Free White Cane Training at Leader Dogs for the Blind

Woman with white cane outstretched, walking down sidewalk

Editor’s note: This post is the second in our series leading up to White Cane Safety Day on October 15 Be sure to read the first: October 15: White Cane Safety Day – VisionAware.

Not Just a Guide Dog School 

Leader Dog logo--picture of dog in harness with words "Leaders Dogs for the Blind"
Leader Dog Logo

Leader Dogs for the Blind in Michigan is dedicated to preparing people with vision impairments to travel safely and independently with either a white cane or a guide dog. Their Orientation and Mobility (O&M) training program is a one-of-a-kind approach to teaching how to use the white cane for mobility. And it is available free of charge to anyone with sight loss who wants greater freedom and efficiency while traveling. 

Who Needs White Cane Training? 

It has been estimated that only 10% of people who are blind or visually impaired travel independently with a white cane or guide dog. That means many more are not enjoying the freedom they could have if they learned independent travel skills. Fear of falling, lack of transportation, and inadequate travel skills are among the top barriers to employment, education, and community activities. If your sight loss prevents you from going out to work, play, or socialize-you are probably a candidate for O&M training and a white cane may be helpful to you. 

You may be experiencing low vision, legal blindness, or no vision at all. The white cane can be useful for people with many levels and types of visual difficulties like light and glare sensitivity, poor contrast detection, diminished acuity, or reduced visual fields. Some people use the white cane only in certain circumstances and others always use it to get around.  The beauty of this simple tool is it can help you avoid obstacles, detect curbs, stairs and other drop-offs, and alert you to changes in ground surfaces. It also alerts the public that you may need assistance and signals drivers to yield to users in traffic situations.  Learning proper cane techniques and travel skills requires training and practice, as with learning any new skill like dancing or swimming. 

Travel Skills are for Everyone 

Leader Dog believes everyone deserves the skills for safe and independent daily travel. White cane skills are fundamental for independent travel. They know guide dogs are not for everyone and some people prefer to use a white cane. They understand many people do not have access to O&M training in their home community or are on long waiting lists to receive services. And they have found some people applying for a guide dog do not have adequate orientation and mobility skills required to travel with a guide dog.  

Leader Dog saw the need and was the first guide dog school to offer O&M training and continues to innovate and adapt their program to meet the needs and goals of clients.  Now they offer a variety of training options that can be customized. 

Which Option is Right for You? 

Erica Ihrke, Extended Services Manager and Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS) at Leader Dog says, “the changes in their program help clients identify what they need and then set goals for their own learning.” There are 4 training levels available:  

Introduction to O&M — for the first-time white cane user. Teaches proper cane techniques and travel skills in a systematic way, allowing the learner to practice skills under supervision of an O&M specialist. 

O&M Brush-Up – for anyone who wants to improve their travel skills. Maybe there have been changes in vision or hearing. Maybe there’s been a change in the environment, such as a move to a new neighborhood or starting a new job, and different skills and strategies are needed. 

Guide Dog Readiness – for anyone who does not have basic O&M training and is interested in building skills needed for guide dog travel. 

Advanced O&M – for people who want to travel independently in more complex or unfamiliar environments such as required by a job, program of study, or urban living. 

The O&M Specialists will guide you through an individualized program providing information, feedback, and support to help you reach your training goals.  The COMS code of ethics and scope of practice recommends that O&M instruction be taught to first-time white cane users because there are many potential risks associated with traveling when visually impaired. Erica explains, “When teaching O&M, I want my clients to understand there is risk in every situation. The end goal is to educate clients to recognize these risks and use their O&M skills to minimize them.” 

During the pandemic, Leader Dog began to offer at-home O&M training in special situations where it may be a hardship for a client to travel to the residential campus for a week-long stay. This option is available and is decided on a case-by-case basis. Currently, all Leader Dog programs are taking place on campus with special COVID precautions in place. 

How to Contact Leader Dog

Anyone interested in learning to use a white cane to travel with confidence can contact Leader Dog Client Services at 888-777-5332 to ask questions and learn how to apply for services. Be sure to visit the accessible website to learn more about their O&M program, explore the virtual learning opportunities for prospective clients, or go ahead-apply on-line. You will be one step closer to a life of independence and new adventures.