Spotlight on white canes

Community Featured

As the old saying goes, it’s not polite to stare.

The group Visually Impaired Pictou County and member Julie Martin is hoping to bring some awareness of those who use canes because of low or total vision loss.

The group meets in the New Glasgow Library on the last Friday of every month upstairs, which is accessible by elevator. It is also a support group for friends and family of those who have low vision or vision loss.

“We talk about different things,” said Martin. “Things that help us around the house.” She referred to a few items that have helped her become independent with low vision, like no-cut gloves for cooking that you cannot cut through with a knife, and tricks like putting food colouring in her eggs so she can see if shells get stuck in food. The group also plays card games like Skip-bo and crib, for which they have large print cards, and even a large crib board.

Martin is thrilled with the local libraries and all the help they have for the vision impaired. An avid reader, Martin is always searching for audio books. However, regular audio books can pose challenges for the visually impaired and equipment like a Victor Reader, which Martin calls a Daisy reader, after the file type, can be quite expensive as Nova Scotia is one of the only provinces that does not subsidize equipment like this for the visually impaired.

Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library, however, loans her a Daisy reader at no cost which allows her to access a world of books.

“I don’t know what I’d do without the local library,” she said.

This week, Martin is celebrating White Cane Week (Feb. 2-9) as dedicated by the Canadian Council of the Blind. She said most people do not realize that 90 per cent of Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) clients do have some vision. While currently there are 5,500 people registered as low or no vision in Nova Scotia, that number is likely actually somewhere in excess of 25,000 if you count those not registered; the number in Pictou County is 1,250 to 1,500.

Martin spoke about the importance of letting others with a white cane feel confident as many can get embarrassed by taking theirs out in public. She said when many people use a cane, others sometimes look differently at them or if they see someone with a cane and a smartphone they think they might be faking it or not actually need the cane, when they may actually have low vision.

“It’s a lot of ignorance,” said Martin clarifying that many people are just not educated about white canes or people with low vision. She has even had looks or comments about her using her phone while having her cane, although her phone helps her with everything from keeping in touch to reading price tags when she is shopping. One way she noted the public can help those with low vision is properly using the in door to go in and the out door to go out.

Martin has two apps on her phone that she uses daily and attributes to making a big difference in her life. Seeing AI is an app she will often use to read things for her. All she has to do is hold her phone camera up to what she is trying to read and it will read it out to her. The other app is one Martin encourages others to sign up for, whether as a person with low vision or someone with great vision. Be My Eyes is an app that lets those with vision loss of any stage to simply call for help using their smartphone. It identifies those in the same time zone and language as them and connects them so the sighted person can help a low vision person by seeing what they see through the camera on their phone.

As a grandmother, she added that she uses this app for things like if she dropped a pill or something else the AI reader cannot do, but to her, most importantly she uses it to read books to her grandkids — as someone sighted answers the call she puts her headphones in and repeats to her grandkids what the person on the other end of the call reads to her.

Martin said it is getting the courage to take the first steps for someone with low vision that is important, whether it be by leaving their house or using a cane.

“It takes courage to start using that cane,” she said. “The cane is there to help me because if I don’t use one I have to look down.”

Julie Martin shows off her white cane that she uses to help navigate as well as a funny shirt she had made about her cane.  (Brimicombe photo)