by Brenda J. Donegan

(Reprinted from "The Marion Star," Marion, Ohio, October 15, 2004.) MARION -- You're visually impaired and have waited through at least two traffic light changes and no one seems to notice you have a white cane or a guide dog.

That should not happen in Marion anymore. Recently the Eye-to-Eye Low Vision Support Group, with the labor provided by the city, erected signs alerting motorists to the white cane law and also of the possibility of visually impaired crossing the street with the help of a guide dog.

The white cane is not just a tool that can be used to achieve independence for the visually impaired and blind, it is also a symbol to alert others to the fact of their visual impairment.

Today is White Cane Safety Day. Recently signs were erected at the entrances to the city and at other strategic places in the city to alert motorists to use caution when approaching those intersections and be on the lookout for a person or persons using either a white cane or a guide dog.

Marion's Eye-to-Eye Low Vision Support Group approached the city to see if appropriate signs could be placed in the city.

Kay Whitehead, who was one of the organizers of the Eye-to-Eye group, said she got the surprise of her life when she contacted the American Council of the Blind in Washington, D.C. to find a source to purchase the signs.

"They told me there was one place in Ohio," she said. "That was Innovative Display in Marion. We were so excited to find a company in our own community. They are located on David Street and their professional advice helped us so much to meet all the regulations of the city and state."

With that information in hand, Whitehead and a few other members of the board, including Mary Ann DeLong, presiding officers of the group, met with Ellen Moore and others from Innovative Display to make plans to purchase the educational/informational signs which require motorists to yield the right of way to legally blind pedestrians who are carrying a white cane or using a guide dog.

"The goal of Eye-to-Eye," Whitehead said, "is to increase public awareness of the white cane law. The law has been on the books for many years but a majority of vehicle drivers are ignorant of its significance. This fact has led to many serious accidents to visually impaired and blind pedestrians as well as to many guide dogs. The goal of everyone is to be safe and independent. The same is true of all those with a visual disability."

Moore of Innovative Display told members of the support group her firm makes custom signs and she had never seen a white cane law sign standardized.

"I told them the only other place I've ever seen the signs was in Daytona Beach, Fla.," she said. "That was several years ago. The ones we made for here in Marion are my design. They have a white post with the bottom painted red to appear as a white cane."

The only disappointment, Moore said, is that no signs are posted in the downtown business section. She said the vast amount of concrete makes placing them downtown virtually impossible and/or cost-prohibitive.

Stan Carlyle, city engineer, said he had been contacted by the group for permission to put up the signs, took it to the traffic commission and got the OK.

"I guess there are very few cities in the U.S. that have such signs," Carlyle said. "I'm glad we were able to help and hope it helps them raise awareness of folks who have vision problems."

Working with the board was also an eye-opener for Moore to work with visually impaired. "It was hard for me to say, 'This is how it looks,'" she said she would say as she would show them a design of the proposed signs. "They would have to trust us that they looked like we said they did. They're a fabulous and wonderful group of people. It was great working with them to get the signs ready. It has really made me believe even more in the need for the white cane law and how valuable our eyesight can be."

Sharon Baldwin has had her guide dog, Kala, for just over two years. And although their relationship is good, she senses the frustration of Kala when motorists ignore them at a traffic light and often cause them to wait for the light to change several times before they can proceed.

"Right turns by motorists are the worst," Baldwin, who was diagnosed at age 50 with retinopathy, said. "People act like they don't see me or her. Hopefully, this [story] will help educate people and raise awareness of the need to watch for folks with white cane or a guide dog."

Whitehead said the group is grateful to several factions who have been instrumental in making the project come to fruition.

"We are so grateful to the Community Foundation, United Way and the George Alber grants," Whitehead said. "We could never do what we're doing without that support. We've been really, really blessed with the support of the community." White Cane History

Throughout history, the cane, staff and stick have been used as traveling aids for the blind and visually impaired.

The introduction of the white cane in North America dates back to 1930 when a Lions Club member watched a blind man attempt to make his way across a busy street using a black cane. That recognition prompted Lions to paint canes white for use by the visually impaired with the hopes that it would be more visible to motorists.

On Oct. 6, 1964, a joint resolution of Congress was signed into law authorizing the President of the United States to proclaim Oct. 15 each year as White Cane Safety Day.

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