A Groovy explainer: how does a white cane work?

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Groovy explainer: how does a white cane work?

Have you ever wondered: how does a white cane work? Groovy, a white support cane, describes what it is like to go walking with a blind person.

My name is Groovy. I serve as a navigational tool for the blind and I am here to explain to you how a white cane works. I am a white support cane, and I stand proudly at 50 inches high and maintain a trim weight of under a pound. My owner, Kathy, is a blind retired 68-year-old nurse. One day, Kathy enters the laundry room. She opens the drawer where I have been hidden for many years, alongside the shoe polish, shoe brushes, screwdrivers, and rags. I am so excited to be inhaling some fresh air that I jump out of the drawer and land with a thud on the tile floor. She previously suffered a condition called ‘Cane Shame,’ which affects some blind people who are hesitant to use navigational tools. I’m pleased that she has a new attitude towards me and is excited about becoming my friend and seeing what I can offer her.

Let us begin with a casual stroll around Kathy’s Oakland neighborhood. After crossing the threshold, Kathy grabs the iron rail of the stairs on the left, cradles me in her right hand, and climbs the fourteen stairs to her driveway. At the top, she opens my five folded segments and extends them in front of her. At my very tip, I have a roller joint that keeps constant contact with the sidewalks, pavement, or driveways that we encounter. To navigate, she places her index finger and thumb around the black rubber grip at the top of my body. She enthusiastically says, “Let’s go, Groovy!” Next, she positions me in front of her feet and moves in a back and forth motion from right to left. She is creating what is called an arc in front of her, which corresponds to the width of her shoulders. She gets into a rhythm where, when she moves me to the right, her left foot moves forward and vice versa.

Once Kathy’s in a good rhythm with me, she trails ridges and changes of pavement, which helps to orient her to the landmarks of the street. Kathy enjoys staying in the middle of her quiet street, Starview Drive, more often than on the sidewalk. She turns onto Hiller Drive, she identifies the sidewalk, and plants my tip near its edge, then she lands firmly on the concrete. As she and I move along, my roller tip encounters many different surfaces: utility covers, driveways that slant, and even occasional grooves where the pavement has lifted and created an elevation change. Sometimes I am scared that Kathy will trip when she catches a groove, but that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, because she is so often met grooves on her walks, that is why she calls me Groovy.

Have you ever wondered: how does a white cane work? Groovy, a white support cane, describes what it is like to go walking with a blind person. Click To Tweet

Moving down Hiller Drive, Kathy encounters a three-foot by five-foot bright, yellow rectangle on the sidewalk with many circular raised surfaces, which are called truncated domes. She proceeds to its edge, plants me where the sidewalk and street meet, and then proceeds to cross when she hears no cars coming. It becomes a bumpy ride as she moves me across this yellow patch, and I’m glad that I don’t get nauseated. When she turns right, a dark-colored Sedan approaches, and Kathy waves me around, back and forth three times, to alert the driver that I’m getting ready to cross. This maneuver is called flagging. Kathy plants her cane near her right foot and the curb and steps off it to cross the intersection. Suddenly, without warning, I hear Kathy start to sing a song–it is called “Feeling Groovy:”

“Slow down, you move too fast

You got to make the morning last

Just kicking down the cobblestones

Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy”

Simon and Garfunkel, 1969

Kathy and I continue our leisurely stroll through her neighborhood for thirty minutes. She reports to me that there are many utility covers for PG&E, AT&T, and other utilities, as described to her by her husband, Ted, on previous walks. Unlike you humans who complain of arthritic joints and have a need for hip replacements, I remain resilient without aches or pains. My five segments are held firmly in place by a very strong black elastic cord, so I am less prone to aging like human bones. Kathy can distinguish the difference between concrete and metal devices, one time even hitting a white fire hydrant firmly on its side. One time she moved me from left to right on a metal grill, and it sounded like she was strumming a xylophone, which sounded good to my ears. We do not encounter many people on the street because they are sheltered-in-place due to a global contagious, often deadly virus — corona COVID-19.

As we return home, Kathy trails the rim of the driveway and moves me methodically to the stair’s edge. Now, in reverse to how she came up the stairs, she lifts me with her left hand and grasps the rail with her right until we get to the front door. Once inside, Kathy wipes me down with a dilute bleach sanitizer, including my tip. It feels refreshing though I can’t say I built up a sweat with our leisurely pace. Kathy informs me that washing is necessary because of the virus. She deconstructs my five segments until I am completely collapsed. She wraps two elastic bands around me, something like what humans wrap their ponytails in. That is one thing you humans do not experience since the only fragmentation of your body is from bone fractures or amputations. Once Kathy deconstructs me, she positions me on the grey slate near the front door. The slate is cold, uncomfortable, and hard, and I wish I had the luxury of a pillow on which I could rest myself. Now it is my time to soothe myself to sleep with the prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”

Until our next stroll together, your dependable friend,


P.S. Kathy wants to thank the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind, and her two orientation and mobility instructors, Jenn and Terry, for their patience, skill, and kindness in assisting her in finding a new relationship with her cane.

Article by
Kathy Stephanides

Kathy Stephanides resides in Oakland, California with her husband and she has two grown daughters, one in LA and one in Oakland.