February 04, 2009

White canes help blind live more independently

As published in The Erin Advocate

A white cane has helped give Doreen Cormier the confidence to go out walking in Erin village – but she has been surprised to discover that many people do not know what the cane signifies.

Only able to see shapes, she must often rely on others for help, especially when shopping.

“If I ask someone the price of something, they may say, ‘The price is right up there’. They don’t recognize me as being blind,” she said. “People are very helpful once you tell them you are blind.”

The first week of February is White Cane Week, a time not only to increase awareness of the cane, but also to celebrate the capabilities and talents of the blind and vision-impaired. The Canadian Council of the Blind (CCB), started by blind war veterans, has promoted White Cane Week since 1946. This year’s theme is: “Help promote accessibility…measure me by my capabilities, not my disabilities.”

There are three main types of white canes. Identification canes are lightweight and often can be folded up to fit in a purse or knapsack. They alert others to a person’s blindness and help them with depth perception, and finding things like curbs and stairs. Some people prefer to use longer “probe” canes, especially if they are traveling in an unfamiliar area.

The support cane is thicker and looks more like a regular cane used by non-blind people to help them walk – except that it is white. That is the type that Cormier uses. She says the meaning of the white colour should be taught in school.

The white cane as a symbol of blindness started in England in 1921, and was introduced and promoted in North America by Lions Clubs International, starting in 1931. One of the goals was to make the cane visible to motorists, improving safety for blind pedestrians.

The other major promoter of White Cane Week is the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), which provides many services, including mobility training to help people learn how to use the cane effectively. About 90 per cent of CNIB clients have partial vision.

Cormier benefits from the CNIB Talking Books service. She also has a magnifier so she can read The Advocate and other important documents.

The crosswalk at the corner of Church and Main in Erin village is equipped with speakers that emit a loud “cuckoo” sound when the walk signal is active for crossing the busy road. This was done particularly for the benefit of Cormier – and others with limited vision.

Now she does not have to wait for someone to come along to help her cross the road, though she is always appreciative when someone offers to help.

More than 600,000 Canadians are blind or vision-impaired. As seniors account for an increasing share of the population, issues of vision loss are likely to get more attention. Each year, 78,000 Canadians are diagnosed with Age-Related Macular Degeneration, which attacks a person’s central field of vision, leaving only peripheral vision. That number is expected to triple within the next 25 years, according to the CCB.

The blind community has lower income compared with other groups of disabled persons; 75 per cent are unemployed, compared with 49 per cent for other disabled groups, the CCB reports.

The CCB raises funds to help provide computers and computer training for the blind, along with workplace training, a legal assistance program and social support to help deal with the emotional impact of blindness.