White canes, guide dogs and a beacon for the blind

Each year on Oct. 15, White Cane Awareness Day spotlights the blind and visually impaired and their all-important navigation tool, the white cane.

The white cane is an essential tool that enables those who are blind or visually impaired to traverse independently despite their disability. The cane effectively extends their hands and arms, so that they can move quickly, confidently and independently. They use canes to avoid obstacles, find steps and curbs, locate and step over cracks or uneven places in the sidewalk, find doorways, get into cars and buses, and more.

Here’s what a sighted person should know about white canes: The law requires drivers to yield the right of way when they see a person with an extended white cane or guide dog in all 50 states. Additionally, anyone using a white cane most certainly can’t see, since only those who are blind or visually impaired may legally carry one. These individuals get around with their cane by listening to traffic patterns to discern when to cross streets. They know to walk in a straight line, and if they’re out on their own, they know what they’re doing. There’s no need to shout warnings. If they need help or direction, they’ll ask. All drivers have to do is yield. Let the person with the cane go first.

Ellyn Drotzer is president and CEO of Lighthouse of Broward.

While the white cane is essential, another “tool” used by many blind or visually impaired individuals is a furry one — the guide dog. These wonderful animals have received intensive, specialized training since they were puppies. During training, they are taught to lead a person in a straight line, to stop for all changes in elevation, including curbs and stairs, and to avoid obstacles in their path. One extremely critical skill for the dog to learn is to look up before proceeding. The dog must make sure the owner won’t walk into a tree limb, for instance, even though it’s not directly in the dog’s path.

Sighted people often think guide dogs are like their family pets. They are not. Guide dogs are working dogs, doing their best to concentrate on behalf of their handler. It’s important not to distract the dog in any way, such as by petting, touching or feeding it.

Guide dogs and white canes help those who are blind or visually impaired become more confident in moving from place to place, thereby creating additional independence and self-sufficiency.

The free training and rehabilitation at the Lighthouse of Broward has the same effect, although it covers a much broader range of needs, in addition to orientation and mobility. Services include assistive technology, braille, job readiness/apprenticeship and more. Programming is tailored to each age group — babies, children, teens, working adults and seniors.

While we offer free services to more than 2,600 children and adults each year in Broward County, many more people need our services. Approximately 150,000 severely visually impaired individuals live here in Broward County, one of the highest incidences of visual impairment in the nation. Our state leads the nation both in numbers of blind persons and growth of this population, according to the Florida Agencies Serving the Blind. The number of severely visually impaired Florida seniors is approximately 2 million, while the total of severely visually impaired children in public schools is about 3,000.

My hope this White Cane Awareness Day is to let people know about Lighthouse of Broward, an important free resource for people without or with little sight.

Like guide dogs and white canes, the Lighthouse of Broward changes the lives and world of those who are blind or visually impaired. Through the independence gained by state-of-the-art technology, effective training and general support, we help the severely visually impaired find independence.

Ellyn Drotzer is president and CEO of Lighthouse of Broward. Located in Fort Lauderdale, it provides services, advocacy and resources to enhance the lives of people who are blind and visually impaired in Broward County.

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