A service dog and a white walking cane.

Mobility Assistance for Visual Impairment

As your macular degeneration progresses you may find it difficult to get from place to place without assistance. This can be frustrating, limiting and may feel like a blow to your independence. Fortunately, there are options to assist you in moving about more freely. This article focuses on two of those, the white cane, and guide dogs.

What is a white cane?

The first option may be a cane. While a cane may feel stigmatizing to some people, with training it may help you move about in open and public spaces with more freedom.

If you have limited vision, a white cane helps you find obstacles at your feet while allowing you to use your vision elsewhere.1 A cane also helps other people to recognize that you have a vision impairment and may need space or help while getting from place to place.2 Some visually impaired persons carry cane just so that others may recognize why they are moving slower and/or more carefully.2

How to use a white cane:

  • Canes can be utilized at any stage of sight loss.
  • It is a good idea to talk to an an orientation and mobility (O&M) specialist as you begin to use one, so that you can ensure you are using the correct size cane in a proper and safe manner.1
  • White canes are not the same as traditional support canes, and should not be used interchangeably. However, it is important to note that some people who use wheelchairs can use white canes.1

How to get a white cane

Talk to your doctor about seeing an O&M specialist if you’re interested in using a white cane. Beyond being fitted for a cane and learning to use it properly, there are different types of canes and cane tips, and your therapist or specialist can help you weigh the pros and cons to find the right one for your needs.1

Should I get a guide dog?

Another option for movement assistance is a guide dog. Getting a guide dog is not a simple process and requires careful consideration.

A guide dog will need to be taken care of like any other dog, and you need to make sure you have the resources to feed them, take them for multiple walks a day, and afford regular and possibly emergency care at the veterinarian’s office.3

What should I know about guide dogs?

  • Guide dogs are usually large-breed dogs (typically a Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever or German Shepherd) that are bred, raised and trained specifically to safely guide a person with vision loss.4
  • A guide dog works in partnership with a visually impaired person and will obey all commands unless they put the handler or the dog in harm's way.4
  • Guide dogs typically wear a harness with a special handle, which is used to guide their handler.
  • A large part of a guide dog's job is also companionship as become their handler's partner 24 hours a day.

How to adopt a guide dog:

There is an application process for a guide dog. If you pass the process you will have a home visit, and then be set up for classes.3 You and your guide dog will have at least two weeks of all-day classes learning how to be partners. After your training, you will still be able to contact your training institution if you need additional help with your dog, or if you have questions about your dog.3

Guide dogs in the U.S.

All 50 states allow you to be accompanied by your guide dogs, with the exception of people traveling into Hawaii, as Hawaii quarantines all carnivorous animals.5 Most states and some federal regulations offer legal protection for guide dogs and their handlers.

Choosing the mobility assistance option best for you

Both the cane and a guide dog are excellent options for movement assistance, but neither are perfect options for everyone. Talk to your health care team and explain your current situation. Your team should be able to help you find the right option. If a guide dog seems like your best option, but may be financially restrictive, ask if you can speak with a social worker on your care team. There may be financial assistance available, and a social worker may be able to help you.

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