A woman in a purple top crossing a road with her long cane. Text on the image says

Guide Dogs Australia reminds community what they ‘Cane Do’ to lend a helping hand: ‘Just ask us first’

Two thirds (64%) of people who use white canes have been grabbed or handled by a member of the public even though they didn’t ask for help, according to a new national client survey* by Guide Dogs Australia.

A similar number of people who use white canes (67%) also reported that people talk to their sighted companions instead of them directly when out in the community.

This is despite YouGov research** that shows three quarters (74%) of the Australian public feel confident they could provide appropriate assistance to a person with a white cane in the street.

Cane Do campaign

In response, Guide Dogs Australia is launching the Cane Do community awareness campaign, reminding members of the community what they ‘cane do’ to help people with a white cane navigate public spaces in a safe and independent way.

“The most simple, effective and helpful thing you can do, is directly ask a person using a white cane if they need assistance before trying to help,” said Dale Cleaver, CEO of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT. “More than three quarters of Guide Dogs clients surveyed say this is their preferred and the best way members of the public can assist them.”

“By grabbing a person with a white cane by the arm to help them onto public transport or across the road – without their consent or prior knowledge – you can disorient them or break the concentration they are using to follow a path.”

Mr Cleaver said that while the majority of the time the community and their efforts to help a person with sight loss are well intentioned, there was a disconnect between knowledge and actions.

“The YouGov research tells us that the majority of Australians believe the best way to assist someone with sight loss is to ask them first. But for some reason, according to our clients, this is not happening,” said Mr Cleaver.

“Perhaps these misunderstandings occur because many Australians do not understand how and why a white cane is used. They may also not know what to do after they ask the person with sight loss if they need help.

“Always introduce yourself directly to the person using the white cane, and follow the lead of how they would like to receive help. The person with sight loss may ask you to guide them by taking your arm. They may simply ask for clarification or directions. Or they may decline your assistance,” said Mr Cleaver.

Client experiences 

Misunderstnding in the community about white canes was also illustrated by some of the stranger questions Guide Dogs clients say they have been asked over the years.

“Clients have told us their canes have been mistaken for weapons, metal detectors, fishing rods and even golf sticks,” said Mr Cleaver.

A white cane is mobility aid that allows someone with sight loss to navigate the path in front of them by feeling and detecting obstacles, changes in surfaces or the height of the ground, and allow them to negotiate crowded areas. A cane is also a signal to the public that the person has sight loss.

Rebecca Wong, a Guide Dogs NSW/ACT client who has been blind since birth says she regularly experiences members of the public grabbing or pushing her without her permission when out in the community with her white cane or when catching public transport. Rebecca catches the bus every day to her work in the Sydney CBD from her inner west home.

“I have certainly had my fair share of people trying to help me without asking me first, or talking to my companions instead of me directly,” Rebecca said.

“The problem when someone grabs you without asking first is – not only an invasion of space – but that it causes confusion and disorientation.

“People also sometimes make assumptions that I don’t know where I’m going and will come up to me and tell me that I’m going the wrong way when I’m not.

“I know most people are trying to be well-meaning, but they don’t realise that they might actually be making it harder for me to navigate public spaces, or even simply putting me in an awkward situation.

“It can also be potentially dangerous. One time I was pushed in the wrong direction and then couldn’t figure out where the road was,” Rebecca said.

The Cane Do campaign is not only about the best way the public can assist people with sight loss navigate their community safely and independently. Cane Do and International White Cane Day are also an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of the white cane and how it can aid the mobility and independence of a person with sight loss.

What you ‘Cane Do’

  • Ask the person using a white cane if they would like assistance and if so, how? 
  • If you see a person with a white cane, be aware and give them space to navigate
  • Don’t be offended if a person with a white cane declines your offer of help – they may simply be confidently travelling independently or concentrating
  • Alert the person with a white cane if they are in any immediate danger
  • Report all hazards in public spaces to your local council

Types of White Canes

  • Long canes are designed to physically detect obstacles as well as changes in height of the ground in front of the individual.
  • Identification canes (ID canes) are smaller than long canes and the colour white lets other people know that the person holding the cane has reduced vision. Identification canes can be useful in difficult situations such as negotiating crowds or crossing roads.
  • Support canes can be useful for people who experience problems with their balance when walking. A white support cane indicates sight loss.

What is International White Cane Day?

International White Cane Day is held on 15 October each year to raise awareness of the importance of the white cane and how it can aid the mobility and independence of a person with sight loss.

The survey

*In August 2018, Guide Dogs Australia conducted a survey of 384 clients who use a white cane nationwide to identify issues they experience around mobility in the community.

** Guide Dogs Australia also commissioned a study, conducted by YouGov, of 1071 Australians to identify the Australian public’s knowledge and perceptions of white canes and how people with sight loss use them.