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Tactile path information explained

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Cane users the world over will tell you, it isn’t “if” the butt of the long cane stabs you in the belly- it’s “when” it happens… What happens is, the cane tip catches on an unexpected sidewalk crack and stops. Cane users who fail to notice and keep walking forward, feel the end of their canes bury into them with a force magnified by the speed of their travel.

Yet, the consequence of a cane handle belly punch is not enough of a reason to forgo the use of a rod cane, because tactile path information is essential to individuals who are mobility visually impaired or blind. The absence of the rod cane means the absence of tactile path information, and that is so dangerous as to prevent all inclinations of walking freely.

People who are blind and mobility visually impaired obtain three path previews using canes that allow them to safely navigate while walking and running.

The three previews. Tactile path information of the cane is broken down into three essential previews. These three previews are how the white cane user benefits from tactile path information.

The three previews are; elevation, surface and object.

Elevation preview is, most importantly, about locating the exact edge of a drop-off. Knowing the exact location of a drop-off edge is essential to stopping in time so as to not fall down the stairs. The cane user learns to stop when the cane tip falls off the edge.

The cane user detects the drop-off when the cane tip becomes silent, no vibration from flooring friction and no sound. The cane user stops because the absence of friction paired with gravity lowering the cane tip is learned to be recognized as a very alarming warning that means drop off.

Two year old girl who is blind wearing her cane. She is stopped because her cane tip has fallen off a curb.

Surface preview is when the cane tip detects the texture of the flooring. For a cane user with low vision, it can be challenging sometimes to know whether the change in color indicates a shadow or a puddle. It is very important for cane users to know whether they are about to step on a rough or smooth surface.

The long cane extends out towards the surface and, with a quick brush of the cane tip, all is revealed. The cane user uses the tactile feedback about surface texture to continue forward, change direction or stop.

Object preview is just as it sounds, the cane tip locates whether there are fixed or free objects in the path ahead. When the cane tip and cane shaft contacts objects, the cane user gets information about the material, weight and size of the object.

The cane user benefits by letting the cane lead the way, to be the first point of contact with all objects. The job of the long cane is to touch obstacles (elevation, surface, objects) and provide the cane user with two or more steps of time to react accordingly.

Currently there are two forms of cane attachments; hand-held and wearable. Hand-held canes come in two forms; the rod-shaped cane and the rectangular-shaped cane also known as an assistive mobility device (AMD).

In hand-held devices, tactile path information is transmitted through the cane tip by way of the cane shaft to the hand. The cane grip is held with the four fingers (thumb, middle, ring and pinkie) grasped around the cane’s grip as the index finger extends down along the side of the cane grip. When held correctly, the cane shaft is said to extend the reach of index finger to touch the ground.

Cane arc. Most people identify the sound of cane tapping as a blind person using a rod cane. The tapping technique is called “the touch technique”. The touch technique is not solely about the sound it produces; it is also about the syncopated movement of the cane (one step/one tap).

Rod cane users are taught to tap the cane tip in front of the trailing foot, or “walking in step”. Rod cane users walking in step are systematically swinging the cane in front of their next step in order to check the path ahead. Cane users who are walking in step create an arc shape with the cane tip by moving the tip back and forth in syncopation with their pace.

Walking in step with a rod cane enables the cane user to check the path ahead in time to react to information from the three previews. Walking in step can also be done without lifting the cane tip off the ground. That cane technique is called “constant contact” and is recognized by how the cane user sweeps the cane on the ground back and forth (one step, one swipe) without lifting it off the ground.

The cane user still makes the arc with the cane tip, because this motion is necessary to check the step ahead before they trod upon it. Most adults can learn to tap and swing a cane in-step in less than thirty minutes. Therefore, anyone who is not able to learn to walk in-step with a rod-shaped cane in fifteen to thirty minutes would benefit from a rectangular cane.

The rectangular cane has a built in cane arc. When using a rectangular cane, the cane user holds both sides of the rectangular cane in the same way as they hold a rod-shaped cane. The cane grip is held with the four fingers (thumb, middle, ring and pinkie) grasped around the cane’s grips as their index fingers extend down along each cane shaft.

The rectangular shape of the cane means the user simply pushes the cane in front and has full cane arc of path information. The rectangular cane is the easiest way for people to learn the value of tactile path information. Children who grow up severely visually impaired and adults who have motor or intellectual disabilities benefit from rectangular canes because of their simplicity and immediate effectiveness.

Rectangular canes have built in cane arc. Adults with intellectual disabilities can quickly learn to freely walk by pushing a rectangular cane in front of them. Once an adult understands how the rectangular cane arc helps them, they might be able to learn how to make the cane arc with a rod-shaped cane.

Wearable canes, the pediatric belt cane also known as the toddler cane. In order for children born mobility visually impaired or blind to grow up with safe mobility they need to wear their tactile path information during their formative years (age zero to five). Children age five and younger are unable to use a rod cane, and those younger than three cannot benefit even from a rectangular cane.

Pediatric belt canes have only been available to children aged five and younger since September 2017. These new canes have also been dubbed “safety belt canes” by their young users. The wearable cane has a rectangular cane shape attached to a belt. The tactile path information is transmitted through the cane tip by way of the cane shaft to the belt. The children often begin to touch the cane shaft, and if they are physically able to use their hands, they soon learn how to grasp and manipulate the cane shafts of the belt cane.

Safe Toddles’ pediatric belt cane is the first and only cane designed for children aged five and younger.

Children who are age five and younger and mobility visually impaired or blind need consistent tactile path information as often as sighted children need the lights turned on when they walk. Push toys, rectangular canes and rod canes are not effective for them, because babies are too little to be responsible for their own safety. Babies, toddlers and preschool learners need access to devices that keep them safe as they learn how to move about and explore their world.

Only an adult can turn on the light switch for a sighted toddler and only an adult can put a belt cane on a toddler who is mobility visually impaired or blind.

Blind babies, toddlers and preschool learners need to wear their canes every day, all day. The more we get the message out about the benefits of wearable canes, the more blind children we can save from having to learn how to walk without the benefit of essential tactile path information.

Anyone can donate a cane to the children on our waiting list. Please take a moment to donate a cane today.

Thank you for your help!

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