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The Perspective
The Perspective

February 7, 2017

Using a white cane for vision loss can be more challenging than you’d think

Alissa Ulster is the Social Worker in the Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences at SickKids

National White Cane Week takes place February 5-11, 2017, and is a very important week in raising public awareness of the challenges facing thousands of Canadians who are living with vision loss.

The white cane is a mobility tool used by people who are visually impaired.

As the Social Worker in the Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences at SickKids, I have been privileged to work with families of children, teens, and young adults who are living with vision loss due to a congenital (from birth), acquired, malignant, and/or progressive disease.  For some individuals, the vision loss may be overt and noticeable to others. For many others however, the visual impairment may be a hidden disability, something not disclosed or understood by others, arising from fears of being stigmatized and discriminated against.

Often when we hear the word “blind”, we think of individuals who have no vision; however, the vast majority of individuals who are visually impaired do retain some limited vision, and may refer to themselves as “visually impaired”, “blind” or “legally blind”.

An individual with impaired vision may, for instance, be able to read print, read with the use of adaptive technology and in some instances choose to use braille. Others may wear glasses, but the glasses do not fully correct their vision.  An individual’s eyes may not look overtly different; he or she may have good clarity of vision, but have highly constricted visual fields (tunnel vision).  A person may not be able to see at night, but may see well during daylight hours, or not see at all in bright light.  

It is typically quite a shock when an individual learns that they qualify for white cane training by a certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist. Making the decision to use a white cane often comes after much soul-searching.  It requires much hard work and perseverance.  It means coming to terms with the knowledge that the mere fact of picking up a white cane means disclosing one’s vision loss to others.  I have witnessed firsthand the emotional struggle of patients who learn that due to significantly decreased vision, mobility (white cane) training, which is learning skills for safe and independent travel, is necessary. I have known many teens who have kept their white cane hidden away from others in a bag due to this emotional struggle.

Patients and families who I have spoken to tell me that the stigma is real. They have described situations where they have been questioned or accused of “faking” their vision loss when accessing a seat on public transportation that has been designated for use by those with disabilities. As I mentioned there is wide variability of visual impairment and in many cases it is not obvious to others.  Another challenge that has been shared is where well-meaning sighted individuals have “helped” those using white canes by pulling them across an intersection, without asking the person with vision loss if they would like help,  and what kind of help.

Able, capable, resilient, strong and fiercely independent are terms I use to describe individuals living with vision loss. Understanding those living with vision loss and ongoing public education is key to developing more public awareness and reducing the stigma around using a white cane.