This week on Inform & Connect, Melody Goodspeed speaks with guest Libby Thaw, founder of the Checkered Eye Project.

Audiences will learn firsthand of the creation and mission of the internationally recognized Checkered Eye Project, a small business that provides wearable badges that indicate to others that the wearer is partially blind or low vision. Libby will walk us through her story, how the project has made positive changes and how it has been adopted in several countries to advocate and educate the community on blindness in its many forms.


Melody Goodspeed: So we have a really great guest with us today. All of them have been. But we have Libby Thaw with us today with The Checkered Eye Project. And I couldn't think of a more fitting time, especially in the environment that we're moving into and the ups and downs that we've had, that we really wanted to have Libby today. And I'm really excited for you guys to meet her. She's full of energy and excitement. And I just... Without further ado, Libby, how are you?

Libby Thaw: I am excellent. And I'm really excited about today, too.

Melody Goodspeed: I know. We are so excited. I'm just so excited, all the energy and fun you bring and what you have done with your project.

So let's dive right in. And tell us about how The Checkered Eye Project got started. How did this movement become international?

Libby Thaw: Right. Well, it started back in the fall of 2000, it's almost 20 years old. So I started losing my sight when I was about 12. By the time I was 18, I was legally blind, but in such a way that you couldn't really tell. I still don't need to use a mobility cane. I can walk around. I could probably run an obstacle course as well as any other old lady.

And so, people didn't realize that I had any kind of vision problem. And I got in a conversation one day with a couple of other ladies who also have low vision, much like myself. And a lady who worked in the field of providing services for blind people. And the girls and I who have low vision, we had all kinds of stories of people either thinking we were using a white cane fraudulently. Or the problem was not the fact that we couldn't see something, but more that the person we were interacting with didn't realize we couldn't see.

And the lady who worked in the field of blindness. She said, "Clients have been asking for some sort of a badge or something." And we all thought, "Oh, what a great idea." And there was no such thing at the time. And also, at the same time, the youngest of my children had just started school full-time, so I had a bit of time on my hands.

Melody Goodspeed: Yes.

Libby Thaw: Well, I just thought I'd go and do my good deed for the day. And I designed a symbol and explained what the purpose was. It was just to let people know we can't see all that well. And actually, I polled a lot of people on, well it was LISTSERV back then, it was before the internet got... or it was before Facebook and all that. And I asked a lot of other people with vision disabilities if they'd like it.

And I got a lot of pushback there. But this helped me really scrutinize the idea. Make sure nobody thinks it's for safety; it's just for face-to-face scenarios where I want someone to know I can't see well. And they said, "Well, nobody should have to label themselves." And I said, "You're right, it's optional."

Melody Goodspeed: Yes.

Libby Thaw: "It's only for people who would like that." And I actually did send it to a few organizations of and for blind people and said, "Here, you're welcome to use the symbol I designed or come up with your own. But can you make something like this available?" And nobody took it up. So having done some research also with businesses who said, "Yeah, that would be helpful for me to give better customer service, customer care." And so, I thought, "Yeah, this is a worthwhile idea and I'm going to do it on my own."

So that was back in 2000. And now, there are people... So with a website, people can find out about it from anywhere in the world. So I did start a website right in the beginning. And now, there are people using The Checkered Eye all across Canada, in lots of the states in the US, New Zealand, Switzerland, England. In Thailand, they actually make their own Checkered Eyes in Thailand. I have, for anybody who has some sight, they make their own, and it has Thai language on it. It's really cool.

Melody Goodspeed: That's awesome.

Libby Thaw: And I just recently got a request for Checkered Eyes in Spanish from some people in Panama. So it's available now in English and French. And I just have a batch on order in Spanish.

Melody Goodspeed: That is excellent. I really love it.

So you mentioned earlier, I had something I want to go back to. When you started your project, it was people have preconceived notions. They think that you're not telling the truth about your sight, or... And it may not be that but it also could be not quite understanding. So I think when we're moving into the environment that we're going into with people like myself, who's blind, with you comes with the six feet distancing and coming back into the world. Or when we have signs to read? I understand that a lot of organizations are going to have, "Go this way, go that way." How do you see that really helping?

Libby Thaw: Yeah. Well actually, the concern about going back into the world after being at home for all this time?

Melody Goodspeed: Yeah.

Libby Thaw: The concern is that there's going to be new procedures. And a lot of the procedures are going to be posted on signs. So a lot of people with low vision and people who are blind are reasonably concerned about, "How am I going to know what the new rules are?"

So some people, like myself? If I see a sign, as long as I can get close enough to it and it's large enough, I could probably read it. So I have been reaching out to chambers of commerce, just to say, "Look, if your membership, any business that provides services to the general public? If they are aware of what a white cane means and what a Checkered Eye means, that will help."

Also because, just the customers. People are stressed. So maybe a little less patient. So we want people to understand, if you notice that somebody doesn't seem to have the information that is posted on a sign, just give them a chance.

Melody Goodspeed: Yes.

