You might have observed persons with visual disabilities walking on footpaths, in colleges and in offices using white canes. This rhythmic 'tap, tap, tap' sound of a white cane is the jingle of independence for persons with visual disabilities across the globe.
Many of you casually call it a 'stick', a 'walking stick', a 'Lathi’ or a 'Danda.' But, have you ever thought about the genesis and significance of this white cane? Let’s unfurl the captivating story behind this device.
A white cane is a primary mobility tool used by persons with visual disabilities to identify obstacles and navigate their surroundings. It provides them with greater independence and safety when moving around. It can be either foldable or straight. A visually disabled person generally holds a white cane around the center of his/her body and swings it back and forth before each step. This standard technique is termed as the "Hoover Method", which is named after Richard E Hoover.
To delve into its intriguing history, let's journey back to 1921. James Biggs, a photographer from Bristol, lost his sight due to an accident. Faced with busy traffic near his residence, he ingeniously painted his mobility cane white to enhance its visibility. Similar narratives from various parts of the world suggest that white, due to its higher visibility, became the preferred choice for the colour of a cane. Interestingly, the first white cane ordinance was passed in December 1930 in Peoria, Illinois. This ordinance granted the right-of-way to blind pedestrians who were carrying a white cane.
Fast forward to October 6, 1964, when the United States Congress designated October 15 as ‘National White Cane Safety Day’. President Lyndon B Johnson issued the first proclamation, with the objective of raising awareness about white cane, and directing drivers to exercise caution when they see a person carrying/holding a white cane.
Since then, White Cane Day is celebrated to recognize the outstanding achievements and triumphs of persons with visual disabilities. This observance also intends to create awareness in society about the specific needs of persons with visual disabilities. In practical terms, this awareness extends to everyday situations. For instance, when driving, slow down if you encounter a white cane user on the pathway. If you see a white cane user attempting to cross a busy road, kindly offer your assistance. If they appear to be heading in the wrong direction or toward potential hazards, please provide guidance.
These acts of recognition and support signify the evolving significance of the white cane. In the past, the cane was used merely to detect obstacles and identify pathways. Since the 20th century, however, the white cane conveys a broader message. In addition to its functional use, it has become a symbol to communicate the presence of a person with visual disability. It also embodies the aspirations of independence, empowerment and inclusivity. This current shift in perspective can be viewed as ‘semiotic+functional use’. Now, it is no longer merely an obstacle detection cane; it is an identifier and representation of cherished values.
This transformation underscores the need for white cane safety laws to protect and promote the evolving role and symbolism of the white cane. In the USA, state statutes contain provisions that mandate the driver of a vehicle to take all reasonable measures to avoid injury to visually disabled persons and give the right-of-way to any blind pedestrian carrying a clearly visible white cane. In many other European countries, there exist similar white cane safety laws.
Unlike several other countries, India, despite being home to the largest population of visually disabled persons, lacks white cane safety laws. According to the 2011 census, 50.3 lakh persons with visual disabilities are in India and the population is expected to increase substantially in the forthcoming census data. Hence, it is imperative for India to enact such guidelines in line with international obligations and constitutional commitments.
It is worth noting that India has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and pursuant to that, it enacted the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016. These international commitments and the national statute underscore the importance of 'accessibility’. Article 9 of the Convention obliges state parties to take appropriate actions “to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life”. Chapter 8 of The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 also contains provisions related to accessibility. Needless to emphasize, white cane safety laws are essential for ensuring greater physical accessibility, as mobility and accessibility are supplementary and complementary.
Additionally, non-recognition of the right of way due to the absence of white cane safety laws infringes upon the constitutional rights of persons with visual disabilities in several ways. Firstly, it violates their fundamental right to movement, as guaranteed by Article 19(1)(d) of the Constitution. Besides, it contravenes Article 21 of the Constitution, because when a persons with visual disabilities cannot freely navigate, not only is their liberty curtailed, but it also hampers the enjoyment of a wide range of connected rights. Safe and secured navigation/mobility is an essential prerequisite for effectuation of several other constitutional rights, such as the right to livelihood, the right to live with dignity and the right to recreation. Restriction on the right to safe mobility or pathways impinges on these rights and confines persons with visual disabilities within four walls. It is an indirect imposed confinement, which remains largely unnoticed in our ableist society.
The courts have also recognized the fundamental right of every citizen to a safe road, as enshrined in Articles 19(1)(d) and 21 of the Constitution. Similarly, accessibility and equal access have been held significant for equal and effective participation. Persons with visual disabilities are equally entitled to these rights. For instance, in the case of Rajive Raturi v. Union of India the Supreme Court of India issued 11 guidelines with the objective of ensuring physical and digital accessibility for persons with different disabilities, including visual disabilities. Regrettably, despite all these orders, little progress has been made.
In light of these challenges and constitutional obligations, it is high time for disability rights activists and NGOs to raise their voices and push for the formulation of comprehensive white cane safety guidelines/laws. In driver manuals, detailed instructions regarding the white cane's recognition and respect should also be included. The government must enact white cane safety laws mandating how pedestrians, motorists and other drivers should respond to a person holding a white cane. Such laws are essential for ensuring safe navigation/mobility and right of way for persons with visual disabilities.
Additionally, laws alone are not enough. Awareness and sensitization efforts must go hand-in-hand. Our society needs to be aware of the specific needs of persons with visual disabilities. We must endeavour to create a world where everyone can live and navigate with dignity and safety. So, make the 'tap-tap-tap' a ubiquitous sound; in every arena, in every place, let it resound.
Masoom Reza is a guest faculty at Jamia Millia Islamia and an NCPEDP Javed Abidi Fellow.