KITCHENER — Friendly help from strangers is a pleasant surprise for Carrie Speers as she finds her way with a white cane.
“Some people are so helpful, they go out of their way and it’s just so heart warming,” the Kitchener woman said.
But she’s also been surprised by people who are annoyed or yell when she accidentally bumps into them, even after explaining her limited vision. Some people avoid her.
“They’ve actually gone completely around,” Carrie said. “It’s almost like they feel the white cane is contagious.”
February 5 to 11 is White Cane Week, an annual awareness campaign of the Canadian Council of the Blind.
“It’s important that people know people with white canes have vision issues,” Carrie said. “There’s a lot of people who do not realize what the white cane is for.”
Not all people who use white canes are blind. Many are visually impaired from a variety of common eye conditions, including glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration.
Both Carrie and her husband Gary Speers have some sight and both rely on white canes to navigate the community.
Optic nerve damage, likely caused by a medication, caused Carrie’s vision loss. First went her ability to see colour, then her sight became blurry and limited to a few feet.
Carrie, 52, also uses a special scope to focus on what’s around her. A magnifying glass is always tucked in her pocket, as well as Gary’s, for a quick close-up look at something, like when they’re in a store.
Gary, 60, has tunnel vision from glaucoma and has been legally blind for about half his life.
Along with using a white cane to alert them to objects and changes in the walking surface in front of them, the couple have learned ways to stay safe when they’re out.
Carrie tries to stay on the left-hand side of the sidewalk because her vision is especially limited in that eye and people walking past can startle her because she doesn’t see them coming.
When out together, they walk side-by-side to widen the area covered by their white canes. They avoid being out at night because the dark further limits their vision and also makes it harder for pedestrians and motorists to see them.
Even with a white cane, there’s little warning when something moves quickly in their path, like a runner or cyclist.
“If you see a white cane, slow down,” Gary said.
He appreciates it when people offer to help, such as helping across the street, pointing out the light has changed at an intersection or that the sidewalk suddenly ends. Often Gary asks for assistance in a store to find the items he needs.
Sometimes people trying to be helpful may not realize their directions need to be more specific, rather than just saying ‘go this way.’
Not everybody with vision problems use a white cane, Carrie said. And sometimes those who depend on one may seem to a passerby as though they can see normally because they’re able to discern some things or remember obstacles on regular walking routes.
Carrie encourages people to be courteous when they see a white cane knowing that’s a sign the person holding it has limited vision.
“The purpose of the white cane is to let people know.”