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Sight loss resources Adjusting to sight loss Getting out & about

The different types of white cane

Published on 11 Oct 2023

Everyone will be familiar with the white cane. It's a well-known device for empowering people with sight loss. 

A tool for independence

White canes allow people who are blind, or visually impaired, to navigate the world around them safely.

Still a relatively new idea, Blind Veterans UK - or St Dunstan’s as we used to be known - was involved in its conception as recently as the 1930s. 

We try to avoid calling these canes ‘sticks’ as they’re an important tool for an important job. After all, a white cane is not a sign of disability, but a sign of independence.

Three types of cane

There are three main types of cane:

Long cane

Probably the best known of the white canes, it’s of a set length for the user and requires a degree of training to use safely and appropriately. The cane is aluminium or graphite and folds into four or five sections. It also has several different tip options that remain in contact with the ground. 

Symbol cane 

Perhaps the most common white cane, this one is quite short and not designed to touch the ground as its function is specifically to illustrate someone’s sight loss. These canes are easy to fold up and carry and can be particularly useful for busy areas and crossing roads. Always worth having one in your pocket if you’re out.

Guide cane

This one is a cross between the two types of cane above. It’s longer and sturdier than a symbol cane, so can be used to investigate potential obstacles. However, it’s still small enough to be unintrusive and kept with you easily.

Cane tips

Longer white canes usually have an additional, replaceable tip. There are many different cane tips for different situations, even walking off road. Most commonly, people use one of the roller tips options which allow the cane to move from side to side on the ground smoothly. 

Cane tips usually hooks on to an internal piece of elastic that runs through the cane, or slides over the end, and is designed to be changed as they wear out. 

Electronic canes

Nowadays, there are more and more electronic variations and additions to the white cane. These can be valuable for some people, but if the standard white cane is not used properly then the fancy additions are ineffective.

Red stripes on a white cane

A white cane with red stripes on it, usually two, indicates a dual disability, for example, a hearing loss in addition to the sight loss. 

One red stripe is usually placed 6 to 9 inches from the top and a second the same distance from the bottom.

Although information about the red stripes is in the highway code, it’s not always fully understood. However, drivers and passers-by should generally be even more cautious when they see them, if only because they understand there is a clear intention to alert them of something

White walking sticks

Some people may use a white walking stick to show they have sight loss, alongside or instead of a cane. These are often provided by hospitals and Local Authorities, and there are various versions available. Some people simply paint a standard walking stick white or add reflective tape. 

White walking sticks really need to be set to a particular height, though, so it’s best to seek professional advice on this, particularly if you have a physical issue requiring the support stick.

To purchase a white cane, you can find them online at the RNIB shop and on Amazon. They are also available to purchase via most local sight loss organisations.

We recommend you seek professional advice before you buy one, especially with regards to the long cane. Talk to your local sensory services or a qualified mobility instructor, or contact RNIB.

Blind Veterans UK beneficiaries can discuss white canes with their community support teams.

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If you have a service record and a visual impairment, we could help you regain your independence.

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