How do people learn to use a white cane?

Laura Wissiak
Laura Wissiak

6 min read

At the first real user trial, we finally put our actual prototype on an actually blind person, instead of a blindfolded engineer. The participant gave us a great tip: to get in touch with an orientational mobility officer.

Since there is no industry standard for haptic and audio feedback in assistive tech, it will most likely require some training for the user to adjust to the additional sensory input and use it to navigate comfortably. And since this assistive device is supposed to be used alongside the white cane, it would only make sense to structure this onboarding journey along with what every user already learned before when they picked up the white cane.

Now the obvious challenge for me, a sighted person, is that I have no clue how one learns to navigate with a white cane. Furthermore, while navigational mobility officer sounded fancy, I had no idea what this role would be called in German, and if there even was a counterpart for this role outside the UK.

Confused as to where to find one, but fully convinced to try by the brilliance of the idea our test user gave us, I started by asking my contacts at Hilfsgemeinschaft for help. And oh my did they come through! Not only with the German translation but with a personal recommendation plus contact details to Blindenverband! Jackpot! So after writing another email explaining all of the above, I already had a meeting scheduled.

What does an Orientational Mobility Officer (OMO) do?

The work of an OMO actually starts before a white cane is introduced. Most clients seeking out OMOs were born-sighted and became blind over the course of their lives. So most people start their navigational training with some amount of vision.

Navigational training is as individual as blindness itself.

Everyone starts with different levels of vision and different mobility needs. So the training is tailored to individual needs. This might include the route to the next supermarket, transit to the office, or just finding your way around your own house.

Once you’ve set your goals, you split them into milestones. These start with basic techniques to use the white cane indoors, including stairs, for safety measures, before moving on to outside settings in calm residential areas and gradually introducing elements of traffic, such as parked cars.

Mental models of traffic

People who were born with rather high levels of vision usually are used to traffic. If you used to have a driver’s license at one point in life, you already know how an intersection and roundabout work. But if you have lived your life without seeing, you have to learn such a concept first before it’s safe to let you hit the streets on your own. This is done with tactile models of it.

Intersections, crossroads, and subway stops are a bit more tricky since they tend to differ so much from one to the next. In this case, it is still possible to go to the last stop during off-peak hours and feel around a bit. That would be a very tactile but not very much miniature-size model. Feeling up on the real thing!

All this is done to cultivate a mental model of traffic settings, which will help orientation trainees understand along which starting car they can also start crossing the street. But public transportation is really the S-tier of orientation. So let’s go back to the basics of indoor navigation first.

Indoor orientation

Our immediate concern is to orient ourselves in a building. Indoors, the biggest threat are stairs. Especially stairs leading down. This is also why tactile flooring is installed for stairs in public settings. indoor navigation tools. braille labels, tactile floor maps, click sonar, clearly marked stairs, tactile floor markings.

Depending on the length of your cane, you only have about 1.5 to 2.5 steps time to react. There is no standardization for cane length, but often the more confident you become with navigating, the faster you walk, the longer your cane gets.

Another technique is click sonar. This one is neat because it works both indoors and outdoors. You learn how sound ricochets off different objects, and through that, you can tell where walls and objects are located (insert Batman joke here).

Click sonar is a great technique, but never recommended to use alone. Remember our biggest enemy indoors? Yes, stairs. Anything that relies on echolocation or ultrasound has a major flaw: It needs a surface to reflect back from. With openings, such as stairs going down, hallways or garage openings, there is nothing close enough to reflect from.

That’s why it is always recommended to use it in combination with the white cane. Another issue, that you might already have guessed, is that it gets trickier to hear properly in noisy environments. If you can read German, this article goes more in-depth about click sonar [German] and also explains that a bit of white noise is already enough to disorient you.

As you set your goals you can also choose what house you want to learn. Your home, your office …. During the lockdowns Blindenverband was even able to use the main building of the University of Vienna for training. With such a huge building you can really work on local and global navigation.

What is local and global navigation?

When talking about navigation we split it into two sections: local and global. Local is anything in your close proximity. Currently, we focus mostly on this with product development. For example, a trashcan blocking your way would be an issue in local navigation. When it comes to global navigation think about Google Maps and pathfinding apps. Completing a route from point A to point B is global navigation.


Can’t forget about this essential: Shorelining is the practice of using an edge, wall, or natural edge to stay on a straight path. Shorelining is the reason why white cane users will often follow along the wall or edge of a paved grass patch. It’s also the reason why you should never ever come between a cane user and the wall!

Even if the cane user walking towards you is not directly following along the wall, still make sure to bypass them on the street-facing side. They might know this route very well, but could still want to shoreline for reassurance at any time. And yes, they might not see you, as realize the mistake you made and anxiously try to spider-man along the wall to avoid their cane, but they can still hear and/or smell you. One participant told me that it’s always weird when you’re suddenly hit by a whiff of perfume or cologne, and realize someone just invaded your personal space.

Shout out to Blindenverband!

A big thank you to the wonderful people at Blindenverband! It was a densely information-packed 1.5 hours with lots of new input for me. You may have already noticed that from the length of this blog post!

So if I got you all hyped up about orientational mobility now, you would love their blog as well! Unless you don’t understand German, in which case it might be unrequited love…

This article was originally published at