Following the initiative of the Little Rock Foundation located in New Jersey (USA), the month of October is dedicated to focus global attention on blindness and on issues related to visual impairment since 2009. In this context, the two main events in October observed annually are the World Sight Day on the second Thursday and the World White Cane Safety Day on the 15th.
Indeed, the World Sight Day was first observed in the year 2000 by the Lions Club International Foundation with the main objective of raising awareness on lightness and visual impairment and to lay importance on sight loss prevention bearing in mind that at present at least 2 billion people in the world have a visual impairment of whom at least one billion visual impairment could have been prevented (according to the 2019 World Vision report of the World Health Organisation).
On the other hand, the World White Cane Safety Day dates from much further back in the midst of the 1960s with the use of the white cane. In fact, the white cane of today has been introduced at the outbreak of World War One. And, it was not until the devastating outbreak of World War Two that the white cane was designed with advanced technology for the use of blind veterans. No doubt that the white cane is today universally recognised as a safe journey tool for persons with visual impairment who gain independence, personal mobility and dignity.
In the late 1980s, global movement emerged to promote and protect the rights of persons with visual impairment; such as the world blind union established in the year 1984. With its headquarters located in Canada, the World Blind Union is world widely recognised leading international organisation working toward the welfare of over 250 million persons living with sight loss around the globe. The 190 state members of the World Blind Union meet in an annual conference to express their concerns of blind people and persons with low vision around the world in the six regional branches of Europe, Africa, Asia, Asia-Pacific, North America and the Caribbean’s and Latin America.
With time, gradually, most countries have recognised the special needs of persons with visual impairment and have thus enacted appropriate legislation aiming at ensuring their legal protection and provision of appropriate state-funded services.
In Mauritius, the Loïs Lagesse Trust Fund Act 1983 has been enacted to assist persons with visual impairment to lead an independent life by providing the training and education of blind persons in Mauritius, assist blind persons in obtaining medical treatment and suitable employment, to set up and manage training centres, schools and hostels for the Blind, and to cater for the general welfare of the blind at Section 4. The Loïs Lagesse Trust Fund Centre (set up under the act) should fulfil its statutory obligations under the supervision of a general manager who shall be appointed on a full-time basis as clearly stipulated at Section 6 of the Loïs Lagesse Trust Fund Act. Unfortunately, this National Centre for the Blind whose activities are mainly supported by government funding is running in the absence of a general manager for nearly the past 10 years.
As a disability rights activist, I have observed that the jobs attributed to persons with visual impairment were either handicraft or telephone operator. Late Mr Khemraj Sookna has been one of the first persons with a visual impairment whom I had closely and personally known and who shared his knowledge, expertise and experience of life with me as a mentor and I seize this occasion to pay tribute to his sincerely inspired effort and motivation.
Lately, I discovered the wide range of jobs which can be performed by persons with visual impairment when equipped with the appropriate assistive technology. Working closely with Miss Aarthi Burtony on the Federation of Disabled People Organisation (FDPO) Mauritius shadow report 2019 on the United Nation Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) allowed me to be exposed to computer skills of persons with visual impairment using screen readers (such as JAWS software and NVDA). Several mobile applications providing a combination of GPS and scanners services break the barriers of printed documents by reading them aloud for blind users. Hence, office work can nowadays easily be performed by persons with visual impairment and it is the reason why a wide variety of administrative jobs are identified by the Indian government each year for persons with visual impairment both in the public and private sectors. Sadly, very few persons with a visual impairment in Mauritius access tertiary education and even when they do they end up remaining unemployed. When considering the international trend with specific emphasis on assistive technology; it might not be difficult for the authorities to find proper employment for the few graduates with visual impairment in Mauritius.
Much has been done already but there is still a very long way to go. For instance, travelling safely alone by public transportation still remains a serious challenge for persons with visual impairment. It has to be highlighted that one of the recommendations of the UNCRPD committee in its 2015 Concluding Report stated that all public transport should be equipped by loud speakers. I seize this occasion to pay tribute to all parents of children and youth with visual impairment; my special thoughts to our elders going through the phenomenon of turning late blind without forgetting Mr. Reynolds Permal, one of the eldest longtime ambassadors for the rights of the visually impaired in the country.