Stories from the staircase

By Theresa Wells

Like the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. This seems to apply to many things, and in recent days for me it has applied to a small aspect of vision known as “depth perception”.

My recent corneal issues have resulted in extremely limited vision in my left eye. While I have long struggled with scarring in that eye and limited vision the new scenario has left me pretty much legally blind in that eye, and with my vision from that eye gone so has my sense of depth perception, which seems like a small thing right until you don’t have it anymore.

Depth perception helps you to do all sorts of things – like know when to stop filling a coffee cup (oops), when your hand will hit a wall (ouch) and where the stairs stop and end on a staircase – and it is the last one that has become a particular menace for me, because I’ve realized how ill-prepared this world is for people with visual impairment.

Ever wonder why staircases have those strips on them at the edge of the stairs? It is to help mark where one stair stops and another begins for people who have lost their sense of depth. Those strips, which may seem like a nicety, are absolutely vital to someone like me who is adjusting to a new way of seeing the world, allowing us to continue to navigate without adding broken limbs to our list of health woes. The absence of those strips, or stairs that are poorly designed and poorly marked, constitutes one of the greatest daily hazards I now face – and they are everywhere.

Stairs made of brick that blend into each other, making it impossible to see where the individual stair begins and ends. Stairs made of a continuous grey shade of concrete, which on a sunny day blend into each other and make them treacherous. Handrails that are missing or inadequate. This town is a mess of dangerous stairways, and I am declaring war on them because I happen to know that I am not the only who experiences visual impairment. In fact, transient or permanent vision impairment due to illness or injury is quite common, and our lack of attention to safety for those experiencing visual impairment is a cause for serious concern.

This week I began keeping notes on “bad staircases” in the community. I am now in the process of sending emails to the businesses responsible for them, explaining the impact this has on my daily life and my decision as to whether or not to frequent their business. I also explain little things like litigation over accidents caused by poorly marked stairs, and how those with visual impairment can be served by simply modifying staircases to ensure better safety.

The hope is that I will regain some vision in my left eye and my depth perception will return, meaning I can once again enjoy 3-D movies, pour coffee without flooding the counter and even negotiate a staircase without creeping down it feeling for the edge of every step – but until that day I am keeping an eye (pun intended) on bad staircases in my community. My sense of depth perception may be gone, but my sense of equality is quite intact, and equality for people with visual impairments can mean something as simple as making minor modifications to a staircase. Just call me the one-eyed crusader for staircase safety in Fort McMurray – and next time you are on a staircase look down and think about how handy depth perception is, and how something so small can loom so large once it’s gone.

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