White Cane Awareness Day Comes to Portland Highlighting Safety for the Visually Impaired


November 12, 2023


Culture, Health


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(PORTLAND, Ore.) — Mayor Ted Wheeler proclaimed Oct. 15 to be White Cane Awareness Day during a Portland City Council meeting. The annual celebration aims to educate people about white canes and guide dogs as symbols of independence and the right to safe travel for those who are visually diverse.

“Believe me, we are everywhere,” said Mary Lee Turner, co-chair of the Pedestrian Safety Action Coalition. She spoke about her own experience being hit by a vehicle at the  Oct. 11 meeting. 

According to Oregon law, drivers must “stop and remain stopped until a person carrying a white cane or using a guide dog has crossed the street.” Drivers often fail to observe this law, putting visually impaired pedestrians in peril. 

“This year the Center for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Portland 52nd on their list of best and worst places for people with disabilities,” Commissioner Mingus Mapps told meeting attendees, adding that there is “much work to be done.”

Turner told the council that the blind community “get[s] the training that we need… so that we can be out in public… but that’s not enough. I learned that one day when I was struck by a car, and woke up after being thrown into the street. I thought, oh my god, it really happened.” 

She emphasized the fact that the community won’t be a safe space for people experiencing blindness until drivers themselves are educated to recognize white canes and guide dogs in public. 

Darian Slayton, Turner’s Co-Chair for the PSAC, said, “It’s very important that people know what they’re seeing,” with respect to the white cane. “That’s the first step to keeping people with white canes safe, ” she told the city council, adding that people sometimes ask if her cane is a tent pole or an umbrella.

In 2005, Slayton was struck by an SUV. “I could hear him coming, but he never slowed down… that’s a very scary place to find yourself.”

History of White Cane Safety Day 

The Portland City Council made this year’s proclamation of White Cane Awareness Day as a recommitment to work towards full and equal access for blind community members. According to the National Federation of the Blind, the first White Cane Safety Day was celebrated under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. 

The Federation’s website indicates that the emphasis of the occasion has shifted over time from safety to independence and equality, which is why its title has been changed.

Lisa Strader, ADA Coordinator for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, told listeners that a quarter of adults in Oregon identify as having some form of disability. Moving towards a more accessible future for all, some top goals of pedestrian safety advocates like Strader include moving to zero injuries and continuing to educate drivers. 

You don’t have to have a disability to be part of the mission — Slayton invites anyone to join the Pedestrian Safety Action Coalition. Turner said you can reach out to her at smilingmarylee@gmail.com for more information on monthly meetings that will be starting up again in March. 

Each of the five Portland City Council members, all present at the meeting, voted “I” on agenda item 844 to make this year’s proclamation official. Each offered remarks supporting the blind community, noting that every Portlander has a role to play in ensuring pedestrian safety. 

“It really is incumbent upon all of us in our roles to do what we can to ensure accessibility,” said Commissioner Rubios, adding that “this should be top of mind in our decisions every day, not just one day a year.” 

“The white cane… is a symbol of movement and confidence in the ability to navigate with autonomy,” Mayor Wheeler said, closing the conversation. “In that spirit, let us continue working together to make Portland a city where everyone, regardless of ability, is valued, heard, and empowered.”

You can learn from Oregon.gov how to be a responsible driver and pedestrian here.

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