'What does blind look like?': St. John's woman challenges myths
Anne Malone says a stranger's rude comments are all too familiar
Anne Malone and her seeing-eye dog, Cheryl, are walking away from a supermarket near her house in St. John's when it happens.
A man crossing the street calls out to Malone. "You're not blind, right?" he says.
Malone replies, "I beg your pardon?"
"You just told the dog to turn left, right? How did you know?" he asks.
As Malone walks away from the uninvited encounter, she says with a chuckle and a sigh, "Welcome to my life."
Malone is legally blind, but prefers to be called visually impaired.
Her vision has been impaired since birth. But things took a dramatic turn for the worse in 2006, when she was 49.
She woke up one morning almost unable to find her face in the mirror — small blood vessels deep within her eyes had burst.
Malone doesn't wear dark glasses. Instead, she wears contact lenses to try to enhance what vision she has.
I don't know if there are hordes of sighted people impersonating blind people that I don't know about.- Anne Malone
She said incidents like the one outside the grocery store happen all the time — CBC News just happened to catch the exchange on a hidden camera.
"I don't know if there are hordes of sighted people impersonating blind people that I don't know about," she said.
Sometimes strangers take it upon themselves to perform ad hoc eye testing, waving objects at Malone and asking if she can see them. She said it bothers her, no matter how much she's grown used to it.
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"It's very strange to me that people question and interrogate to determine how much you can see, how much you can't see, whether you have a right to be there with that dog or not," she said.
Seeing 'blobs of colour'
Malone finds it challenging enough just going to pick up some groceries.
Sometimes items get moved to new locations, and that's frustrating for Malone because she'll have no idea where to find them. She tends to pick up the same items and brands every time she shops.
"I see blobs of colour, so if I'm looking for lemons or bananas, I'm looking for an expanse of yellow," she said.
"I'm familiar enough with the labels of things that I regularly buy to be able to identify them on the shelf, but I identify them by blobs of colour. So I know that Campbell's soup is a blob of red with some white on it. I know that the coffee I buy is in a brown bag with some yellow lettering on it."
If there are new products on the shelves, she never knows about them.
There is a handheld device that can scan bar codes and translate the information into audio. But for Malone, its price tag is prohibitive at $1,700.
Unemployment rates for people who are blind and partially sighted are steep. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind, which advocates for blind and partially sighted people, says it's hard to give an exact figure, because many have stopped looking for work — even though they want jobs.
The organization's branch in Newfoundland and Labrador works with 3,600 clients. CNIB calculates that about half the Canadians who are blind or partially sighted live on $20,000 a year or less.
Anne Manuel, who worked in arts administration until mid-2008, had to give up her job because it involved a lot of reading and tight deadlines.
Her hopes of going to university to retrain as a disabilities counsellor were thwarted, partly because she couldn't get Service Canada funding unless she took a full course load.
There have been technological advances which help the visually impaired, including impressive apps such as Seeing AI.
If the user can't see the bar code, for example, on a can of soup, the app will beep as the phone gets closer to it. Then the app "speaks" the name of the product. The user can wear headphones for privacy.
Debbie Ryan, who is in charge of vision health promotion for the CNIB in Newfoundland and Labrador, marvels at the difference that technology has made to blind and partially sighted people, compared with 20 years ago.
"It gives them access to the printed word. It gives them access to going online and checking your email and participating in social media," she said.
Ryan said these sorts of advances could also help with education and finding employment.
While those are huge issues for Malone, so is public awareness.
Her bottom line: Don't tell someone that they don't look blind.
"Which can sometimes be sort of thrown down as a gauntlet. You know, 'Prove to me you're blind,'" she said.
"My response to that would be like, 'What does blind look like?'"
The man who confronted Malone just after she had left the supermarket seemed to realize midway through that he'd embarrassed himself.
"I thought you could see," he said. "Maybe you can't. I don't know."
And then he walked away.
As Malone said: Welcome to her life.
Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of accessibility issues and solutions this week online, on CBC Television's Here & Now, and on CBC Radio One.