The red and white striped cane. Why being deafblind is a complex disability

Featured article - 03 November 2016
Helena Little, freelance consultant and deafblind assessor

Head-shot of the author, Helena Little, freelance consultant and deafblind assessor

Helena took part in the deafblind assessor course in 2016

Finishing a relaxing Sunday lunch with friends – a psychiatrist and a nurse, I asked them if they knew why people would use a red and white striped cane. Neither knew that that this is the type of stick that deafblind people are trained to use and I wonder if this reflects the fact that being deafblind is a complex disability. These were not the first friends, many of whom are social and health care professionals, that I had asked the same question to. Most didn't know and hadn't seen one. What else don't we know about resources available for older people and adults who require support?

Since undertaking the Assessors Training with In Good Hands at SCIE , for people who have both hearing and sight impairment, I also was introduced to many aspects of living with deafblindness that were new to me, a long time qualified social worker, including the stick. Older people with age acquired deafblindness are at greater risk of depression, poor nutrition, greater unhappiness and social isolation. The course is fun and experiential as well as providing a very thorough journey through the processes of assessment and introducing me to a variety of tools that aid wellbeing and can improve the quality of life of a deafblind person. Since the course I have wondered much more about what we don’t know about deafblindness, and how important it is for us to improve our knowledge, as professionals as well as raising the public awareness.

Being able to achieve all the statutory duties in the Care Act is a challenge, and this is certainly the case in ensuring deafblind older people, who have acquired these impairments with age, are properly assessed to enable them to access services. Working with older peoples’ care and nursing services for the past 15 years I know many older people acquire deafblindness, although the numbers are not widely agreed as data is poor, many of these people live in the community as well as in care homes. When the deafblindness is further impacted by dementia the assessment of their needs becomes further complicated but even more critical for their wellbeing and that of those close to them. How many of us see them with special needs that can be assessed and provided for, and not that it’s someone else with dementia? That goes for us working in care services and the public.

Why do we need to raise awareness of the red and white stick and all it represents? We need to really ensure that deafblind people are assessed by suitably trained professionals and be seen in their communities. We need to assess their mobility needs so that they are safe in and outside their homes, so they can remain part of their communities; they need the information available for them so they can make informed choices and so learning or accessing new ways to communicate is also critical.

The first step to resolve their invisibility is to assess deafblind people and to do this we need many more trained people, social workers or care professionals. So look out for the red and white stick and that person using it will have had their needs assessed and they will be using many other tools to help them improve their wellbeing and live active and fulfilled lives.

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