What’s That Stick For?

“Mummy, what’s that stick for?”

A question often heard by blinkies using a white cane. A very good question in my opinion. I do love the innocent curiosity of children. They so often ask the questions that adults want to, but feel they shouldn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t.

Many of us have names for our trusty twigs. I have Roly Twitstick and Tigger. I shall explain those in a bit. I know of people whose canes are called ‘Twiggy’, ‘Tiptap’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Candy’, ‘Dennis the Menace’, and even simply human names like Cedric, Wilfred and Gerty. I don’t know the meaning or reasons behind these names but would love to learn of such things. Perhaps my fellow VIPs who read this might comment below and tell us all what you call your cane and why?

foldable White support cane with black ergonomic handle
An example of a foldable white support cane. This one is adjustable in height and has a black ergonomic shaped handle

White Support Cane.
This is a standard ‘walking stick’ used to give support and/or stability to aid mobility. It will usually be a fairly sturdy stick or cane, painted or coated white (sometimes using a reflective white tape). It will quite likely have a curved or angled handle, and a ferrule on the bottom to grip the ground. The white colouring indicates that the person using it has a vision impairment. This type of cane is used primarily for physical support for the user, but the white colouring is giving helpful information to others around.

Most other white canes are much thinner as they are designed for navigation and not for physical support.

Symbol canes - one shown fully extended, the other folded in a 4 part zig-zag
An example of a symbol cane in both extended and folded modes

Symbol Cane.
This is a short cane – usually approximately 70-75cm with a diameter of about 1cm. Symbol canes are most often carried by people who have a reasonable amount of useful vision but wish to show people around them that they might not be seeing everything quite fully. The cane is held diagonally across the body from shoulder toward hip, simply for information to other people around. It serves very little, if any, physical aid to the person carrying it. It is usually foldable into three or four sections for storage.

a Simple white cane shown with a red band about a third down the length. It has a black handle and wrist strap and a black tip
A simple white cane. This could represent either a guide cane or a long cane. Note the red band, which indicates that the user has both hearing and vision impairments

Guide Cane.
This is long enough to reach the ground and is used to navigate and identify obstacles. The length will vary from user to user depending on their height. It is usually advised to have a guide cane that reaches from ground to waist. It is most often used by people who have some useful vision but not enough to discern a safe route through obstacles and hazards. It will generally be held at one end, slightly out and diagonally in front of the legs when walking. It is designed to be used to tap around to feel for things like walls, kerbs, obstacles (street clutter for example), doorways, steps and the like. The guide cane will most often have a simple metal or nylon tip and is not routinely supplied with any handle grip; it is simply a slim tube of aluminium, graphite, or fibreglass.

Long Cane.
As the name suggests, this is the longest of the canes. It is usually measured to reach from ground to mid-chest height although some of us prefer a longer one – mine reaches my nose! These can be either rigid or, more commonly foldable or telescopically collapsible. They have a grippy handle with a wrist-strap loop (to save having to grope around on the floor if you drop it!). There is a variety of tips for the other end. The long cane is designed to be tapped or swept from side to side in front as the user walks along. The type of tip will vary according to which technique the user employs, as well as personal preference. The cane is held either centrally, in front of the tummy, or to the side (again – personal preference decides this) and projected out in front. The side-to-side action, whether a tapping action, or using one of the rolling tips to glide to and fro, is used to ‘read’ the ground ahead. It gives tactile and audible feedback to tell the user when the surface changes, or that there is an obstacle to navigate.There are different tips for the long cane including:

A pink pencil tip.
A pink pencil tip

Pencil Tip.
This is a simple tubular piece of nylon / plastic approximately 5cm long. It is primarily used on a guide cane to tap around for tactile feedback of obstacles. Occasionally, it may be used on a long cane for a side-to-side tapping technique (sometimes called the ‘two-point tap’). It is easy to get these stuck in cracks in the pavement or in drain grids.

Green marshmallow tip
green rigid marshmallow tip
White rolling marshmallow tip
A rolling marshmallow tip

Marshmallow Tip.
This is, as its name suggests, shaped rather like a marshmallow; approximately 2cm in diameter and 3cm in length. It can be either rigid for tapping technique or there is a roller-marshmallow that is mounted on a bearing so that it can be used for a sweeping technique. With the slightly wider end, this is less likely to catch in the pavement than the pencil tip.

