Published: 18 November 2015

Tuesday 10 November 2015. 11.16 a.m.
International White Cane Day

Ms FORREST (Murchison) - Mr President, I am very confident in suggesting that not one of us in this Chamber gave any real thought to whether the entry to Parliament House may have changed this morning as a result of the current works underway on the Parliament Square development, and whether we may need to avoid obstacles or take additional care to avoid running into something as we walked along.


We often take our sight for granted.  For the blind or visually impaired, this need for vigilance is always a challenge, and one we have little understanding of.  To raise awareness, Guide Dogs Tasmania participated in International White Cane Day on 15 October.  On 15 October, Guide Dogs Tasmania called on the community to consider the question, could you get to work with your eyes closed?  Could you get dressed in the morning, make breakfast, walk to the bus stop, and get off at the right stop before heading to the office - all with your eyes closed?  These are tasks people who are blind or visually impaired undertake confidently and capably every day.  Knowing the best route to walk to the bus stop, how to safely board public transport, and understand the office layout are some of the orientation and mobility skills taught by Guide Dogs Tasmania specialist instructors. 

Guide Dogs Tasmania held a lunchtime activity on 15 October, inviting the public to think about the skills they would require to get to and from work if their vision was impaired.  A small blindfold and simulated vision loss challenge was conducted, involving a representational obstacle course in Elizabeth Street Mall, using a white cane.  For every Tasmanian person with a guide dog, there are around 25 with impaired vision that use a cane to move about independently, safely and confidently. 

When promoting the event, Dan English, the CEO of Guide Dogs Tasmania, said the ability for those who are blind or visually impaired to get safely around their community, when and how they want, is an essential element of a person's confidence and social inclusion.  He also said that orientation and mobility skills provide the building blocks to live in the functional independence and wellbeing necessary for employment, recreation, and participation in everyday life that people with full sight may take for granted. 

I agreed to participate and see how I would fare for a brief time with a very effective blindfold, a white cane, and an instructor.  It was enormously challenging, and could not have been done without the support of the trainer.  All of those who participated had the great benefit of seeing the course we were to navigate with the white cane prior to actually undertaking it.  This is something blind and visually impaired people clearly do not have.  After I completed the course, successfully but very slowly and hesitantly, I looked up and down the mall at all the obstacles the blind or visually impaired person would be required to negotiate.  A-frame signs, not an issue in themselves, but when they are at different distances from the shopfronts, create an enormous challenge, not to mention people who do not usually watch where they are going as they are walking along. 

The experience certainly increased my awareness.  I encourage others to take the opportunity to try for themselves, and become more aware of the challenges faced daily by blind and visually impaired individuals. 

I acknowledge and commend the work done by the Guide Dogs.  Each year, Guide Dogs instructors work with around 1 000 people of all ages across Tasmania to help them achieve their mobility goals.  Statistics show that every day 20 Australians are diagnosed with vision loss that cannot be corrected. 

The 2015 client survey statistics provided by Guide Dogs Tasmania said three in four long cane users - 75 per cent - interviewed as part of the 2015 client survey conducted by market research company EY Sweeney had been obstructed by overhanging bushes and branches in the last 12 months.  Other obstacles cited by Guide Dogs include shopping display goods on the footpath, 57 per cent; café or restaurant outdoor tables and chairs, 51 per cent; A-board frames, as I mentioned, 50 per cent; and parked cars, 49 per cent.  Four in 10 cane users have experienced a near miss on the roads in the past two years.  More crossing points is the most common suggestion for safer roads, with audio-tactile signs, driver education and aligned kerb ramps among the other top suggestions. 

I encourage all honourable members to give some thought to how often we take our sightedness for granted, and to do our bit to support Guide Dogs and do what we can to assist those who are blind or visually impaired to lead active, healthy and inclusive lives.  I commend all the team at Guide Dogs, particularly CEO, Dan  English; Zoe Polacik, Community Fundraising and Public Relations Officer; Melanie Spunt, Relationships and Partnerships Coordinator; and Kate Grady, Marketing and Fundraising Manager, as well as all the guide dog and mobility instructors and support staff and volunteers who do an amazing job in this area.

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