Libby Thaw: See if they're wearing a Checkered Eye or perhaps using an ID cane or any kind of a cane. And assist if they need some help. And so, just the awareness of the fact that there's a spectrum of blindness. Not everybody who has a vision disability is going to be using a white cane or a guide dog. And the awareness of the symbols is very, very important right now, just to make it a little less scary for everybody.

Melody Goodspeed: No, I completely agree. And you know, we talked about, you and I, in previous conversations, just the different spectrums of sight loss. Which is something we touched on a couple of episodes ago, in another interview, that there really are different levels of sight. And I love how you have the iris of your, like a checkered board. Because it does sort of represent, there are different levels. When people, and I find people, there's fear in that, when we talk about that. Do you have anything to add to that?

Libby Thaw: Well, it just occurred to me while you were talking. I should describe what the Checkered Eye itself looks like, for those of us who can't see it. So it's a white circle. It has a black outline. And then, it has the words, "low vision," in a black text. But the Checkered Eye itself? Just like Melody said, it's a simple line drawing. And the iris part that's normally blue or brown, or purple if you're Elizabeth Taylor? That part is black and white checkers. And the whole rationale behind that is it looks like it's a grid that's partially blocked. So something is getting through, but not everything.

So that is the message. People with low vision maybe can see something but not everything. And there's such a range of different types of blindness. This is a big part of the public awareness campaign. It's not an on or off condition.

Melody Goodspeed: Yes.

Libby Thaw: And there are so many different types. And some people's fluctuates with how they're feeling that day, the lighting. This is something we would like the general public to be aware of.

Melody Goodspeed: Exactly. And also, too. I have a friend of mine who, obviously with RP or other can, need the light. But at nighttime, it's night blindness. And I think we all, experiencing the different levels. But getting past that and understanding that there are different levels and lower vision. But they're, at the end of the day, we're all people. We just interpret things different ways. Can you talk to us about some of your speaking events and what messaging you do when you are out advocating for them?

Libby Thaw: Yes. Well, I love speaking at schools. And the first time I spoke at a high school, I was really nervous. Just imagined the teenagers sitting there with their arms crossed.

Melody Goodspeed: Yes.

Libby Thaw: And I don't know why. See, that with me with a preconceived notion of teenagers. And I actually had teenagers at the time who were lovely people.

And so, they had all kinds of really great questions. I think we did like a 40-minute question and answer period at one of them. And you know what? To finish off a lot of my speaking engagements? Well so, during the speeches, it's really important to let them know about all the different types of white canes. So many people are not aware that if somebody is using the type that you use to support some of your weight or help you balance? If that one's white, it's still a white cane and it's a symbol for blindness. And a lot of people don't know that.

Also, the ID cane. That's the type of cane that I use. It's just a little, flimsy thing. I don't even touch the ground with it. It's a safety beacon. So if you want drivers and moving cars to recognize that you have a vision disability and you might not see them coming, the white cane is the best thing. And that's when I use my ID cane.

And then, of course, the mobility cane. Much better understood. So I always talk about all of those symbols and the Checkered Eye. And to finish off, I will often juggle. Because that's something that, if all you know about a person is that they are somewhere on the blindness spectrum, you really don't know what they can or can't do. And so, you never expect, "Oh, there's a blind lady and she's going to juggle today."

Melody Goodspeed: Well, tell us about the juggling. Because this is something that I really loved, why you were so compelled for juggling.

Libby Thaw: Yes. Well in school, there was a class where we had to do a speech on how to do something. And one of my classmates did a speech on how to juggle. And I thought, "Oh, that's so cool." And after the class, I said, "Hey, can you give me some tips and coach me a little bit?" And he said, "Oh, no. You can't juggle. You can't see well enough." And I just thought, "What? You don't even know. You have no idea how I can see. All you know is that I have impaired vision."

So I went home. And the only thing I could find three of was golf balls. Not a good thing to start juggling with. They're hard and small. And they bounce if they land on the ground. So anyway, I practiced all summer. And when I went to school again that fall, I showed him, "I can juggle."

Melody Goodspeed: I love that. And the reason why I, and I know you have to give demonstration to be juggling. But I wanted to point out, before we do that, is there are preconceived notions of what it is that we are, in the blind community, able to do and what we're not able to do. So that is a huge barrier. If that barrier exists of, "No, you can't do that," because that-

Libby Thaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melody Goodspeed: I mean, that happens in my life and in my personal. And so, it happens in a lot of ours, no matter the spectrum of total sight lost or to the low vision.

Libby Thaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melody Goodspeed: And if you're shut down even before, it does invoke that fear, right? And then, now that we're moving into two different things, this is getting out into the world, that's already going to be different? Having your project and what you do, and then, saying, "Yes, I can. And I'm going to do it in a way that's educational, informative. And advocate," which I totally love. And I also love it, too, that I got to see your juggling act, which makes me excited. Which we're going to have to do here before the Q&A session.

Libby Thaw: Now? Can I do it now?

Melody Goodspeed: Sure, go right ahead.