White rollerball tip
A standard white rollerball tip

Rollerball Tip.
This is about the size of a snooker ball, mounted on a bearing so that it rolls easily from side to side on the ground. The standard one is made of a nylon / plastic type material, but it is possible to get a tougher ‘high mileage’ version made from a high density polyethylene.

Disk Tip.
This is relatively uncommon, designed mainly for use on loose surfaces such as sand, gravel, snow or grass. It is a round-bottomed disk that glides over such surfaces that a more standard tip would dig into.

Ceramic tip - white with a black rim
A white ceramic tip

Ceramic Tip.
This is a 2cm half-ball shaped tip to be used by either tapping or sweeping technique. It is reputed to give the best of all the tips in terms of audio and tactile feedback.

Metal glide tip. White stem, black collar and silver-coloured metal disk
Metal glide tip

Metal Glide Tip
This is a stainless steel 2.5cm disc with rounded edges, used in the tapping technique. It gives good clear audio feedback.

Jumbo Roller tip - white roller with orange stem
Jumbo Roller tip

Jumbo Roller Tip.
A 6.4cm diameter disc with rounded outer edge, mounted on a bearing. It is designed to roll from side to side, made from an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene that lasts 2 or 3 times longer than a regular tip.

A flexi tip
Flexi Tip

Flexi Tip.
A cone-shaped tip with a flexible neck designed to bounce over uneven surfaces, used in the tapping technique. The cone is approximately 4.5cm diameter at the bottom, made of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene for long lasting use.

These are the most commonly used canes and tips. There are some other variations, mostly for more specialist uses. The canes usually have a reflective white coating. Certainly, a symbol cane, which is for information to others, should always be white. However, a cane that is used more to give feedback to the user than to tell others about their vision impairment (although, of course, this does come automatically with it!), can be personalized with coloured options. Most commonly, this will be the handle and, perhaps the bottom section, but, especially in children’s canes, a range of colours and variations is available.

If a cane of any kind has red stripes, bands, or a red section at the bottom end, then it is symbolizing that the user has impaired hearing as well as vision.

There are other varieties of canes and tips too. A few options are available for people with additional needs such as balance or coordination difficulties. These can take the form of a kind of springy loop, rather than a straight cane, or perhaps a frame style guide on wheels. These are much more a specialist market and I cannot profess anymuch knowledge about them.

I have had the privilege to have had a specially adapted cane made for me. In fact, it is now doubly adapted! I shall try to explain:

My first cane was a symbol cane, sold to me by an advisor from the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB). This was back in the day when I still had a reasonable amount of useful vision left. I personally hated the thing! I felt that it served no purpose except to send people scurrying to give me a wide berth. This may have been a wrong perception of course, but it was when I was struggling to come to terms with the whole sight loss thing and was just feeling super self-conscious and was convinced that I was just a numpty! I did experience a couple of instances of people clearly not having a clue what it meant; one good example was the bus driver who, when I asked him whilst clearly holding my symbol cane in front of me ‘What bus number is this please?’, he just snorted “It’s in a big yellow light on the front darlin’!”

Black Labrador Oakley sitting on grass wearing his iconic white Guide Dog harness, with reflective yellow chest band. His fur is gleaming in the sunlight
Guide Dog Oakley

I have to confess that I was extremely glad to have avoided progressing on to a long cane when I was given the life-changing gift of a Guide Dog, Oakley (probably the topic of several blogs to come). I now look back and realise that this relief was misguided. Hindsight is nasty stuff!

It was only when Oakley was beginning to slow down and head toward retirement that I had to face the need to learn how to use a long cane. A lovely lady from Guide Dogs UK was tasked with training me. She gave me a long cane with a rollerball tip and taught me how to sweep it from side to side, listening and feeling for guidance on the terrain I was walking along. I named that cane Roly Twitstick. This is most certainly NOT intended as any form of mickytake of anyone except myself. The ‘Roly’ bit is, I guess, obvious – it is simply because of the rolling ball on the end. The ‘Twitstick’ is a reference to how uncomfortable I feel about using the thing. Maybe this is subconsciously linked to ‘you don’t look blind’ (see last blog). Maybe it is to do with my relative incompetence in use of it (I have been known to trip people up with it!). I don’t know, but I do feel a bit of a twit when I’m out and using it.

