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Cane arc transmission: Manual or automatic

Updated: Feb 19

The look of panic disappeared from the rental car agent’s face when I confirmed that, in fact, I was able to drive a car with a manual transmission,

“We’re upgrading you to a Camaro” she reported, adding “no extra charge”.

She was a beauty, bright orange, sweet lines and tires ready for race day at any Talladega track – but I wasn’t headed to the car races. I was on my way to the 2019 Alabama Cane Quest event at the Helen Keller School Campus, on the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind campus, and yes in Talladega.

The gear shift was new to me, I drive an automatic car most days, so it took a minute to figure out how to put her in reverse. I also had to work out the kinks of inexperience, several times squealing the tires in an effort to not stall the engine at the green light, again.

At one time, standard transmissions, a stick shift, was all I drove; it was all anyone drove as there was no such thing as automatic transmissions. Several friends at the cane quest event admitted to me that they would not have been able to accept the “upgrade” to the Camaro, as they only knew how to drive automatic transmissions.

Author stands in front of the orange Camaro holding wearable cane
Cherry red Camaro and pediatric belt cane


Good question.

The car transmission analogy can be used to help families and early intervention professionals understand how to choose among the modern day cane shape and connection designs available for kids who are severely visually impaired and blind. Thus, the standard long cane is a standard transmission because it requires knowledge and experience to use correctly. Most working age adults are taught to employ a standard long cane arc in about fifteen minutes.

However, some people, especially children age five and younger, are unsafe relying on a long cane because they are unable to make the cane arc with each step (even after years of cane lessons). Cane arc is what long cane users rely upon in order to move with safety to their destinations: One step, one swipe (no prompts).

When children cannot achieve cane arc with each step, then they are stalling out and they are getting hurt, because when their arc is the wrong shape and in the wrong place, it is not providing them with the path information they need for safety.

Just like the transmission of a car, the cane arc is not an optional feature to a person who relies on tactile path information for safety (e.g., a person whose vision impairment makes it impossible to see obvious obstacles in the path ahead of the next step). You can usually tell who they are from their collisions with obvious obstacles, walking at a slower pace, using a maladaptive gait pattern and/or seeming reluctance to walk without a guide.

Thus, it is not appropriate to require children who are blind and severely visually impaired to walk without an effective cane arc until they are finally able to correctly employ a long cane.

White Cane Day began 55 years ago today to celebrate the long, white cane. Back then there was only one choice in white canes, the rod shaped cane, one might call it the Model T of white canes because it was the first cane design. Today, White Cane Day celebrates safety and equality of tactile path information in all its forms (rod and rectangle).

The rectangular adaptive mobility device (AMD) in both the hand held and wearable cane design can be considered the automatic transmission of cane arc. These AMDs are the easier method of achieving long cane safety, because the user walks and the rectangle automatically provides a full cane arc check of the path ahead – no swipe necessary.

The wearable cane is for children who are too little even to remember to push their rectangle. The wearable cane is for those children who are just learning to crawl or walk and, because they are blind or severely visually impaired, need tactile path information. When someone needs tactile path information to help them safely navigate their environments, they need it every day, all day everywhere they are and every time they are moving. Blind children need tactile path information in the same amount that sighted children need light to navigate their environments.

The goal for most children who are born severely visually impaired and blind is to become long cane users. Children who grow up using AMDs in their younger years learn from a very young age how to rely on consistent tactile path information. They gain confidence and they do not experience gross motor skill delays.

Therefore, until children who are mobility visually impaired or blind demonstrate one swipe, one step, no prompts with the long cane; they can enjoy the benefits of consistent tactile path information every step they take by using an automatic cane arc all day, every day (in between long cane lessons).

It was once argued that independence came with a cost for blind babies and that cost was bruises from collisions with obvious obstacles. Today, the automatic arc in the form of rectangular AMD canes (both handheld and wearable) make the notion that blind babies should wear their bruises with pride antiquated and obsolete – good for history to remember but best left in the past.

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