Promoting Independence with the White Cane

by Peggy Chong

The long white cane, as we know it today, really did not begin to gain respectability until the blind themselves actively promoted its use. The notion of using a branch or stick as an aid to independent travel is not all that novel. Even during the middle ages, one can find accounts of blind people using branches or sticks to get around. But throughout history the cane has been regarded as a symbol of helplessness and dependence. Only recently have the blind been able to turn this around.

We do not know how many early leaders of the Minnesota State Organization of the Blind (now called the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota) used the white cane or any variation of it. However, they did not let the absence of a cane prevent them from getting where they wanted to go. Although it is clear that many of them traveled with the assistance of a sighted guide, we also have reports of how individual leaders secured rides and traveled unescorted when the need arose. This took great confidence and determination. Was it safe? Perhaps not. However, in those days, cane travel training was not available.

At a meeting of the Board of Directors, the issue of traveling in the cities was discussed. On December 28, 1920, the organization adopted a policy supporting the idea of using whistles as a travel aid. The idea was that the blind traveler would stand at a street corner and blow the whistle, thereby letting passersby know that he or she needed assistance to cross the street. The organization helped to purchase and distribute whistles for many blind people traveling in St. Paul.

In 1926, the Board of Directors heard about blind people in other states traveling with reed canes. The board members thought that these canes might prove of help to blind people in Minnesota, and so started a search for these canes.

Due to the efforts of the membership White Cane ordinances were passed in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the fall of 1933. In March of 1945, a White Cane ordinance was passed by the state Legislature.

A White Cane committee was established in 1934 to secure donations for white canes to be distributed to blind people. The committee set standards for the canes to be three feet long and white. If the white cane was to be a symbol to the sighted community that the person carrying the cane was blind, education of the public needed to be done. So the committee got on many talk shows and news broadcasts to spread the message. Leaflets were printed and distributed to the public. Efforts were made to interest the press in the whole white cane issue.

Blind people from other states were asked to speak at conventions about how the white cane was used and accepted in their communities. In 1933, a Mrs. Gilbert from Peoria Ill. spoke to the semiannual convention on the use of the white cane in her state and in Paris.

Torger Lien, a longtime member of the organization and a travel teacher at the Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault, worked with many blind people, teaching them how to travel independently using all of the tools and sensory cues available to them. On December 30, 1948, at the semiannual convention, he made a presentation to the convention on the proper way to hold the cane when crossing the street. It was his contention that the cane should be held vertically instead of horizontally, as many people had been taught. The convention passed a motion in support of this notion. At the September 11, 1948 board meeting the purchase of hickory canes that the organization would sell to blind people was approved. In 1952 the cost of a cane was $.65. In 1946, plastic canes had been purchased. They sold for $.90 but did not seem to sell well after the first few months.

With all of the enthusiasm shown by the blind community for the cane, one wonders why there was so much shame and stigma attached to it. One reason may be the attitude of the sighted professionals in the field of work with the blind who are supposed to teach the skills and alternative techniques required to travel independently without sight.

In 1975, the NFB of Minnesota fought for the right of a student at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind to carry her cane in the building. Instructors at the Society felt that the cane should not be used for indoor travel. The very people who were supposed to be promoting the cane as a tool for independent travel to be carried with pride were ashamed for it to be used indoors. The American Foundation for the Blind was often doing studies about how blind people traveled. Of course, since the Foundation really didn't believe in the ability of the average blind person to travel with competence and independence, it tended to involve as research subjects blind people who fit this stereotype. So when, in 1975, the Foundation convened a conference on winter travel and the blind in Minneapolis, leaders of the NFB of Minnesota felt that this was a wonderful opportunity to provide a positive focus to the research. Without the influence of the organized blind, it was felt that the Foundation would continue to produce findings that perpetuated age-old stereotypes about the helpless, hopeless blind. Many Federationists participated in the conference and repeatedly confirmed the ability of blind people to travel with competence and safety--even during winter weather conditions. Nevertheless, the Foundation's final report was as negative as ever. In early 1976, a study was done by the Council for the Handicapped and the Division of Special Education. Apparently, the study had to do with the education of blind children in Minnesota. One conclusion reached in the report produced was that blind children in Minnesota should be taught Braille and cane travel while in elementary school.

