Grabbing my Identity Cane to Join the Culture of Disability

How the white cane marked my transition

I am just coming off 2 months of travel to events in differing capacities as professional reviewer, accessibility spokesperson, disability consumer, and general traveler. After two years of legal blindness, I am still feeling like an immigrant in a new culture. I retain strong memories of my past ways of work and interpersonal interaction, but I am now beginning to understand the culture of disability. This transition has been marked by my adoption of the Identity Cane as a frequent companion as I navigate my hazy world.

Description of the white identity cane

The Identity Cane is a slim white cane intended not for robust walking assistance but rather to let others know its carriers are visually impaired. There are a few issues here.

First, consider robustness of the instrument. Mine, costing about $20, folds nicely and is quite light. It is good for poking at curbs and sidewalk spots that look like holes or ridges. But it is not for tapping or waving, as would be learned in a mobility training regime. One tangle with a fire hydrant or bicycle and this pole will be a pile of sticks. However, compared to other physical gadgets that seem to break for no reason, this fold-up item is holding up well.

How the identity cane signals vision limitations

The Identity Cane is meant to be a signal to passersby, service people, and new acquaintances that you have vision difficulties where they might help you. The other day, at an intersection, another street crosser seeing my cane just stated loudly "ok, time to cross", not knowing whether I could see him or how much help I needed. Airport personnel are alert to the cane to offer assistance to find elevators or check-in counters. A white cane can also gain more polite and helpful responses when you ask a stranger "where is the Saint Michael Hotel?" while standing directly in front of its sign.

However, this little pole is no badge of invincibility. Drivers on cell phones are just as likely to run over you whatever you are carrying, although the cane can be waved to possibly attract attention. Airport T.S.A. check-ins are variable, with some monitors wanting to stuff your cane onto the conveyor or into a box or frisk for objects planted on the blind lady. To my surprise, nobody ever asked when I went through security with my soon-to-expire Drivers License in one hand and a white cane in the other. A cane can help remind flight attendants you might need extra help but it might also enlist an unwanted wheel chair rather than a walking escort, if needed at all.

The identity cane influences my own behavior

For me, the Identity Cane is an important reminder that I am partially sighted. I do not use it on my exercise walks along a regular route, but elsewhere it tells me "slow down, watch out for decorative stones that might send me to the Emergency Room, look for exit doors that might set off sirens, remember I can ask for help, never take a short-cut, generally behave like a person who cannot see everything".

Yes, it was really hard to get used to carrying the cane as an Identity. What if people think I am blind? Well, duh, Susan, remember your priorities – safety is paramount, energy is consumed by covering up, and relationships are hard enough without the ambiguity of a disability.

But it is not really that simple to clarify the cane’s meaning if you are partially sighted. Having covered up my condition for 5 years with an uncomfortable employment situation, I became very good at navigating and acting normal. Except when I tripped or ran into something. Then I looked clumsy. Or when I skipped an event that was hard to handle for transportation or dining reasons,, I appeared unsociable or shirking. This is getting into more aspects of the culture of disability, where adopting the cane is an admission of vocational difference, a more than symbolic transformation of identity that demands organizational change in work or community groups.

The white cane educates public option

Since low vision is a relatively rare occurrence condition the Identity Cane is a strong signal in the noise of everyday life. Never in my career had I seen a blind woman at a professional event, so my cane carrying at recent working gigs has probably been most unusual for other attendees. That is especially good for computing professionals to remind them that low vision is not just for their grandparents but also is part of the working conditions for someone performing the same tasks as them. If only it could also raise their curiosity to learn more about assistive technology, the afflictions of their students, the A.D.A. regulations they wish away, and the prevalence of accessibility issues.

For me, the Identity Cane is a badge of education, not only within my profession but also in the community that suffers from lack of low vision services. Visually impaired people may appear less often in public leading to a circle of ignorance. City fathers think "we do not need to pay for accessible street crossing when nobody blind wants to cross" — but no sane blind person would risk their life at the intersection. This makes the Identity Cane a symbol of activism as well as a protective measure.

The identity cane is a strong force in vision loss

In summary, the cane used only for Identity is a strong force for overcoming vision adjustment resistance, personally, professionally, and for the wider public.

Author: slger

Susan L. Gerhart (slger) is a retired computer scientist. Her professional specialities included software engineering research, technology transfer management, and computer science education, see SLGer's Research Autobiography. Susan is active in a lifelong learning institute (OLLI) at Yavapai College in Prescott Arizona. She has facilitated courses on podcasts, Twitter, the Singularity, and climate fiction. "As Your World Changes" blog describes her journey with vision loss into the spectacular world of assistive technology and the frustrating practices of accessibility. She writes with the NVDA screen reader, reads books from Bookshare on a BookSense, and listens to podcasts on an iPhone. slger123 on Twitter records her favorite articles and occasional comments on life and politics. Creative writing courses led her to undertake "A Chip On Her Shoulder", a novel asking the questions: "how did we get into the privacy mess of modern social media?" and "Are we now just 'packets of data formerly known as people'?" She's enduring the 2020 Pandemic era and autocracy challenge by analyzing changes in progress, promising, and unknown. Times sure are changing! Contact: slger123 at

19 thoughts on “Grabbing my Identity Cane to Join the Culture of Disability”

  1. As someone who is now visually impaired – your excellent post – is an education in itself for all concerned.

    The identity cane (I think over here it is called a symbol cane) is indeed one in which raises awareness and hopefully makes people think of the issues of visual impairment.

