Blind step out to raise awareness

By Rebecca Walsh

A workman watching Gary Williamson walk towards a blocked-off footpath looks concerned and asks, "Does he know where he's going?"

Mr Williamson, the member liaison officer for the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind, was born with choroideremia, a rare, inherited disorder that causes progressive loss of vision.

Like other blind and partly sighted people who get about with a cane, Mr Williamson must negotiate cars parked across driveways, low tree branches and rubbish bins.

A regular day will usually involve a sighted person bumping into him, and recently his foot was run over when the driver of a car failed to see him as he crossed the street.

"They obviously didn't see me or the cane. They hit the cane and the tyre ran straight over my foot.

"It was more of a fright than anything," he said.

"Everyone has a story if you get around by white cane ... people just don't seem to recognise it.

"I don't know if that's just people not thinking or ignorance," Mr Williamson said.

"People think if they wave or shout you will react. People shout 'Look out' - it means nothing."

Today marks the start of Blind Week, with the foundation aiming to raise $1.1 million for its services to blind people and education campaigns.

Chris Orr, the foundation's blindness awareness and prevention team leader, said one of the biggest problems faced by blind pedestrians was when motorists intruded past the stop lines at crossings or failed to look properly at multiple-lane zebra crossings.

"Blind people would really appreciate it if motorists would pay special attention to people with white canes and give them a bit more consideration."

Clear vision

Some facts and figures for Blind Week:

* The Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind has about 11,500 members.

* Its annual operating budget is $21 million. Less than a third of that comes from the Government. The rest is from donations, bequests and investment.

* Just over 270 guide dogs are in service nationwide.

* The top six eye conditions causing blindness are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa, cataracts, optic atrophy and diabetic retinopathy.

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