Blindness and low vision are more common than many people realize. In Aotearoa, every three hours, someone develops blindness. There are over 180,000 Kiwis living with vision loss. Despite the increasing number of people with vision loss, accessibility, awareness, and kindness are still issues for people living with low vision.
This Blind Low Vision Week (09 -15 October) and World Sight Day (12th October) we want to raise awareness of the increasing prevalence of people being diagnosed with low vision and the need to act on accessibility and connection. Common eye diseases causing blindness and low vision in Aotearoa include age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Currently, over 1,500,000 kiwis are at risk of developing AMD, and that number is projected to rise to 1,800,000 by 2023. “People assume assume that blindness, deaf-blindness, or low vision are rare and that it could never happen to them or someone they love. But blindness and low vision are more common than you might think. 75 percent of blindness and low vision in Aotearoa is avoidable. We’re encouraging Kiwis to act and protect their eye health with regular check-ups,” says Dan Shepherd, Head of Access & Awareness at Blind Low Vision NZ. Dan was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at a young age. It took him 19 years after living with low vision to reach out to Blind Low Vision for support. Today his focus is on advocating for a safer and more inclusive community for all.
For the six people who develop vision loss each day in NZ it can feel daunting and lonely.
“We regularly hear from clients that people are unsure of what to do and how to act when engaging with people who have low vision. We also hear too often that discrimination on public transport, taxi and rideshares and hospitality venues are a daily occurrence. “We want to raise awareness and help people understand that people with vision loss are still people – interacting and engaging in everyday activities and events. We need to normalise low vision and ensure there is equitable accessibility so that everyone feels comfortable and connected,” says Shepherd.
As well as offering support and guidance for people who are helping or living with someone who is blind or low vision, Blind Low Vision NZ currently services over 15,000 people with a diverse range of services from mobility to emotional support. The focus is on equipping individuals with the necessary skills to maintain their independence. Encouraging a sense of community and the necessary support to individuals is of primary concern. “Many of our services are focussed on ensuring people who are blind or low vision have a sense of community. We’re also working with clients to ensure they have access and inclusion in both work and public environments.
“Our employment readiness programs are implemented to promote career stability, while work readiness programs for youth are aimed at supporting their future career aspirations, however there is always more we can do to support people living with low vision,” says Shepherd. Make the world safer with a white cane
One of the things sighted people take for granted is the ability to get from place to place. Mobility is a key issue for blind or low vision Kiwis. As well as guide dogs, Blind Low Vision encourages clients to use white canes. Dan began using a white cane when he first reached out to Blind Low Vision. He describes using a cane as a “symbol of his blindness”. He would often be judged and stereotyped because of his white cane.
“Despite these negative interactions, I welcomed and used it as an opportunity to advocate and educate. A cane is a valuable tool for individuals who are blind or have low vision to navigate their surroundings. White canes serve various purposes and encourage independence and mobility for our clients,” says Shepherd. Blind Low Vision provides assessment and training by skilled trainers, offering support, reassurance, and guidance on using the cane in the safest and most effective manner.