov research** that shows three quarters (74%) of the Australian public feel confident they could provide appropriate assistance to a person with a white cane in the street.

In response, Guide Dogs Australia is launching the Cane Do community awareness campaign, reminding members of the community what they ‘cane do’ to help people with a white cane navigate public spaces in a safe and independent way.

“The most simple, effective and helpful thing you can do, is directly ask a person using a white cane if they need assistance before trying to help,” said Dr Clare Allen, Chief Executive Officer at VisAbility and Guide Dogs Tasmania. “More than three quarters of clients surveyed say this is their preferred and the best way members of the public can assist them.”

“By grabbing a person with a white cane by the arm to help them onto public transport or across the road – without their consent or prior knowledge – you can disorient them or break the concentration they are using to follow a path.”

Dr Allen said that while the majority of the time the community and their efforts to help a person with vision impairment are well intentioned, there was a disconnect between knowledge and actions.

A man walking down the street with his white cane

“The Yougov research tells us that the majority of Australians believe the best way to assist someone with vision impairment is to ask them first. But for some reason, according to our clients, this is not happening,” said Dr Allen.

“Perhaps these misunderstandings occur because many Australians do not understand how and why a white cane is used. They may also not know what to do after they ask the person with vision impairment if they need help.

“Always introduce yourself directly to the person using the white cane, and follow the lead of how they would like to receive help. The person with vision loss may ask you to guide them by taking your arm. They may simply ask for clarification or directions. Or they may decline your assistance,” said Dr Allen.

Misunderstanding in the community about white canes was also illustrated by some of the stranger questions Guide Dogs clients say they have been asked over the years.

“Clients have told us their canes have been mistaken for weapons, metal detectors, fishing rods and even golf sticks,” said Dr Allen.

A white cane is mobility aid that allows someone with vision impairment to navigate the path in front of them by feeling and detecting obstacles, changes in surfaces or the height of the ground, and allow them to negotiate crowded areas. A cane is also a signal to the public that the person has vision impairment.

Davinia Lefroy, Clinical Psychologist at VisAbility, is legally blind and says she has experienced members of the public grabbing or pushing her without her permission when out in the community or when catching public transport. Davinia catches the train to her workplace.

While she appreciates the gesture of help from members of the public, she asks that they remember to be courteous and considerate first.

“The best kind of assistance assumes that I am just as capable as the next person but is there to lend a helping hand if I ask.” Davinia said.

The Cane Do campaign is not only about the best way the public can assist people with vision loss navigate their community safely and independently. Cane Do and International White Cane Day are also an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of the white cane and how it can aid the mobility and independence of a person with vision impairment.

What you ‘Cane Do’

  • Ask the person using a white cane if they would like assistance and if so, how?
  • If you see a person with a white cane, be aware and give them space to navigate
  • Don’t be offended if a person with a white cane declines your offer of help – they may simply be confidently travelling independently or concentrating
  • Alert the person with a white cane if they are in any immediate danger
  • Report all hazards in public spaces to your local council

Types of White Canes

  • Long canes are designed to physically detect obstacles as well as changes in height of the ground in front of the individual.
  • Identification canes (ID canes) are smaller than long canes and the colour white lets other people know that the person holding the cane has reduced vision. Identification canes can be useful in difficult situations such as negotiating crowds or crossing roads.
  • Support canes can be useful for people who experience problems with their balance when walking. A white support cane indicates vision impairment.

Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision impairment, including nine who become blind. The Orientation and Mobility team at VisAbilty can advise on the best type of cane for you.

What is International White Cane Day?

International White Cane Day is held on 15 October each year to raise awareness of the importance of the white cane and how it can aid the mobility and independence of a person with vision loss.

The Survey

*In August 2018, Guide Dogs Australia conducted a survey of 384 clients who use a white cane nationwide to identify issues they experience around mobility in the community.

** Guide Dogs Australia also commissioned a study, conducted by Yougov, of 1071 Australians to identify the Australian public’s knowledge and perceptions of white canes and how people with vision loss use them.