Why A Child Who Is Blind Needs A White Cane

Do You Know Why a Child Needs a White Cane if They Are Blind? It’s So Much More Than Just a Safety Guide or Alert Device

A white cane for a child is more than just a stick that is used to alert others that they are blind or an early warning signal that a pathway is blocked. A cane actually allows a child who is blind access to four major developmental areas that are impacted the most due to the disability. A cane is a developmental tool that is imperative in neurodevelopment: sensory development, physical development, social development and emotional development of a child.

What is the Actual Impact of Removing a Cane from a Blind Child?

Recently, a school removed a boy’s white cane as a punishment.  A bus aide removed the boy’s headphones, this action alerted the child and it upset him.  As a result he swung his cane up and hit the aide with the cane. This behavior could have resulted from him being startled over having something removed from his person without a cue/warning. This reaction could have just been that he was angry and acting out. Either way he should have faced an appropriate consequence. If this behavior was constant (enough to have been removing his cane on a regular basis) it should have been outlined in his Individual Education Plan. It is the adults’ job to be proactive and set expectations along with the consequences in a developmentally appropriate way.  A child does not need to have a 504 plan or an IEP to be protected by the federal laws that are established to protect their rights to safety, education, accessibility and accommodations.

How is the Neurodevelopment of a Child Connected with Their Use of a White Cane?

Neurodevelopment, briefly, is a combination of developing the sensory system, the motor system, the cognitive system and the socio-emotional systems. With sight occluded children are often deprived of many of the fundamental basics to reach the appropriate milestones. Jan van Dijk, a deaf/blind educator, details the four major developmental deficits as: Access to sensory information; communication and movement; incidental learning, including concept development and mental imagery; and emotional development, including sense of self, motivation, perception of safety, and isolation.

A white cane provides a child access to the world and allows them to develop using alternative skills and methods to reach their maximum developmental potential. A neurotypical child can develop at a rate that allows for a two-year gap (ahead or behind) in development from about 18-months old to about 11-years old. After age eleven children are typically within 6 months ahead or behind their peers. A gap greater than 6 months to a year is considered A-typical development. A white cane is a vital tool for all children who are blind but specifically in children ages 2-years old to 12-years due to the development of neurons and the capacity the brain has to process the world.  This time period is considered an optimal developmental period.

A cane allows a child who is blind the sensory/motor experience that develops these areas of the brain; the cane is vital for this development.  For instance, the cane tapping/striking the ground as a child walks sends vibrations back to the child. The child will learn to navigate their way in part by sensing the vibrations from the cane. This is a tactile response. Tactile development is imperative to a child’s development. Imagine walking on a sidewalk, you know you are on the sidewalk, then you might move to the grass and the feedback your body provides your brain with the appropriate message that the ground changed and the memory can recall the feel of grass.  Proprioception is also developed.  This is the brains feedback system that tells a child’s body how hard to step, how much pressure is needed to grasp a cane.  Basically, proprioception is the brains way of telling the body how much force it needs to apply to a certain action.  There is a great deal of difference in a cane and pool noodle and the proprioception and tactile response (output) is very different.

Kinesthetic movement is the manner in which the body moves. A cane allows a child to navigate their way without having to “feel” the air until they bump into something. The angle and length of the cane should alert a child well before they are in danger of injury. Close your eyes and walk. How did your posture and body movements change? This is known as your kinesthetic movements. How does your body work in unison?  A cane allows for a safe and fluid walking pattern.  A cane assists children who are blind in organizing the environment around them to provide the appropriate motor responses.  Like walking, stopping, navigating their surroundings and identifying where they are with memory recall.

A cane also helps develop a child’s auditory system. The cane tapping the ground makes a sound and as the terrain changes the sound changes. Children can distinguish the change in sounds to alert them that something has changed. This could be moving from one room to another or it can signify that the child if off the intended path. The cane tapping the ground in a wide-open area sounds much different than a cane tapping in a closed space. The child will learn how to use auditory signals to navigate versus sight.

A child will gain more control over their environment as they learn to read the feedback from their cane. This control allows for greater exploration and movement in their world. The child will gain self-confidence and a feeling of accomplishment that allows for them to go into an environment and meet others. The interaction with their peers both sighted and non-sighted is essential for their socio-emotional development. A cane can be controlled and it has become a universal symbol indicating that a person is blind.  Often times children need to be appropriated to the expectations of society and this is a part of their education.  With proper training a child who is blind can learn that a behavior or motor pattern is not typical or acceptable and he can work at correcting the negative behavior.

A child who is blind needs a cane for more reasons than you might have thought. The recent incident at a school that left a child using a pool noodle, as a perceived acceptable replacement for a cane, is enough evidence that there is not enough awareness and education about people/children who are blind.

President Clinton said: “With proper training, people using the white cane can enjoy greater mobility and safety by determining the location of curbs, steps, uneven pavement, and other physical obstacles in their path. The white cane has given them the freedom to travel independently to their schools and workplaces and to participate more fully in the life of their communities. It reminds us that the only barriers against people with disabilities are discriminatory attitudes and practices that our society has too often placed in their way.”

Perhaps, another barrier against people with disabilities is the lack of education and awareness of some people who do not have a disability. It is our sincere hope at Braille Works that this incident will raise awareness regarding the importance of education of people working with people/children who have a disability. The Co-founder/Vice President of Braille Works, Lou Fioritto, has been blind since birth. We are committed to making the World a More Readable Place but we also want to make the world a more understanding place. Here are some helpful sites to learn more about children who are blind or who have low vision.

Braille Works

Braille Works has been an industry leader in document accessibility since 1994. Over that time, Braille Works has helped numerous clients in various industries from healthcare to restaurants to government agencies reach more people by Making the World a More Readable Place™. The subject matter experts and content creators at Braille Works often work closely when crafting blogs and other educational materials. When the Braille Works name is attributed to a publication, it means Braille Works’ innovative team of experts collaborated on that piece.

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