Visually impaired and blind people in the U.S. Virgin Islands should be much more independent than they are, according to Joe J. Cooler Jr., who sponsored the territory’s 9th Annual White Cane Safety Day Thursday morning at the Veterans Administration Clinic on St. Croix.
White Cane Safety Day, which is celebrated nationally on Oct. 15, is a celebration for the achievements of the blind and visually impaired in the U.S. The white cane traditionally is a way for people to recognize the independence of visually impaired people.
Unfortunately, there are few resources in the territory for people with disabilities, let alone for people who are visually impaired. Many could benefit by using white canes and show their independence, but Cooler knows very few who actually do.
“The territory seems really behind and they are not able to accommodate people with disabilities very readily,” Cooler said.
Cooler, who was diagnosed with macular degeneration 12 years ago, brought White Cane Safety Day to St. Croix, when he moved to the island from New York ten years ago. He, along with the Virgin Islands University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (VIUCEDD) and the Blind Veterans Association (BVA), wanted to inform the public about the importance of white canes.
There seems to be a stigma associated with disabilities in the territory, and that even though some 19,000 people self-reported as having a disability, very few seem to benefitting from services, said Sandra Ross, the Assistant Director for the V.I. Assistive Technology Foundation Inc., at VIUCEED.
“There is no place in the territory where people can get help for their visual impairments,” Ross said. “We have Vocational Rehab and State Independent Living Centers, but no schools or anything.”
Cooler and Ross want people to know that there are services available that people could be benefiting from. For example, Cooler was able to attend a school in New York called Guiding Eyes for the Blind absolutely free by simply submitting an application. When he completed the 27-day program, he received an additional benefit: Imari, a trained service dog, who accompanied him at the V.A. clinic.
Imari, however, has presented some unique problems. Having a service dog on St. Croix has been very difficult because people don’t seem to understand that Imari is not simply a pet, but provides a second-set of eyes for Cooler, whose own eyes are fading fast. Although he does have some vision, Imari and his white cane allow him to maintain his independence.
Taxis on the island are especially difficult because they don’t want to accommodate a service dog, Cooler said. Just a few days ago, he even had problems at Human Services because a supervisor wanted to know what he was doing with a dog.
The stigma of having a disability is so imbedded in the community that people often stay home in reclusive situations because they don’t realize there’s a way to be independent, said Ross.
White canes provide the visually impaired with greater mobility, and allow people to participate more with their community. Blind and visually impaired people have used canes as mobility tools for centuries — the white cane was introduced after World War I.
Cooler showed off his white cane called “Night Crawler,” which has a flashing red tip. Red-tipped canes generally signify that a person is only visually impaired and not completely blind, whereas a fully white cane indicates the individual is blind.
“It’s very important for people to understand that you have to get a prescription to use a white cane, you can’t just go shopping for one, they are prescribed by eye doctors,” Ross said.
Ulysses Fletcher, a completely blind veteran, also showed up to check out the gadgets Cooler was demonstrating. Fletcher said he uses his “Script Talk,” the most – Script Talk is a device which reads prescriptions aloud.
“The white cane to me signifies that I’m a person with impaired vision and people should acknowledge that this person has a problem seeing and may or may not need help,” Fletcher said. “It’s good Cooler is doing this – It’s good to know that life’s not over just because you have a visual impairment.”
For more information about Assistive Technology, contact Cooler at firstname.lastname@example.org.