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Health & Fitness What it’s like to be visually impaired in a world full of people distracted by smartphones

Shelley Ann Morris lives in Ottawa and shared her story with reporter Wency Leung.

I was born with optic atrophy, so I have a very narrow field of vision. I basically just see out of one corner of my left eye.

I use a white cane, and when you’re born with this condition, it’s just natural that you learn to walk with a cane and travel quite confidently.

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But I’m relying on people to see me. And it doesn’t always happen that way.

We think of distracted drivers, but we don’t think of distracted pedestrians and they can be just as dangerous.

Fellow pedestrians who are staring down at their devices, engrossed in a phone call, text or e-mail message have made walking challenging for me. There have been numerous times when people have walked into my path.

Since I use my cane in an arc-like manner, I have inadvertently caused a few distracted pedestrians to stumble, causing them to unleash a string of expletives.

On other occasions, after bumping into me, I hear a stammered “sorry” as they sheepishly scurry away. Ironically, others will tell me to watch where I am going. I’m always a little blown away by that.

These kinds of things happen maybe two or three times a week.

I walk along Bank Street, which is one of the main roads here in Ottawa, to and from work. So I have a lot of occasion to walk downtown.

I have learned not to walk too close to the edges of the sidewalks, lest I get knocked into traffic. Some pedestrians walk with a device in one hand and hot drink in the other, which can double the danger should they run into me accidentally. Distracted parents’ children scoot out of their reach, and as my field of vision is narrow, I risk falling over small kids in my blind spot and incurring the wrath of their parents. As many devices are paired with tiny earbuds and microphones, it is almost impossible for me to distinguish whether they are speaking to me or someone else.

When I’m crossing a street, I’m kind of hoping the other pedestrians will see me, but sometimes they’re on their phones or sending a text or doing what they’re doing. It makes crossing the streets a little bit challenging. But what I do, if they’re available, is use the audible pedestrian signals. You’ve probably heard them. You push the button to activate them, and I find sometimes the sound they make makes everyone pay attention for a while. I tend to use them when they’re available, but they’re not at each corner.

I could go down a real rabbit hole about some people on power wheelchairs. I’ve been knocked over by a couple of those on occasion. I think they think I’m going to see them and jump out of the way. Well, not quite.

I mean, I don’t want to trip anybody, but inevitably, somebody does walk in the path of my cane. You’ll get some interesting reactions. I love when people say, “I didn’t see you.” Well. You do have to have a good sense of humour.

As told to Wency Leung

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