White cane demo gives insight into what it’s like to be visually impaired

MIDDLEBURY — Linda Goodspeed of Rutland is a freelance writer who lost her sight 25 years ago. Today, she uses a variety of tools to help her with everyday tasks. Her laptop computer uses a program called JAWS, for Job Access With Speech, that reads items on the computer screen to her. She uses an app on her iPhone to count denominations of money, a scanner to read mail and a barcode reader to read food labels in the pantry.
“The world has really opened up for blind people, thanks to digital technology,” she said.
But the one tool that she uses every day is much more low-tech. When Goodspeed began to lose her sight, she started using a white cane. It is a familiar long, white pole with a red tip that many people who are blind or have poor sight tap in front of them as they make their way through public spaces.
“In the beginning there is a little difficulty, a lot of distractions and a little fear,” she said. “But now I feel very confident. Now I pick up the cane and I go anywhere.”
Providing others with an insight into the experiences of the blind and visually impaired is the focus of a new event coming to Middlebury on Oct. 15. Middlebury’s first White Cane Safety Awareness Day, an annual event that in years past was held in Rutland, is intended to raise awareness of the needs of the blind and visually impaired through an experiential walk through downtown.
The event will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and will start and finish at the Ilsley Public Library. Participants of all ages and backgrounds will gather and complete an experiential walk along a predetermined route through downtown Middlebury. Participants will wear blindfolds or goggles simulating various eye conditions and use white canes, while helpers will act as guides for those completing the walk. It is expected that they will learn first-hand what it’s like to make their way in the world as a blind or visually-impaired person.
Moe Cook, one of the organizers of the event, said the walk is intended for people without any vision impairment, so they can get a little insight into the life of a visually impaired person. The Shoreham resident pointed out that for the visually impaired it is not just a case of either you can see and you can’t see — there is a range of conditions that the visually impaired contend with. A person may have one eye that is significantly stronger than the other, or their depth perception may be fading, or peripheral vision is sometimes shrunk. Pedestrians walking down the street with a white cane may have any or several of these conditions, and other passersby should be aware of this.
“Many people think that people are either blind or can wear a pair of glasses and see fine,” Cook said. “The glasses (participants wear during the walk) will simulate the other conditions that are out there.”
The event in Middlebury is also being organized by the Vermont Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a part of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, as well as by the Vermont Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired, a nonprofit that offers training, services and support to visually impaired Vermonters.
After the walk, the organizers will join the town of Middlebury in proclaiming White Cane Safety Awareness Day in Middlebury. Light refreshments will be served.
This week, Goodspeed and Brad Mullin of Addison are promoting White Cane Safety Awareness Day on the Middlebury Community Television show “Middlebury Five-O” hosted by police officer Chris Mason. Goodspeed and Mullin talk about blindness and vision impairment, offering an enlightening and engaging account of some of the challenges they’ve faced and some of the inspiring moments with which they’ve been blessed, according to the show description.
This episode of “Middlebury Five-O” is airing on MCTV-Channel 16 several times before White Cane Safety Awareness Day, including on Tuesday, Oct. 7, at 6:30 a.m., and Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 5:30 p.m. Plus the show can be viewed anytime online at middleburycommunitytv.org.
According to the American Council of the Blind, the white cane was first introduced in the United States in 1931 by a member of Lions Club International, after he saw an individual crossing a busy street with a black cane that seemed to be extremely difficult for motorists to notice.
October has been designated as “White Cane Awareness Month,” and White Cane Safety Awareness Day has been observed on Oct. 15 since 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a joint resolution into law. White Cane Safety Day celebrates the white cane and brings awareness to those who are not familiar with what it is like to travel under the guidance of the white cane.
Nanci Gordon, an employment consultant for the Vermont Association of Business Industry and Rehabilitation, first participated in the walk in 2009 and was outfitted with a pair of glasses that very nearly simulated what she experiences with uncorrected vision. She said that getting around her own house without her glasses was manageable, but navigating through busy downtown traffic was a bigger challenge. Her depth perception and sense of direction were scattered.
“It’s intimidating, to try and judge sidewalks, crossings and dealing with traffic,” she said. “It was a very educational moment.”
Melissa Hoellerich, a rehabilitation counselor for the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said she expects the walk to be “eye-opening” for participants. In Vermont, failure to yield to a person using a white cane can result in a fine and four points on the motorist’s driving record.
“We want to demonstrate that blind people get out and about and they’re very independent, as long as they have the tools and people abide by the laws to yield to them,” she said.

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