    Hope to read even more posts along the way. and Thank You.

  2. Thanks. I had not thought about the Identity Cane as having different names or colors in different nationalities. I’ll explore this for an article revision.

    Other terms: Symbol Cane; White Stick; Yellow Stick; others?


  3. The National Federation for the Blind (NFB) is offering free canes. Ordering requires a length, and I’m looking for the formula relating height and cane length.

    It appears this is a solid long cane rather than the folding Identity cane, called a Symbol Cane in the U.K.

    October 15 is U.S. National Cane Day if you want to celebrate or symbolize the adjustments of vision loss.

  4. And here comes a high spirited identity cane user:

    with cane uses I could never have thought of! A few more now occur to me:

    1. Measuring device, about a yard long
    2. Poking into places where you suspect vermin, as in a garage
    3. Sweeping the floor for dropped items
    4. Bumping to the front of a TSA line. Also, I’ve done this, playing “Security Theater” with TSA agents by handing a Driver’s License for ID while brandishing a white cane.

  5. Interesting observations on guide dogs versus white canes from Helen aka WiseAdvice at

    She notes that shop keepers, other walkers, etc. are more friendly to her accompanied by her guide dog Opal. This highlights a problem for white cane travelers who may require equal service but have to request such, wait for, or receive less helpful service. Not that a white cane is begging for sympathy or kindness but rather that daily life has a lot of transactions that just need to happen. So many details are trivial but become barriers, like reading a price or getting into tline behind the right window or finding the exit door. The white cane helps to explain why you might need a few seconds of assistance but it may well have the opposite effect on those ignorant of its meaning or scared for their own future disabilities.

    I suppose the white cane can become a symbol of coleness, invoke a primordal weapon reaction, or just seem curious. One correspondent told me her cane caused a child to break into tears while in a grocery shopping line. Nobody ever says “oh, what a beautiful white stick!” while they might admire the beauty of a service dog.

    I’m personally not ready for a guide dog, both as a requirement for daily living and, hey, I still have old Sparky and Maya living with me.

    Interesting article found using WordPress Tag Surfer. Now, about that snow falling theme? Got that snow stuff in AZ mountains yesterday for real. And white specks are always with me so I began to wonder if my retina was showing new signs of wreckage. Whew, it’s just a javascript trick.


  6. Thank you for your [well explained] article. You managed to communicate things that I’ve been unable to over the past eight years- since I’ve become legally blind. I too am able to navigate in places where I’ve “learned’ the terrain. I, too have engaged in Oscar-worthy performances, professionally and personally. After five long years of pretending that there was nothing wrong with me [which came with a high personal and professional cost], I enrolled in an Adjustment to Blindness course given by the state where I reside. This course was invaluable. I now do not leave my apartment complex without my identity cane. It is a part of me. It gives me the confidence to be out and about; more importantly, it helps explain [non-verbally] why I [too] am asking for directions to, the place that I’m standing right in front of.
    I don’t know if this has happened to others, or not, but, I frequently am asked what my level of blindness is. I get lots of “what can you actually see?” [trying to explain it is an entirely different matter, LOL].
    Thank you, again, for this post. I have sent it to those that matter hoping that it will more accurately communicate, that which I’ve been unable to.
    R. Bupp

    1. I am gratified you have had the same positive experiences overcoming reluctance to use a cane. It’s always a relief for me, now, to feel more open, honest, and responsible with that cane in my hand. It’s also gaining me a bit of notoriety in restaurants where servers ask if I want my “usual”, so the cane is part of my new personality.

      For that “what do you see?” situation, I now say “it’s like being in a very smoky bar”. This may be confusing since most of us cannot remember hanging out in bars, smoky or otherwise, but that’s the best I can come up with. “A foggy morning at the beach” might be better, but makes me homesick for Mustang Island.


  7. It is so gratifying to read this proclamation from the Obama White House

    However, so much remains to educate people locally. I did my white cane tour of the Prescott downtown, with stop in line with trucks at talking ATM. Did anyone notice there was a visually impaired person making her way around the streets and crossings? A few, I hope, but I haven’t seen any local proclamations. Indeed, I asked the (soon to be ex-_ mayor about plans for White Cane Day andgot a “don’t keep track of dates” grumble. Well, so-and-so, that’s sad that a community aspiring to greater tourism and retirement quality can’t get up a sense of fairness and opportunity for visually impaired citizens. Public transportation, accessible cross walks, even white cane training itself — ah, it would be such an improvement to have these safety support services.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: