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White Cane Week: Navigating Life with Vision Loss

Posted on February 11th, 2021

February 7 to 13 is White Cane Week, an awareness campaign centered around recognizing the abilities of the national visually impaired community, and to encourage inclusion. To acknowledge and celebrate Canadians living with vision loss, sight impairment and blindness, we want to highlight the traditional as well as new, innovative tools they use to navigate the world every day.

According to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, an estimated 1.5 million Canadians identify as having sight loss, and 5.59 million suffer from eye diseases that may lead to full or partial blindness. The main message of White Cane Week is that even with vision loss or blindness, when utilizing the tools available and educating the communities around them, visually impaired Canadians can be very independent and live and maneuver their lives like anybody else.

The CNIB notes that the four main causes of blindness in Canada are cataracts, age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. Read our detailed blogs surrounding each disease and disorder. For many eye health issues, a regular eye exam can catch symptoms early, leading to recovery or a thorough plan of action aimed at prevention of blindness and better overall health. 

The following is a look at how White Cane Week started in Canada and the details of several new and well-known navigational tools and technologies people with sight loss often use.

A Brief History of White Cane Week

The history of WCW is the history of the Canadian Council for the Blind (CCB) which was founded in 1944 by blind war veterans; they went on to establish White Cane Week in Canada after WWII.  The need for greater understanding, better care, and appropriate resources was found to be necessary for supporting those affected by the war. As publicity and media interest grew, on February 3rd, 1946, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CINB) and CCB declared the very first White Cane Week. 

Primary Navigational Tools for People with Sight Loss

Technology in navigation and primary health care is constantly evolving in the field of sight loss. These are the main navigational aides and tools that allow the people in the blind community to access and maneuver their surroundings in a dignified and independent way:

White Canes

The white cane is considered by many to be the most recognizable tool of a person with vision loss. It is also an outward identification signal for other people. According to CNIB, there are three types:

  • Identification canes: lightweight but short, these are sometimes referred to as ID canes and are primarily used to alert other people to the bearer’s impairment; they are also used to sense out surroundings and depth perception.
  • Support canes: made up of strong, heavier materials, they provide stability and weight management.
  • Long canes: also known as “white canes”, they are lightweight and with a tip that can slide along the ground. These are used for scanning and probing the surrounding area helping in detection of objects, changes in surfaces and potential hazards.

Guide Dogs

Trained from puppyhood to aid alongside or replace the white cane,  guide dogs help maneuver the environment by avoiding obstacles, navigating streets and traffic signals, and help with many other necessary tasks both outside and inside the home. For many people with sight loss, guide dogs are considered a transformational experience and more helpful than canes as they boost agility, confidence, and safety. Learn more about guide dogs and programs in our blog on Canada’s blind youth and their dogs.

The 2018 Netflix documentary, “Pick of the Litter” is a heartwarming yet educational documentary that goes in depth on the training and skill that puppies destined to become guide dogs for the visually impaired must develop, and the level of detail and rigorous requirements they must pass.

They are separated into three groups:

  • Guide dogs are the traditional dog partnered with a youth or adult to help navigate the environment.
  • Buddy dogs are partnered with a child living with sight loss; well trained, they are the lead into a transition into a partnership with a guide dog in the future.
  • Ambassador dogs are meant to introduce people to the needs of guide dogs. They work to raise awareness and spread information on guide dogs, interest volunteers for puppy raising, or connect with potential sponsors of the program.

GPS, Navigation and Technology for Better Quality of Life

Technology such as GPS, phone apps and other initiatives are considered the new wave forward developed to aid individuals with sight loss. Read our latest blog on vision-related technology helping students. Programs such as “Phone it Forward” and CNIB Smartlife help those who are registered with the CNIB Foundation to get a free smartphone and start incorporating it into everyday routines as well as provide direction and access to hundreds of products, applications and training workshops that improve quality of life.

From multisensory learning devices, to hybrid tools and augmented reality for learning and navigation, steps are taken based around the spirit of independence, enablement, and comfort.

Bionic eyes and stem cell implants are the two highly talked about breakthroughs in targeting blindness on the market. The Argus II is the only government approved retinal prosthesis available today; surgically attached to the retinas, it uses a pair of high-tech sunglasses that contain a small video camera to translate the visual imagery from the camera into electrical impulses that bypass the damaged photoreceptors allowing for patients to be able to make out larger shapes and light.

Stem cell implants are another fascinating field being developed. Layers of retinal cell cultures can be selected in a wide range depending on what type of treatment is needed. These retinal cells are cultivated in silk fibroin-based biofilms in vitro. These stem cells are said to be capable of being used in cell replacement therapy for AMD and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Further Information

This year as with most gatherings, White Cane Week is going to be held virtually with a Visionaries Forum accessible on February 13th at 2pm. Click the link here to register for the webinar.

To learn more about White Cane Week, visit the CNIB website.

If you have any questions about vision loss, we would be happy to answer them. Contact your local FYidoctors to schedule an appointment.