Libby Thaw: All right. And normally, when I'm juggling and I know there's people who can't see, I have beanbags that have bells in them. So first, I'll just check. Can you hear this?

Melody Goodspeed: Yes.

Libby Thaw: So each time I do that, that's me catching one.

Okay. Ready? Here we go.

And they fell!

Melody Goodspeed: That's all right.

Libby Thaw: Ta-da!

Melody Goodspeed: Yay! But I just love the fact... I mean, it's totally... But I just, I love your attitude and your charisma and what you're doing.

So when you, when we move forward, getting back into the world?

Libby Thaw: Yes.

Melody Goodspeed: What can we, how do you see people that are sighted and unsighted? Well, all of us. Because at the end of the day, we're people.

Libby Thaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melody Goodspeed: How we could really work together? Because we have talked a lot about that. And I know that the basis of you starting your project was the same thing, because people did not understand that you did have a sight impairment.

Libby Thaw: Yeah. Yeah. You're absolutely right. And I just keep thinking of something that goes right back to the whole reason why I came up with the Checkered Eye. And that is that we all need to remember that each person we meet is an individual. And they may not fit the assumptions that we all naturally make, based on first impressions. And so, keep an open mind.

Melody Goodspeed: For sure. Most definitely. And I couldn't agree more with you. I think, when we look at each other, no matter the situation, we are, at the end of the day, just all individuals and individual people.

Libby Thaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melody Goodspeed: With different needs.

So can you tell us people that you've heard from that do use your, do wear the Checkered Eye badge? Can you give us maybe some success stories of what they've come back and told you of how you've helped them?

Libby Thaw: Yes. Well you know, I haven't, I've heard plenty. And they're not usually specific stories of a specific scenario. But every once in a while, and it always seems when I need a cheerleader, someone will just send me an email. Actually, a young lady very recently sent me a picture of a tattoo. She just got a Checkered Eye tattooed on her arm.

Melody Goodspeed: That's awesome!

Libby Thaw: So she just told me how important this is to her and thanked me and said, "This is a really worthwhile, important thing that you're doing. And thanks for doing it." And so, that's generally the kind of messages I get when somebody is telling me that they're really happy to have a Checkered Eye and it's working well for them.

Melody Goodspeed: That is really great. You know, I have, what I was thinking about is, when we are, even small things like standing in line, right? Whether you're going to a hotel or ordering food or anything like that is, if the individual that's behind the counter sees the badge, how does that help?

Libby Thaw: Oh, yes. So that is one of the scenarios where it's really a great option. I know if I'm carrying my ID cane, but lots of times if I'm standing in line, then the person behind the counter hasn't seen me walk in with my white cane. And by the time I get up to the counter, they can, it's behind the counter.

Melody Goodspeed: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Libby Thaw: So if they see this? Now, even if they don't already know what it means, I can say, "Well, do you know this symbol? It means I can't see very well." And then they're, almost 100% of them are way more helpful and sensitive then. They know what kind of assistance you're going to need and that you actually need their help. And people are happy to help you when they know you really need it.

Melody Goodspeed: Yes, that is true. I've been in situations like that, too. And I use a guide dog but sometimes people don't see her when you get to the counter. And no, I totally understand that. It's definitely an issue. And I think that's a good advocating tool. And also, too? Kind of like what we talked about earlier is, sometimes your hands are full. I mean, my dog, a kid's hand in one hand or a bag or whatever. And it's just a nice thing to be able to have as another indicator.

Libby Thaw: Yes.

Melody Goodspeed: Because the cane is powerful.

Libby Thaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melody Goodspeed: But just to have something else that's definitely... Especially when we're moving into some unchartered territories, as again, as we come back into these, all this distant space. And I really appreciate your time with us today. Because I think this is something that I haven't come across. It's been really not readily talked about.

Libby Thaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melody Goodspeed: Is how it's going to come back into spacing when we are in this blind community. So this is something I would really love for us all to kind of collaborate on and get thoughts. And Libby, if you could give a tip about life in general or anything that you've learned throughout your journey, what would that one tip be?

Libby Thaw: Well again, it's the one that I already said, where just keep in mind that each person you meet has characteristics you may not be aware of. Each person's an individual. And that we all do naturally make assumptions. And so, to keep an open mind in situations or buying products or with people. Just remember that they're all unique and keep an open mind. Be ready to learn.

Melody Goodspeed: Yes. I love it. I'm like, that definitely seems true for all of us. And it will help us collaborate and be better people, too, at the end of the day, which I love.

Libby Thaw: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Melody Goodspeed: Thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. If people want to learn more about your project, if they want to get a badge, if they want to learn about, we were talking earlier about additional, how to make accessible signs, where can they find all this information?

Libby Thaw: Well, the website is And I actually have a toll-free number now. I had to write it down. It's (844) 880-4956. But if they do go to the website, they can email me directly through the site. And there's also, there's the regular landline or phone number that's not toll-free is also on there. But they're both listed there. So it's easy to find me. I'm also, there's a group on Facebook called Champions for the Checkered Eye. So, yeah. And the email is

Melody Goodspeed: Nice.