White Cane Week brings public awareness on vision loss, while breaking down myths
For over 100 years, the MAB site of the Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre has been providing services to children and adults with a visual disability. Therapists know firsthand that with rehabilitation services and technical aids, their clients can achieve most things sighted people can.
Yet stubborn myths remain. Many people believe that partial or complete vision loss means a life of limited choices and unfulfillment.
To bring awareness to the public and to employees of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, White Cane Week takes place each year during the first week of February. Started more than 70 years ago by the Canadian Council for the Blind, the week was named for the mobility aid that blind people began to use in North America in the 1930s. A white cane with a red stripe indicated to motorists and pedestrians that the person using it was blind or had low vision, giving them the right of way.
Staff at Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay Rehabilitation Centre (LLMRC) at the MAB site have been organizing White Cane Week’s activities for years. “We hope that the takeaway for everyone is that our clients are as varied, accomplished, and capable as any sighted person,” says Natalie Osborne, Vision Rehabilitation Specialist and member of the organizing committee.
The keynote activity for the 2020 edition was a discussion and workshop presented by the artists behind the play Camille, Un rendez-vous au-delà du visuel. Camille is an interactive theatre piece, created for people with visual impairment and sighted people.
Ms. Osborne says that Camille was proposed by a LLMRC staff member who had the chance to experience the play. The committee reached out to the play’s author, Audrey-Anne Bouchard, to invite her to speak about her creative process in developing Camille as a visually impaired playwright.
Participants were blindfolded and then guided through some of the exercises used by the actors in the play. Using movements, dance, texture, and sounds, they were able to follow the story by relying on other senses apart from vision.
The panel discussion this year focused on parenting with vision loss. Clients with a visual impairment from the LLMRC shared their experiences on being a parent while not being able to see partially or fully. Their stories brought home some of the challenges they have faced and how they overcame them. Technology plays an important role in facilitating daily tasks. They use software that can read documents and emails, and phone apps for magnification of text. One father installed lights on his stroller to see better at night when picking up his kids at their daycare.
The panelists made a point to dispel the myths surrounding the ability to parent with vision loss. Sandra Cassell, a social worker in the Intellectual Disability, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Physical Disability Access Desk team and a LLM client, recounted how she had to learn how to cook after she began to lose her vision 18 years ago. “When I first started losing my sight, Hana (Boxerman, Vision Rehabilitation Specialist) came to my house to show me how to cook. It was a question I had for myself at the beginning of my vision loss. Could I do this? Now everyone seems to like my cooking! I am often hosting family dinners at Christmas and Easter. People assume I can’t and it’s difficult, but for me it’s a piece of cake.”
Ms. Cassell encouraged health professionals to adapt their practice and approach with users who have a visual impairment. For expectant mothers with vision loss, Ms. Cassell suggested that obstetricians and family medicine physicians walk through the steps of giving birth: giving women a tactile uterus so they can feel the shape and explain how it will grow and contract through pregnancy; letting them feel the instruments that may be used in labour; giving them a tour of the birthing centre to ensure the future mother is comfortable; and making the necessary post-partum referrals.
For their public-awareness event this year, White Cane Week set up a kiosk at Plaza Pointe-Claire. Vision Rehabilitation Specialists were present along with a client and their guide dog. They brought technical aids so shoppers could put themselves in the place of those who live with vision loss every day.
For Vision Rehabilitation Specialist Jake Applebaum, joining the White Cane Week committee was a way to counteract misperceptions of visually impaired people. “As a newer staff member, I wanted to involve myself in a longstanding tradition. I find it important to spread awareness of vision rehabilitation and the possibilities for prospective clients.” Iris, a Lethbridge-Layton-Mackay client who took part in the panel on parenting with vision loss, made the point that vision loss is something she lives with but does not define her. “I’m not handicapped at all, I’m just me.”