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Grace Edgar, 16, from Brattleboro, leads a group of people down Main Street  during a walk as part of White Cane Awareness Day on Friday.

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People assemble at the Brooks Memorial Library, in Brattleboro, Vt., as they listen to speakers before walking down Main Street during White Cane Awareness Day on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. The Vermont Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired in partnership with the Vermont State Division of the Blind & Visually Impaired, held awareness-raising events in Brattleboro, Rutland, and Montpelier.

BRATTLEBORO — Late Friday morning, a procession of walkers clad in bright white and neon green made its way toward High Street.

The crowd of about 20 had gathered in front of Brooks Memorial Library to mark White Cane Awareness Day, which  promotes education about the challenges that blind and visually impaired people experience trying to navigate Vermont streets and sidewalks.

The day was first recognized by former Gov. Madeleine Kunin in 1990, and was commemorated this year with events hosted by the Vermont Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired in Brattleboro, Montpelier and Rutland on Friday and in Burlington Saturday.

According to the association, an estimated 13,000 Vermonters are blind or visually impaired.

"Anybody with a visual impairment knows how difficult it is [to get around] not just in Brattleboro, but in many of our towns. This is very challenging to negotiate," said Melinda Underwood, the association's certified vision rehabilitation therapist for Windham and Windsor counties. "So White Cane Awareness Day is a day that we get out and bring awareness to people who just are not aware of the legal rights of someone wielding a white cane."

Under Vermont law, motorists must yield to pedestrians walking with a white cane or guide dog, whether they are in a crosswalk or not. Drivers who don't can receive up to $100 in fines and four points on their driving record.

New perspective

The focus of these events is an experiential walk, aiming to highlight white cane safety. Typically, a local official such as a mayor or select board member participates with a blindfold and cane.

Town Manager Peter Elwell could not attend Friday's event, but he offered some remarks that were read aloud by Mackenzie Floyd, a counselor in the Springfield office of the state Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Elwell participated in the blindfolded experiential walk in 2019 to see what it's like for a person with visual impairments to get around Brattleboro.

"While I had the privilege of experiencing that with my sight only temporarily impaired, it profoundly affected my understanding of how our built environment (especially in a fully developed community with old infrastructure) presents challenges to vision impaired folks in settings that others of us take for granted," Elwell wrote.

He went on to say that the town is committed to "increasing awareness and inclusion for all people of varying abilities and disabilities," and noted that this year, the Public Works Department worked with a local resident to increase the volume of the crosswalk sound signals on Main Street to make it easier for people with limited vision to know when it's safe to cross.

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The group at Friday's event set off down Main Street, some with canes or walkers and others acting as guides. The tips of the canes glided over freshly fallen leaves and alerted their users to the presence of a bench, tree or parking meter in the walkway. The obstacles were numerous.

Wilmington resident Jonathan Cushman, who uses a white cane off and on, said the walk was an opportunity to practice "being able to work with my cane and using that — being aware of where things are, because my vision's so low."

The cane helps him understand the parameters of the space he's in, he said, and he felt like he navigated Friday's walk successfully with the help of Floyd, of the Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, acting as his guide.

Virginia Goodman, a mobility instructor and teacher of the visually impaired, said downtown Brattleboro can cause sensory overload for people with limited vision, with frequent noise from trucks, motorcycles and cars.

She said all-stop intersections for pedestrian crossings are helpful, and one way communities could improve accessibility would be to add tactile elements to crosswalks so that cane-users could more easily ascertain their boundaries.

It's just as important for motorists to learn how to approach and watch out for pedestrians who use a guide dog or cane, she said.

"Unfortunately what drivers tend to do when they see someone with a long cane waiting to cross, they beep at them to say, 'You can go.' But all it does is create anxiety," Goodman said as a car's engine revved loudly in the background from across the street. "… It's always a negotiation and an interaction."

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Safety tips

The Vermont Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired has some tips for motorists to help keep people using a cane or guide dog safe:

  • Make a full stop at all red lights and stop signs, and make sure there are no pedestrians in your path before turning.
  • Stop before a crosswalk — not on it — to give pedestrians enough room to cross.
  • If you see someone with a white cane who seems like they need assistance, be sure to ask them if they'd like help. If they say yes, you can offer them your elbow.
  • When helping someone who uses a cane, be clear and specific with directions. Use "right" and "left" rather than vague terms like "over here" or "up there."
  • Don't honk or shout at a visually-impaired person waiting to cross, even if you are just trying to tell them the way is clear. This can be disorienting and break their concentration.