A new national survey has shown two thirds of people who use white canes have been unexpectedly handled by a member of the public, a timely topic and focus of International White Cane Day today.
Conducted by Guide Dogs New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory, the survey revealed 64 percent of people who use white canes have been grabbed or handled by a member of the public without asking for help, as well as 67 percent reporting that people talk to their sighted companions instead of talking to them.
Guide Dogs NSW/ACT client, Rebecca Wong has experienced this firsthand multiple times, including one time when she was pushed in the wrong direction and didn’t know where the road was.
“The problem when someone grabs you without asking first is, not only is it an invasion of space, but that it causes confusion and disorientation.”
“I know most people are trying to be well-meaning, but they don’t realise that they might actually be making it harder for me to navigate public spaces or even simply putting me in an awkward situation.”
Guide Dogs Australia have launched an awareness campaign called Cane Do in response to the survey, with resources and tips to help raise awareness of the white cane and how to appropriately offer help to a person with vision impairment.
Chief Executive Officer of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, Dale Cleaver says although majority of the community mean well, it’s vital to ask first to ensure the safety of both yourself and the vision impaired person.
“By grabbing a person with a white cane by the arm to help them onto public transport or across the road - without their consent or prior knowledge - you can disorientate them or break the concentration they are using to follow a path.”
Mr Cleaver says it can often hinder rather than help.
“The most simple, effective and helpful thing you can do is directly ask a person using a white cane if they need assistance before trying to help.”
“More than three quarters of Guide Dogs clients surveyed say this is their preferred and the best way members of the public can assist them.”
According to Mr Cleaver these misunderstandings may be born from not knowing how and why the white cane is used, or being unsure of how to help after the person accepts assistance.
“Always introduce yourself directly to the person using the white cane and follow the lead of how they would like to receive help. The person with sight loss may ask you to guide them by taking your arm. They may simply ask for clarification or directions. Or they may decline your assistance,” he explains.
General Manager Government Relations and Advocacy of Vision Australia, Karen Knight says International White Cane Day is a day to celebrate the achievements of people who are blind or have low vision and the white cane as an important symbol of blindness and tool of independence.
“People who are blind or have low vision are no different to anybody else in that they want to be active and independent and experience what their surroundings have to offer.”
“That could be a walk to their local shop or café, or it could be undertaking the trip of a lifetime to the other side of the world. Whatever it is, for many people who are blind or have low vision, it’s their white cane and their orientation and mobility skills that allows them to do that.”
Ms Knight is hoping society becomes more aware of people using mobility aids, such as white canes and assistance dogs, particularly on roads and footpaths.
“A recent report conducted by Monash University Accident Research Centre identified that 79 percent of people who are blind or have low vision have experienced at least one collision or near-collision with an electric or hybrid vehicle and 78 percent of people surveyed reported a collision or near-collision with a cyclist,” she explains.
“When fellow Australians are driving or cycling, we want them to remember that not all pedestrians will be able to see you and to be on the look-out for white canes and dog guides and act accordingly.”
Vision Australia is encouraging the whole community to attend and participate in the many events happening across Australia on International White Cane Day. You can find events in your local area here.
To learn more about the Cane Do campaign, click here.