When I first read a story in yesterday’s newspapers about a visually impaired girl being banned from using her white cane in school I thought that it must be some kind of spoof article. Blind and visually impaired people have been using white canes as an aid to their mobility since 1921, when a photographer named James Biggs from Bristol lost his sight following an accident. Biggs became alarmedwhen dealing with traffic around the city, and therefore painted his walking stick white to be more easily visible. Gradually this approach was adopted by more individuals and organisations, and has now become a common feature that is easily recognised as an indication that the user has limited vision. Users of the white cane, (sometimes referred to as a long cane), receive training from mobility officers and find that this simple device enables them to maintain a degree of independence.
Over many years I have encountered numerous users of white canes and cannot say that I have ever been fearful for my safety or anxious that I was about to be injured by the individuals involved. I was therefore taken aback to hear that seven year old Lily-Grace Hooper has been banned from using her essential mobility aid, by the head teacher of a primary school which she attends, located ironically in the city of Bristol!
Having read a little around this topic, I have found that indeed there have been occasional accidents involving individuals tripping over the white cane used by a visually impaired person. However, it would appear that in relation to the number of individuals using this particular aid to mobility, accidents are few and far between. Indeed, it seems that in schools where children have been using these devices, students soon become aware of the user and get used to the idea that more space may be required by their classmate. Reports of accidents in schools caused by users of the white cane may be out there somewhere, but they have as yet evaded me.
I once had the experience of being run into by a teacher who was a wheelchair user in a school in London. No serious damage was done to either myself or the wheelchair. As is usually the case in polite English society I apologised profusely for having impeded the wheelchair user’s pathway, whilst she similarly begged forgiveness for having crashed into the back of my legs. I am quite sure that such collisions between able bodied teachers, colleagues and students happen every day. I certainly was not inclined to call for a ban upon wheelchairs in schools, recognising that minor events such as that which I had experienced are bound to happen from time to time.
It is to be hoped that Lily-Grace Hooper’s situation can be quickly resolved. I understand that the anticipated accidents that might have been caused by this pupil have not yet occurred, and that as yet there is not a queue of ambulances lined up at the school gates. Common sense would suggest that having a child who is a white cane user in school provides opportunities for the whole school community to learn about the needs of Lily-Grace, and that she will be able to experience what it means to be welcomed and included in school. However, I sometimes find that common sense is not quite as common a commodity as we might expect.
I would like to ask the head teacher of this Bristol primary school why not try to do something original to assist children with this unique learning opportunity? Perhaps they could take it in turns to be blindfolded and with the aid of a cane – white or otherwise, find their way about the classroom in order to make suggestions of how the environment could be made more Lily-Grace friendly. Or maybe this suggestion is simply symptomatic of a “touchy-feely” teacher who believes that we should look for learning opportunities rather than seeing problems – (yes I confess I am such a one!).
I am sure that the head teacher and governors of the school attended by Lily-Grace Hooper will have learned much from the publicity and debate that has surrounded their bizarre decision. I hope that the confidence of Lily-Grace and her family has not been too impaired by this outmoded attitude to a child with a disability. Let’s hope that the school’s managers are now in a position to reflect upon what it takes to be inclusive and to enable all pupils to feel at home in school.