Beacon Stories

Oct 15, 2019

Rachel Wants to Raise White Cane Awareness

Rachel Luehrs describes her journey of acceptance.

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by Rachel Luehrs

I received my first white cane in 2011, an event that I was not emotionally ready for. I had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 2002 and by 2011, I had begun to experience significant vision loss. However, I was still able to function without major accommodations and was unwilling to start to use a white cane. Accepting a white cane meant accepting the fact that I was going blind. I feared that diagnosis. I feared people’s reactions. I feared their pity and I feared being a victim.

Rachel Luehrs holding her cane

Rachel Luehrs

It took time, encouragement, and maturity, but I now see my white cane with a level of appreciation and understanding. I have come to recognize it for the tool that it is and the independence that it can offer. It is an extension of my arm, a second set of eyes, and a signal to others around me. Locations that had seemed stressful and impossible to face alone are no longer intimidating. With my white cane, I can walk through museums without fear of bumping into small children or exhibits. I can navigate congested airport terminals with less difficulty and face rush hour traffic at the Washington D.C. Metro with greater confidence.

What has been an unexpected challenge in my journey to accepting a white cane has been an overall lack of knowledge about white canes by the American public. Security guards have told me that my “selfie-stick” is too long and is not allowed in the stadium. Pedestrians and fellow commuters have raised eyebrows and stared as I read messages on my phone while holding a white cane, clearly viewing me as a fraud. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me “but you don’t look blind,” or suggested “have you considered getting glasses?” It is clear that perceptions of the visually impaired community are not where they should be.

To start, it is important to recognize that vision impairments operate on a spectrum. Just as someone can have varying degrees of deafness, one can experience varying degrees of blindness. Not everyone’s vision loss will manifest itself the same way. For example, I still have fairly strong central vision at this point in time. I can read street signs, small print, and recognize faces without difficulties. My vision loss is largely relegated to my peripheral and night vision, hence why I need a cane for crowded and dimly lit situations. In comparison, there are individuals with white canes to whom the world is visible but exists as a blur. There are also those who can only see on the periphery and those who live completely in the dark. Despite these differences, we all might use a white cane at one time or another.

As I sat down to write this I was struck by the question – When exactly did white canes first come into use? I did a bit of research to see what I could find. Canes for the visually impaired have been around since biblical times. However, it was not until the 1920s that the concept of a “white cane” for the visually impaired began. In a movement that originated in Europe, walking canes were painted white so that blind pedestrians would appear more obvious to drivers. In the years following World War II, the concept of the white cane spread and became popular throughout the United States. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, White Cane Awareness Day was established by an act of Congress to celebrate the achievements of individuals who are blind or visually impaired, as well as recognizing the independence that is offered to them by the white cane.

…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.

President Bill Clinton, White Cane Awarenes Day 2000

This year, on White Cane Awareness Day, I would like you to take a moment to think about life with vision loss. Take a moment to acknowledge the struggles of your sister with glaucoma, your neighbor with Usher syndrome, your grandmother with macular degeneration, and the battles being fought by countless others. Let us take this day to celebrate innovations like the white cane that have offered so many individuals greater freedom, independence, and support. October is Disability Awareness Month. During this time, please take a moment to listen to the stories of people who have refused to be limited by their vision impairments: Architect Chris Downey, Olympian Marla Runyan, Masterchef Christine Ha, Governor David Paterson, singers like Jose Feliciano and Ray Charles, and countless others. In a speech given on White Cane Awareness Day in 2000, President Bill Clinton reminded Americans of the power and importance of the white cane. For members of the visually impaired community, “...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.” As a member of the visually impaired community who uses a white cane, I am grateful for your support, patience, and understanding. Happy White Cane Awareness Day!