Pedestrians distracted by their phones are a safety hazard for blind people, Bendigo woman says

Using her cane to sweep an arc on the pavement in front of her, Kangaroo Flat woman Debbie Cooke has a good sense of where she is going.

What she cannot predict, however, is what other people are doing, especially when their eyes are fixed on their phone screens.

Since a bout of encephalitis rendered her blind at six months of age, Ms Cooke said several advancements in technology made getting around easier, especially audible footlights and tactile tiles. But the advent of smartphones and headphones meant approaching pedestrians were often distracted. 

“[Technology] encourages this insular world but even all the apps in the world can’t tell you if there’s an obstacle in front of you,” she said.

“They won’t even notice a cane until they’re on top of it.”

The problem was exacerbated in a bigger city, like Melbourne, where Ms Cooke will not venture alone. 

She is not the only vision-impaired person finding the inattention of others a safety concern.  

Guide Dogs Victoria data released this week showed more than one-third of people who relied on a white cane were bumped into every time they left the house, while one in 10 were knocked over. 

Collisions were most common in shopping centres and almost half were the result of someone being distracted by their mobile device, the study found, incidents that resulted in a broken cane or even injury. 

“Sometimes running into someone can just be a shock, but other times it can be very harmful, upsetting and disorienting for the person with vision loss, particularly when it results in an injury or a broken cane,” Guide Dogs Victoria chief executive officer Karen Hayes said. 

Ms Cooke recommended people wait until they reach their destination before checking their mobile device – or to simply slow down and look up while walking.

Other obstacles she encountered on the street included cars unexpectedly parked on nature strips or footpaths, and people who did not walk in a straight line. 

Often people who used canes confronted discrimination too; passers-by sometimes assumed a blind person also lived with an intellectual disability, or chose to direct their conversation to a sighted peer, rather than to the blind person themselves.

Ms Cooke’s comments come ahead of International White Cane Day on October 15, a global event to honour the achievements of vision-impaired people.

The Bendigo woman’s achievements are many; an accomplished composer, Ms Cooke is also studying business management, running her own braille transcription service and planning a memoir.