The Checkered Eye Project

Steph McCoy’s Introduction: “You don’t look blind…” is a comment many of us who have the hidden disability of low vision hear. The physical aspect of no longer being able to see is only one of many issues to deal with. A decline of self-confidence, navigating the stages of grief along with learning to adapt to a new way of life after vision loss can take its toll. One of the tools that helped me through this challenging process was a discreet self-identification pin that afforded me the opportunity, if I so choose, to share my low vision. When I contacted Libby Thaw, Founder of the Checkered Eye Project (CEP) back in 2009 after being diagnosed legally blind it was a lifeline. Finally I had the courage to embrace my disability and advocate on building low vision awareness at the same time. Since that December day in 2009 Libby and I have become good friends and she continues to be one of those role models I greatly admire. Enjoy Libby’s guest blog and learn about her project.

Contributed by guest blogger Libby Thaw

Self-Conscious About My Vision Loss

Libby Thaw
Libby Thaw

As a teen with low vision I told my mother I wanted a t-shirt that read, “I‘m not stuck up, I’m blind!” I was self-conscious because nobody knew my sight was failing and I didn’t want to seem like a snob when I’d walk past people I knew without saying hi. I have a condition called Stargardt’s disease; it started affecting my sight when I was 12 and by the age of 18 I was legally blind. I could function quite “normally” but there were many life situations that were a challenge.

When as a young adult in Canada, I moved from a small town to a city, I had some close calls in traffic and was advised to use a white identification cane (ID cane) (a term used in Britain and Canada) so that people would know I was legally blind.

White Cane as a Symbol

Many people are unaware that long before we had the mobility techniques that employ the cane as a tool, a white cane was just a symbol. In 1930s Paris, Guilly D’Herbement noticed blind people struggling in traffic. She thought the white sticks being used to direct drivers would be well used by blind people to increase their safety. She launched an awareness campaign which was taken up by the Rotary Club in the United Kingdom and proliferated in the United States by Lions Clubs. So the original purpose of the white cane was as a traffic safety beacon. Today, the white cane has many more uses such as for safe mobility, identification, prevention of falls, and as a tool for verifying the environment.

Conveying Low Vision To the Public

The ID cane helped my safety while walking and in traffic, enabling me to take fewer risks trying to save my vanity. I quickly learned that the cane was also useful when I needed help, other than crossing the street. At the same time, it presented a bit of a problem for me because I felt self-conscious about people noticing that I was able to see quite a bit; I wondered, should I act blinder than I am when I carry the ID cane? That didn’t feel right either!

What the ID cane did not convey was the fact that, while legally blind, I still have some vision. In the fall of 2000 I found I had a bit of time on my hands as my youngest child had started full time school. One day I attended an open house held by a charitable national service agency for blind people in Canada and got into a chat with people I met there. We started swapping stories about situations when the lack of eyesight hadn’t been the problem but rather the fact that whomever we were dealing with was unaware that we had low vision. One of the staff mentioned that clients had been asking for a badge that would let folks know they couldn’t see well. We all agreed that it was a “great idea,” but there was no such thing.

Since I had some free time I went home and designed a wearable symbol and called it the “Checkered Eye.” The “Checkered Eye” uses a white background with the words “Low Vision” in black. Between the words is a stylized eye with the iris depicted as a black and white checkered pattern; simple but effective. I sent a letter to the service agency confident the problem was solved.

Perhaps you can imagine how disappointed I was to hear that they would not pursue this idea.

The Checkered Eye: Another Identification Tool

At this point I consulted with many people. I discovered that some people with low vision weren’t interested in a wearable symbol, and that many were. Most were thrilled with the discreet option of a pin on their shirt or jacket. I personally noticed that sometimes my cane is hidden behind a check-out counter and so a symbol near my face would help in scenarios like that. I also found that people in hospitality, retail, health care and any service type job, were happy to know when customers might need specific care and thought the wearable symbol was a good idea too.

Logo for White Cane Checkered Eyes-Symbols

So I decided to go ahead on my own. After 14 years of grass roots efforts, mostly by people with low vision, the “Checkered Eye” is now in use in Canada, the US, New Zealand and Switzerland. You may want to read more information about its intended use.

It’s clear that these symbols have their merits and meet existing needs and their usefulness can be cemented by clear understanding. Remember this about our symbols: for safety, the white cane; for low vision sensitivity, the “Checkered Eye”. Pass it on!