As a teen with low vision I told my mother I wanted a t-shirt that read, “I‘m not stuck up, I’m blind!” I was self-conscious because nobody knew my sight was failing and I didn’t want to seem like a snob when I’d walk past people I knew without saying hi. I have a condition called Stargardt’s disease, it started affecting my sight when I was 12 and by the age of 18 I was legally blind. I could function quite “normally” but there were many life situations that were a challenge.
When as a young adult I moved from a small town to a city, I had some close calls in traffic and was advised to use a white identification cane (ID cane). This is the type of white cane that is recommended to people like me who don’t need it as a feeler, just as a symbol.
Many people are unaware that long before we had the mobility techniques that employ the cane as a tool, a white cane was just a symbol. In 1930s Paris, Guilly D’Herbement noticed blind people struggling in traffic. She thought the white sticks being used to direct drivers would be well used by blind people to increase their safety. She launched an awareness campaign which was taken up by the Rotary Club and proliferated in the US by Lions Clubs. So the original purpose of the white cane was as a traffic safety beacon.
The ID cane did help my safety in traffic because I didn’t worry that someone would think I was an idiot waiting at a green light, so I took fewer risks trying to save my vanity. I quickly learned that the cane was also useful when I needed help, other than crossing the street, while at the same time a bit of a problem for me because I felt self-conscious about people noticing that I was able to see quite a bit; I wondered, should I act blinder than I am when I carry the ID cane? That didn’t feel so good either!
What the ID cane did not convey was the fact that while legally blind I still have some vision.
In the fall of 2000 I found I had a bit of time on my hands as my youngest child had started full time school. One day I attended an open house held by a charitable national service agency for blind people in Canada and got into a chat with people I met there. We started swapping stories about situations when the lack of eyesight hadn’t been the problem but rather the fact that whomever we were dealing with was unaware that we had low vision. One of the staff mentioned that clients had been asking for a badge that would let folks know they couldn’t see well. We all agreed that it was a “great idea” but there was no such thing. Since I had some free time I went home and designed a wearable symbol and called it the Checkered Eye. The Checkered Eye uses a white background with the words Low Vision in black. Between the words is a stylized eye with the iris depicted as a black and white checkered pattern; simple but effective. I sent a letter to the service agency confident the problem was solved.
Perhaps you can imagine how disappointed I was to hear that they would not pursue this idea.
At this point I consulted with many people. I discovered that some with low vision weren’t interested in a wearable symbol, and that many were. Most were thrilled with the discreet option of a pin on their shirt or jacket. People who use walkers or wheelchairs said it would be easier to wear a symbol than to carry an ID cane. I also learned that brain ailments can result in visual deficits and difficulty speaking and so a symbol to point to may benefit some of those so afflicted. I personally noticed that sometimes my cane is hidden behind a check-out counter and so a symbol near my face would help in scenarios like that. I also found that people in hospitality, retail, health care and any service type job, were happy to know when clients might need specific care and thought the wearable symbol was a good idea too.
So I decided to go ahead on my own. After 14 years of grass roots efforts, mostly by people with low vision, the Checkered Eye is now in use in Canada, the US, New Zealand and Switzerland.
It’s clear that these symbols have their merits and meet existing needs and their usefulness can be cemented by clear understanding.
Remember this: for safety, the white cane, for low vision sensitivity, the Checkered Eye. Pass it on!
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