White Cane Week in support of the Checkered Eye Project founded by Port Elgin resident

The Checkered Eye Project (CEP) was founded in 2000 by Libby Thaw, a stay at home mother in Port Elgin, Ontario. Living with low vision herself, Thaw noticed an unmet need for a hands-free identifier that could also be discreet if need be.

When support for the necessary awareness effort was declined by service agencies for the blind in Canada, Thaw decided to go ahead on her own.

Funding for the project is provided by Thaw, with a small income coming from the sale of checkered eyes. Having considered registration as a charity or not-for-profit-organization, Thaw determined that it would complicate procedures more than add to the awareness efforts. Therefore, the CEP is registered as a business.

The checkered eye itself is a simple line drawing of an eye, the center of which, the iris, is black and white checkers. The wearable symbol bears the Checkered Eye and the text “LOW VISION”.  It has been translated to French and Thai as well.  The background is white, the outline, emblem and text are black. The symbol is round and is available in several sizes as a pin, patch, pendant, and clothing safe sticker.

People with low vision may wear the checkered eye.  Low vision is significantly less than average sight which is NOT CORRECTABLE back to average, with regular glasses or contact lenses.  People with many levels of blindness may choose to use the Checkered Eye.

While a few retail stores offer checkered eyes, many of the “outlets” are people who wanted to help and make checkered eyes available from their homes.

In cooperative awareness efforts taking place in The US, New Zealand, Switzerland, and most recently Thailand, the process is largely in the hands of people with low vision.

Significant collaboration with chapters of the Rotary Club has also boosted our efforts.

Hoping to enlist chambers of commerce and eye care specialists, the CEP is slowly gaining awareness and partners in the education process.

Most people who use a white cane have severe blindness, and use the cane as a tool for independent travel.

Some people use a white cane as a symbol, strictly to indicate to others that they have some degree of blindness. If a person has useful remaining eyesight, and doesn’t need the cane as a tool, they may still choose to carry one to communicate their visual difficulties and increase their visibility in traffic.

People on the blindness spectrum who do not need the white cane as a travel or safety device, may choose to use a Checkered Eye to indicate that their vision is impaired.

The awareness of a person’s hidden needs can alleviate confusion, frustration, and embarrassment, for people with blindness and those with whom they interact.

Please be aware of the existence of this emblem, and have a glance to see if anyone you encounter may be wearing one.

Libby Thaw’s story

“In the fall of 2000, I attended a Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) service day in the small town where I live, Saugeen Shores, Ontario,” said Libby Thaw, who continued … 

Resulting from macular degeneration due to Stargardt’s disease, I have been legally blind since the age of 19, but have significant eyesight remaining; 20/400. I’ve been a registered client of the CNIB since 1981, and therefore have always been notified of upcoming service days. So, on the advertised day, I rode my bike up to the Legion Hall to chat with other CNIB clients and staff, and see what goodies may be available to help me with fine detail visual tasks.

Two ladies at the hall were acquaintances of mine, and we soon found ourselves discussing circumstances relating to our visual difficulties. We ended up swapping stories of situations which were embarrassing or problematic, not because we couldn’t see well, but because the people we were interacting with weren’t aware of that fact.

A CNIB volunteer who participated in the conversation offered, “Clients have been asking for some sort of badge to let people know they can’t see well”. We all agreed that it was a great idea, but were informed that nothing like that existed…yet!

I went home, designed a symbol, and sent it off to the CNIB. I explained the discussion at the Saugeen Shores service day, and said they could use my design. My suggestions were turned down.  None of the concerns they articulated convinced me that it was not a good idea, so I decided to take on the project myself, and founded the Checkered Eye Project.

Even now, the concept remains controversial among people involved with the “blind community”, and I’ll fill you in on concerns that have been expressed.

  • “People don’t want to label themselves.”

Some people do. There is already a larger label in use-the I D cane. No one is forced to use either label. It’s a matter of personal choice.

  • “The use of another symbol confuses the public.”

Indeed the public is already confused. They haven’t been adequately informed that some people use an I D cane, for the sole purpose of communicating the fact that they have some degree of vision loss. Therefore, when people such as myself use a white cane, we are sometimes suspected of using it fraudulently. So, since there is already a need to increase awareness, The Checkered Eye Project is working to educate the public about both symbols.

  • “Lapel pins are not a reliable method of conveying the needs of people with visual limitations.”

Without some awareness, the pin on its own would not be very effective. However, even with just one person doing the educating, the Checkered Eye symbol is increasing in its effectiveness.  We must also remember that a Checkered Eye lapel pin, like a white cane, only gives a small amount of information. The individual must articulate his or her own needs, if they want them to be known.

  • “The white cane is one of the most effective tools for self identification.

Until now, it was the only one. Consider people who use wheel chairs and also have low vision; in this situation it is difficult to use an I D cane. There are also people with limited use of their hands and arms for whom it is impossible or difficult to hold the cane. And then there are folks like me who, when doing such things as traveling with luggage, transporting groceries, or attending small children, find the cane very awkward and cumbersome.

The white cane is an excellent beacon, to increase ones visibility in traffic, and a wonderful tool for mobility.  But if you don’t need either of those functions, it may be more convenient to wear a pin, rather than occupy a hand with your communication device.

So far, the education effort includes a website www.checkeredeye.com, public speaking engagements, and pamphlets on display in places like doctor’s offices, libraries and drug stores.  There are also stickers showing the checkered eye and stating “People wearing this emblem have impaired vision, which are displayed by businesses.

As a result of these methods, lots of letter writing and some media coverage, there are now people with low vision using the Checkered Eye in four provinces and three states.

I’m not sure how long it took to initially create awareness of the meaning of a white cane, but I’m hoping that with the effectiveness of the many mass communication systems of today, the checkered eye will be widely understood in no time!”

From December 1st until the end of White Cane Week (1st week of February) each year, 80% of all CEP sales go to Orbis. During the remainder of the year, an additional 20 per cent will be donated.

 Click on the image below to donate directly

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Orbis is a global non-profit organization that helps ensure no one loses their sight to a preventable, treatable disease, and they’ve got a flying eye hospital!