Very little was ever done with this report. Still today in too many cases, if parents want cane travel or Braille for a partially blind child, they still need to fight for it.

The history of cane travel in Minnesota would not be complete without a few words about the hard fought battle to keep our long white canes on airplanes. From the very beginning, blind Minnesotans were in the thick of the battle. On December 5, 1975, James Gashel was on his way to Minnesota for our semiannual convention when he was kicked off a Northwest airplane because he would not give up his white cane. It took him another five hours to get to our convention in Minneapolis by another airline. Resolution SA-75-01, deploring Northwest Airlines for their actions and policies, was quickly passed by the convention and circulated widely throughout the community. Many radio stations and newspapers covered the story, supporting Jim. On the way to the national convention in Baltimore on July 2, 1978, 12 Federationists boarded a United Airlines plane. When they reached Cleveland, where they would need to change planes, an airline representative escorted the group to the next gate where everyone's tickets were confiscated by a "Mr. Kane." Mr. Kane demanded that they all surrender their canes or they would not be permitted back on any United flight. Six of them had collapsible canes or dogs and were allowed back on the flight. However, Jim Schleppegrell, Stewart Prost, Mary Hartle, Brad Hodges, Tom Scanlan and Joyce Scanlan all held straight canes and were not permitted to board. They tried for a long time to reason with Mr. Kane. He refused to give them a copy of the regulations they supposedly were violating, refused to give them any kind of statement, refused to allow them on any United flight out of Cleveland (the only airline serving Baltimore from that city), but worst of all he refused to listen to reason. The six ended up on a Greyhound bus the rest of the way to the convention in Baltimore. Later that week they and more than 1,000 other Federationists participated in a demonstration at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) headquarters against such treatment of blind people.

Their trip back was not much better. The blind passengers were herded like cattle by United Airlines personnel. When they refused to give up their canes after the plane landed in Chicago, they were berated by the pilot over the plane's PA system. The pilot accused the blind persons of delaying the flight. After this treatment, the Minnesota federationists passed out Federation literature and talked with passengers about the nonexistent FAA rules that were in dispute on that plane. By the end of the flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, the passengers understood the problems blind people face at the hands of the airlines.

On her way home from a NAC demonstration on November 11, 1984, Judy Sanders found herself in an exit-row seat on a People Express flight. Judy was told to move from the seat, but she declined. Conversations with a variety of airline and airport officials took place when Judy tried to explain her position without success. Finally the police were called in and she was arrested and charged with disorderly person. On June 27, 1985, Judy was acquitted of all charges in a Boston court.

Less than two weeks later two other Minnesotans were arrested on United Airlines for sitting in an exit row. Steve and Nadine Jacobson were on their way home from the National Convention in Louisville, KY. They boarded the plane and quickly discovered they were in an exit row. They were asked to move and refused. A parade of airline personnel came to get them to move. One person tried jerking Nadine out of her seat without letting her remove her seatbelt. They were abused physically and verbally by airline officials and the Louisville police. The police searched, arrested, fingerprinted, and threw them in jail. Their canes were taken away, and items confiscated by the police were not returned. In short, they were treated like common criminals. Again, the only charge that could be thought up was disorderly conduct. Steve and Nadine were subjected to a three-day trial in the Jefferson County Civil Court. On November 3, 1985, after deliberating for only two and one half hours, a jury found them not guilty of all charges.

The Jacobson trial was the turning point in the "airline wars." Northwest had learned its lesson. People Express had learned its lesson. And now United Airlines, the largest airline in the world, had learned that blind people would fight to keep our white canes and the public would support us. The evidence was clear to anyone flying after that trial that the word had spread throughout the airline industry. Treatment of blind people improved markedly.

Today more parents are asking for cane travel for their blind children at an early age. Blind adults proudly carry their canes throughout our communities. There are more blind travel instructors teaching other blind persons the skills to make them a better and confident traveler. Soon, the shame of carrying a cane may be only a lesson read in a history book on the blind.