Houstonians and local leaders gathered virtually today to celebrate White Cane Safety Day, which commemorates the blind and visually impaired communities.

Angel Ponce, who works for the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities and cofounded the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities, moderated the live-streamed event, which featured appearances from Mayor Sylvester Turner, MOPD Director Gabe Cazares, Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities Executive Director Ron Lucey, and Gov. Greg Abbott. 

“We stop to recognize the critical role that white canes and service animals play in enabling blind and low-vision people to achieve a full and independent life,” said Turner in a pre-recorded message.

He called upon schools, colleges and universities to increase training efforts and employers to “utilize the skills” of the blind and “to open new opportunities for the blind in our rapidly changing workforce” before declaring October 15, 2020, as White Cane Safety Day.

Gov. Abbott followed suit, declaring the day as White Cane Day in Texas.

“While the white cane is an important tool to increase mobility, it is also a powerful symbol of self-reliance for Texans who are blind and who contribute so much to our state,” Abbott said. “When every Texan has the opportunity to live an independent and fulfilling life, the future of our state is made even brighter.” 

NASA engineer Tracy Minish gave the keynote address, busting workplace myths, such as people with disabilities are more expensive employees. 

“People with disabilities on average require about $312 a year in modifications and assisted technologies,” he said.

Minish, who has worked at the Johnson Space Center for 36 years, currently serves as the Mission Control Center operations manager. He was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa—a rare genetic disorder that breaks down cells in the retina—in high school, and can now only see 5 percent of his field of vision, making him legally blind. But, he used his speech to praise people with disabilities for their problem-solving skills and their ability to adapt more quickly and easily to the telework environment during the pandemic.

“Problem solving is deeply embedded into the DNA of people with disabilities,” he said.

There are over 215,000 Houstonians with disabilities, more than 10 percent of the total population of Houston, said Cazares. According to the National Federation of the Blind, about 2.4 percent of Americans in 2016 had a visual disability. White Cane Day, named for the assisting canes that first came into prominence in the 1920s and 1930s and have become an international symbol of the disability, was first celebrated nationally in 1964 when Texas-born President Lyndon Johnson declared October 15 White Cane Safety Day. The City of Houston has been commemorating the day annually since 2007, although this year’s festivities had to take place via livestream because of the pandemic.

In addition to White Cane Safety Day being held virtually this year, the event is extra special as 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the National Disability Employment Awareness Month and the 30th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act, which protected the civil rights of people living with disabilities, especially in the workplace.

“Too often people put false limitations on people with disabilities,” said Minish. “They tell them to put their eyes down, don’t look up, you can’t do this. I believe it is our responsibility that every kid has the right to dream.”