On an early Sunday morning, before the sun has even risen, Zaw Lin Htun walks down the middle of what is usually one of the busiest roads in downtown Yangon, the capital of Myanmar.
He strolls past a golden pagoda. He taps his white cane back and forth on the pavement, making sure to avoid the potholes, loose electrical wires and debris that fill the street and sidewalks.
“White Cane Day is always one of my favorite days of the year,” says Htun, who has been blind since he was a child. With the aid of his cane, he detects – and then steps over a pothole. “It’s probably one of the most important days of the year for our community” – a time to catch up with old friends and be part of a day of advocacy.
White Cane Day was first declared by the U.S. Congress on October 15, 1964. The goal was to raise awareness of the accomplishments of the blind and visually impaired and to emphasize the importance of the white cane.
“For many visually-impaired people the white cane is a symbol of independence and safety,” says Penny Hartin, CEO of the World Blind Union. “Using it enables people to do everyday tasks on their own and not have to rely on others. It really brings a special independence to peoples’ lives.”
The cane “extends our sense of touch so we’re able to detect obstacles and safely navigate our environments,” explains Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. “You extend it in front of you and sweep it from side to side, anticipating your next step.”
Over the years, White Cane Day has been embraced by countries around the world. In developing countries, its mission is critical because of a general lack of knowledge about white canes.
“When I travel on my own across the country people don’t understand what my cane means,” says Emma Parker, director of the Sierra Leone Association of the Blind in Freetown, the country’s capital. “And those who do realize I am blind will try to help by pulling the cane or pulling on my arms to try and guide me. They don’t know what to do, and it makes getting around much harder.”
Grabbing a person’s white cane is “kind of insulting to the blind person, leading them by a leash almost — and they’re not able to use the cane,” says Danielsen of the National Federation of the Blind.
To give the general public an idea of what it is like to be blind, Parker says that workshops are held on White Cane Days. One year, sighted attendees were blindfolded and instructed to walk around with a white cane.
“After a few minutes they would cry out, ‘Oh! We now know that it’s difficult for you when we try to pull and push you around!'” says Parker, with a hearty laugh. “People started to really understand our difficulties. And over the years more people have begun to understand the white cane.”
White Cane Day also emphasizes the obstacles that face the visually impaired in every walk of life. “We confront barriers in education, transportation, health, dealing with monetary issues like banks and currency, even our social life,” says Asoka Weerawardhana, who serves as an officer on the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind. “There are so many restrictions.”
Of course there are obstacles in the developed world as well. “I went to Athens a couple of months ago and was walking around the old city with my cane,” says Hartin. “All of a sudden the sidewalk would stop and there would be a building in front of me. Even the cities that are a bit more modern sometimes don’t really have a clear, smooth footpath.”
As the sun starts to rise in Yangon, the last participants in White Cane Day cross the finish line. The walk lasted about three hours. Some rest and talk with friends, others walk into the nearby City Hall for meetings that had been set up with government officials to raise issues important to the blind activist community.
Htun, who works for the Myanmar Federation of Persons With Disabilities, is sitting on the ground with a smile on his face.
“The organizers are saying there are over a thousand people here this year,” Htun says. “Every year the crowd gets bigger.”
Victoria Milko is a multimedia journalist based in Myanmar. Contact her @thevmilko