Helping those with low vision

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There are many important community issues that most of us will go a lifetime without encountering - issues you'll rarely, if ever, find on an election ballot.

October is Blindness Awareness Month and Jackie Paulding, vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, estimates there are close to 1,000 blind or visually impaired residents in Kootenai County.

"The attitudes of people here toward understanding those with disabilities are very positive," she said. "But people who don't have disabilities don't always understand just how much societal acceptance can affect a person's ability to function independently in their community."

So how can we improve?

"It's so frustrating when people don't shovel their sidewalks in the winter," said Paulding, who is visually impaired and walks to work on Ironwood Drive.

"You'd think a street like that would be shoveled, but frequently it's not. That's a universal problem for both businesses and personal residences that can make it treacherous to do something as ordinary as getting to work."

And here's another concern you might not have considered: guide dogs - those canine angels with the beautiful eyes, just begging to be petted.

Wrong.

According to Russell Smith, president of the Panhandle Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind in Idaho, "We need to respect these service animals. If a dog is with someone with a white cane, leave the animal alone - both physically and verbally. Don't try to play games with him.

"Recently some guy started barking like a dog to distract my dog. Most of the time, I'm just praying my dog is paying attention so I can make it through a crowd. Someone acting like a jerk can cause a person to be injured."

Larry Kimble, who is visually impaired, facilitates a monthly Blind and Low Vision Support Group in Coeur d'Alene. Recently, in large part due to his efforts, the four-way traffic light at Government Way and Kathleen Avenue now emits an auditory signal as well as a visual one.

"The city needs more of these audio crosswalk signals," Kimble said.

His advice on coming to the aid of someone with a white cane standing at an intersection is to approach them politely, let them know the traffic light is green, and ask if they need help.

"It's Basic Blindness 101," he said. "I know, though, that most people do mean well."

Another impediment for blind or visually impaired people is the lack of public transportation.

"It's one of the biggest barriers to employment," Paulding said. "Citylink bus routes have a fixed route system. Paratransit - door to door service offered to people who have difficulty accessing the regular fixed-route bus system - will only pick up passengers who live no more than three-quarters of a mile from a fixed bus route.

The power to resolve many of the concerns of blind persons lies with public agencies. But there are other issues the rest of us can help with.

"Respect the person with the cane," Smith said. "We're all human beings, whether we have a physically apparent disability or an inside disability. Simply put, we need to respect each other."

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