People who are blind or have low vision may use white canes to help them safely navigate their surroundings. The cane also indicates to people nearby that the person is blind.

A blind man walks along a pathway in a park using a white cane to help him navigate safely. Share on Pinterest
Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy

White canes are associated with blindness, but not just because blind people use them as a tool to navigate their surroundings. A white cane also indicates to others that the person using the cane has blindness or low vision.

In theory, you could use any cane to detect obstacles in front of you as you walk. But canes of different colors and sizes serve different purposes and may be used to signal different degrees of vision loss.

In this article you will learn why and how people use white canes, the significance of the white cane, and the rules and regulations surrounding white cane use.

People who are blind or have low vision often use white canes. This is not because they have difficulty walking — instead, it’s because a cane helps them navigate as they walk.

The technique for using a white cane was officially developed in 1944 by Richard E. Hoover, a veteran and rehabilitation specialist. The practice of swinging the cane from side to side in front of you was named after him: the Hoover method.

However, white canes had been in use since at least the 1920s and 1930s, when white coloring was added to improve the visibility of walking canes for blind people.

The use of a white cane can increase independence and mobility by allowing people who are blind or have low vision to move around safely without a human or animal guide.

People learn about how to use a cane through orientation and mobility training. A person can use a cane to identify obstacles in front of them as they walk. The cane also indicates to people nearby that the person is blind.

In theory, anyone can carry a white cane. But they are typically considered medical devices to be used only by people with the appropriate needs and training.

You may want to consider using a white cane to help with mobility if you notice that you’re having difficulty seeing obstacles in front of you or if you start to trip and fall over objects as you walk around.

Different types of white canes have been developed for different levels of vision loss:

  • A fully white cane is used by people who are completely blind, which means they have no usable vision.
  • A white cane with a red bottom indicates low vision but not complete blindness. This cane is for people who have at least a low level of usable vision but still need assistance to avoid obstacles.
  • A red and white striped cane is used by people who are both completely blind and completely deaf.

There are also some differences in the size and type of cane you might use:

  • Long canes are the most common. They extend from your chest to the ground. You use this type of cane by rolling or swinging it from side to side as you walk to identify obstacles.
  • Symbol canes are often used by people who have low but some usable vision. These are smaller than long canes and are most useful in letting those around you know you have vision loss. They are less useful for detecting obstacles in your path.
  • A guide cane is shorter than a long cane and is held diagonally across your body. These canes are not meant to be swung from side to side but can still be useful in detecting immediate obstacles in your path.

Most states have laws addressing white canes. However, these are mostly traffic laws that dictate how drivers must respond to a person using a white cane.

Nearly every state has a traffic law about yielding to people using white canes or other guide devices. But some states also have laws restricting who can use white canes — at least on public streets and roadways.

The following states restrict the use of white canes or white canes with red tips to people who are blind or have low vision:

  • Florida
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin

You can read more about each state’s rules on using white canes through the American Council for the Blind.

You can use a white cane if you are blind or have low vision.

In some states, such as those listed above, people who don’t qualify for this type of cane may have to pay a fine if they use a white, metallic, or red-and-white cane on a public street.

You can talk with a healthcare professional if you need a white cane. Your health insurance benefits may cover one, and some public programs offer free white canes to those who qualify.

If you plan on using a white cane, It’s a good idea to get the proper training so that you know what signals to give those around you. Orientation and mobility specialists who offer training in white cane use must have at least 120 hours of blindfolded training before becoming certified to train others.

Smart canes do exist and offer users additional information about the obstacles ahead of them

Some of these smart canes have ultrasound sensors that allow them detect obstacles farther away than a standard cane. Others can give the user information about what type of object is in their way and how far they have to go to get around it.

These canes can be useful but also expensive. As new technologies are developed and refined, the prices might come down. Researchers at Stanford University have developed one smart cane that can be made for about $400, while earlier versions cost around $6,000.

People who are blind or have low vision may use white canes to help them navigate the world safely. Most states have traffic laws to protect people who use white canes and grant them the right-of-way. Some states also enforce a penalty on people who use white canes but don’t need them.

Talk with a healthcare professional if vision loss is making it difficult for you to get around or if you’ve begun to trip and fall over objects in front of you. Training is available to help you learn to use a white cane, and insurance may help cover the cost.