Distracted pedestrians break canes | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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16 September, 2015

Distracted pedestrians break canes

Lauren pictured with NSW Minister for Disability Services, John Ajaka

Pedestrians not paying attention to the world around them and often looking at their mobile phones have been blamed for the increase in destruction of long canes used by people who are blind or vision impaired.

Lauren Henley, who is blind, has had to replace four long canes in four weeks as a result of people bumping into her. On at least one of these occasions the person was too engaged with their phone to notice her.

Ms Henley has never before had to get a new cane so regularly. Previously her cane, which is provided free by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, would last six to 12 months.

Once her cane has been damaged she is unable to continue on her walk from Wynyard station to her office, or from her workplace to the station. "While I'm not fazed by too many things, the experience of walking along an island train platform with a half-bent cane, not being able to tell how close you are to the edge and knowing that you could fall off either side is not a fun experience," Ms Henley said.

"Most people who bump into me and damage my cane are apologetic, and hopefully it teaches them to look next time, but it means my commute to work is over. The last time it happened, I had to ask the lady who bumped into me to flag a cab."

With the support of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT, Ms Henly first starting using a long cane about nine years ago when she was living in Newcastle. An Orientation and Mobility Instructor taught her how to safety move through different environments using a range of mobility aids and electronic devices. Along with a cane she also uses echolocation to move around freely.

"Obviously Newcastle isn't quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Sydney, but I was navigating busy shopping centres independently and it never seemed to be an issue at the time," she said.

Ms Henley is not alone, with former Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes also experiencing an increase in the amount of people bumping into him.

"I've worked in the city all my life, and although I don't use a cane but have a Guide Dog, I have noticed the amount of people running into me has significantly increased over the past four or five years," he said.

Both said as they could not see the people who are bumping into them, they do not know the exact cause. Although, Ms Henley's brother has witnessed a man walking into her while looking at his phone and a number of other near-misses.

"I've also had a few canes bent by people who have later told me they thought they could just jump over it. I always find this amusing as it definitely doesn't seem like the most logical course of action," she said.

Mr Innes said another reason for people bumping into each other was the convention of walking on the left-hand side of the footpath seemed to be disappearing and this was something people who are blind or vision-impaired adhere to.

In 2013, Guide Dogs launched the Watch Out, Cane About pedestrian safety awareness campaign following a survey of its clients which found one in two had experienced issues crossing roads safely. In this case, many drivers did not stop or give way at marked pedestrian crossing and intersections.

Ms Henley's story is a timely reminder for pedestrians to also watch out for those using a cane.

Her message is clear: "If I had functioning eyes, I would look up more than people who are able to see."

Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind. Guide Dogs NSW/ACT offers services to clients for free and relies on community support to continue to assist people like Ms Henly to live independent lives.