More recently, I’ve been privileged to be linked with a wonderful charity called Remap. This came about after a particularly arduous day of working the Tardebigge flight of locks in Worcestershire. Working the 34 locks that day proved less of a physical challenge than the navigation of the rugged towpath surface using Roly Twitstick. By the end of the day, my wrists, elbows, shoulders and even neck and back were in agony. This was because of the relentless jarring from Roly snagging on the sticky-up rocks, bricks, flints and who-knows-what-else from the eroded surface of the towpath. It led me to thinking ‘surely there must be a cane out there with suspension or some kind of shock absorber in it’. I called the RNIB Shop to ask the question. The answer was ‘No, but it might be possible to get one made’, and they gave me the contact details for Remap.

Remap is a UK charity that keeps willing engineers, inventors and other clever people busy by making and/or adapting equipment for disabled people. I got linked up with a very clever and pleasant chap named Phil, in the West Midlands. Phil set to work creating ‘Tigger’ for me. Tigger started life as a standard folding white cane, from the RNIB. Phil has replaced the handle section with a metal tube containing springs. This gives just that little bit of shock absorption, thus saving my wrist and other joints from the painful jarring. He then created me a snazzy purple grippy handle using badminton racquet tape.

Tracey’s tigger stick

Tigger has been a game changer for me. Using a long cane to navigate is hard work. It takes a huge amount of concentration to ‘read’ its feedback both by sound and feel. It is also very demanding on the joints of the upper body because of the snagging and jarring. When I was first trained to use Roly, I was taught to hold it centrally; pointing the handle at my bellybutton. This perhaps gives the best spatial awareness but it is not a natural angle at which to hold the arm and hand. It is also very painful to the abdomen when it does jam into an obstacle! Once I had got a little more used to using it, I relaxed a bit into holding it beside me in a more natural position for my arm. This reduced the strain but certainly didn’t alleviate it completely. It also proved potentially more dangerous to Tim one day when he just happened to be walking tightly tucked in slightly behind me when Roly snagged between two paving stones. Let’s just say – it’s a good job we already have two grown up daughters!

The improvement hasn’t stopped there though! I now have a new and innovative tip that I am ‘road testing’ for its inventor. It is called the HuJu tip and is shaped a little like the tip of a ski. It is made of a super tough plastic of some sort (I am no expert in these materials so can’t tell you exactly what it is!) and is approximately the same diameter as the cane itself. It is curved upward slightly at the tip, which avoids a lot of the snagging. Instead of jamming into an obstacle, it skips up. This is proving to be wonderful, especially in conjunction with the springs in Tigger’s handle.

The HuJu tip has been developed by a gentleman called Steve Holyer who is himself totally blind, and was fed up with the bellyjabs from cane tips snagging. At present, I believe I, like a few others, have a prototype on trial. Steve is hoping to roll it out into production soon. I have certainly put the HuJu tip through its paces: Just a couple of days after fitting it onto my cane (replacing the rollerball), we set out on what we thought would be a gentle Sunday afternoon dog walk. It turned out to be a 5 mile trek that tested HuJu on just about every possible terrain: Loose gravel, tarmac, paving slabs, ankle-deep sticky squelchy mud, grass, loose rough rocks and lots of sticky-up rocks, bricks and tree roots. It proved to be superb on all of them! With the rollerball, I probably would have given up and simply clung to Tim’s arm for guidance, with HuJu, I was able to navigate all the way. The tip only jabbed onto the biggest, roughest of the tree roots, where there was a ridge for it to catch on. The rest of the hazards were a doddle! This tip gives a much less intrusive but still very good audible feedback. It simply gives a gentle kind of constant rubbing sound as it glides across the ground, whereas the rollerball gives quite a harsh and irritating clattering. In my opinion, the lighter weight and gliding action gives a better tactile feedback too. I am certainly feeling even the slightest change in the surface beneath. I am impressed!

It is the extra length of HuJu tip that has extended my cane up to meet the middle of my nose. Some might argue that this is far too long, but I have to say that I like it. For me, the more ‘out front’ the cane is, the more advance warning I get to stop or deviate my course before I bash into an obstacle!

There are some super clever people around!

I hope this blog has been informative. Please do feel free to ask questions below. Don’t be shy. Be like a child. I much prefer open honest questions to wrong assumptions or ongoing wonderings.

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