by James Boehm
Imagine trying to cross the street with your family and little ones without a cane! Think of the places you have recently traveled. Maybe you went to school, work, church, or visited family or friends. None of these examples of independent travel would be possible without the basic tool of autonomy — the white cane.
The You Cane Give started in 2015 after James Boehm realized when selling customized canes through Kustom Cane that many blind people had extra canes in closets, under beds, and in attics. Many were just throwing away their broken canes. In James’ research in his psychology program at Middle Tennessee State University and Peabody College of Vanderbilt, he learned of the shortage of white canes in areas of the world with the largest population of blind people. As James learned on his trip to Kenya and collaborating with the African Union of the Blind, there is a “white cane famine.” Not only are the blind without this basic tool of independence, but the inaccessibility of canes is costing people their lives. Drivers aren’t able to identify people as blind due to the lack of a white cane; so, stories of individuals getting injured, or worse, killed, are unfortunately common.
James and his wife Wendy saw a cycle that needed to be broken. The blind do not have the basic tools nor the training, so they are not able to travel independently. Thus, they stay home and are often disowned by their family or tribe, and considered cursed and left to beg on the streets. In turn, the community observes the blind as a burden to society and incapable of being contributing members of society. The stigmas of the blind are reinforced as observers see the blind person’s basic human needs unmet. How can such a cycle be broken? Are these observations truly accurate and depict the abilities of the blind? Far from it!
We know that as with any professional, whether construction worker or mechanic, the job and basic tasks cannot be performed without the appropriate tools and training. Do we judge a mechanic with poor workmanship if he does not have the tools? So it is with the blind. All we need is the tools, and the training on how to use those tools. Then, there is no stopping us! James and Wendy wanted to break the cycle by equipping and training the blind with the basic tool and representation of independence — the white cane. If the community sees the blind traveling independently and attending school, church, and contributing to society, the cycle will be broken!
Despite the pandemic, You Cane Give has continued to expand with international partners, disbursement of canes and other tools, as well as sending teams to bring a suite of services that include canes, mobility training, white cane repair kits, and now solar-powered talking players that include the Bible, stories, and a mobility training guide. Mental health services and peer mentoring have also been incorporated. In these eight short years, YCG has served over 31 countries with over 2,066 canes and 451 solar-powered talking book players. Many of the canes distributed are donated by other blind people. So, the blind helping the blind around the world!
Think of the 11-year-old girl from Ecuador whose parents never allowed their daughter to travel outside the home because she didn’t have a cane. Her parents would actually carry her when leaving the home. Now, with her cane, she has experienced a whole new world outside her house and surroundings. Moses, a wartime veteran from Kenya, lost his sight during a battle; he was disowned by his family. A new white cane, a few hours of mobility training intervention, and connecting with a fellow blind brother from around the world changed his life. Today, Moses is a regular analyst on Citizen TV, advocate for the disabled population and vets, and pushing for representation in his country’s government. Recently, he was honored to begin serving as a principal advisor for a high official within the Kenyan government! He also has a band that has become popular in his region! Look at all the things that have given him meaning and purpose … and it all started with a person showing a personal interest and the white cane! Think about the recent story of Elsa, who recently took a bundle of canes to Ethiopia, her homeland. The children in a school for the blind received their first canes. The children commented that for the first time they felt safe enough to leave the walls of their school’s compound and explore the city around them.
We have seen children and adults who have never owned a cane. Some have used makeshift sticks. In Kenya, James and Karen Nelson, a mobility instructor from Tennessee, when visiting Nakuru, Kenya, heard several clanking sounds as a group was approaching a school. The folks from a neighboring tribe had found old iron water line piping and cut them to use as canes. One elderly lady’s pipe had a rounded curved section where the pipe had been apparently bent for its original use to supply water. These people broke out in song and thanks upon receiving their very own cane. Yes, their very own cane! It is common in South Africa that a home or center for the blind will have several students, but only one cane for them all to share. One story came from Mexico, where Billy gave a cane to an elderly man in a Mexican village. A year later, Billy ran into the elderly man again. The straight cane, which originally went up to his collarbone, was now worn down to just below his waist! Needless to say, Billy gave the man a new cane appropriate for his size!
These are just a few stories of the many we have heard or personally seen. There are a shortage of canes and also mobility instructors. Governments do not want to invest in manufacturing canes or providing mobility services to the blind. If we can break that cycle of stigmas, maybe one day that will change. In the spring of 2023, YCG sent a team to the Athlone School for the Blind in Cape Town, South Africa, where the suite of services was instituted. All 305 students received a cane, a large number received mobility training, and all received the solar-powered players that contained the Bible in their native tongue or English, stories, and the mobility training guide. A follow-up trip occurred in October, which included three certified O & M specialists and a special education teacher to work with the students, parents, and teachers to provide follow-up training and support the single mobility instructor assigned to the school!
In eight years, we have accomplished a lot. YCG has established a strong board consisting of certified mobility instructors, ophthalmologists, special education teachers, financial advisors, accessibility advisors, and a couple who recently founded a training center in their state. Partnerships have been made with organizations such as the World Blind Union, African Union of the Blind, Ambutech, LS&S, to name a few. But there is so much work yet to do. We need more canes and donations to continue to tackle the “white cane famine.” Not only does a cane equip the blind and breaks the cycle but also saves lives. Become part of the movement. Stay informed of our progress. Reach out if you want to get involved. Our website is www.YouCaneGive.org. People of all different backgrounds, cultures, philosophies, and organizations have supported this initiative. We want to thank all who have contributed in some way. All profits of Kustom Cane go toward You Cane Give, which has been very helpful in funding the initiative. Don’t let your old canes go to waste! If it is broken, we can repair or modify it! Together, we can empower the blind, one cane at a time.