Blind and Visually Impaired Learn How to Navigate 'New Normal' Amid Pandemic | WGLT

Blind and Visually Impaired Learn How to Navigate 'New Normal' Amid Pandemic

Jun 11, 2020

The pandemic has forced many changes and limits on Americans. It has created a “new normal” for many people. But some people who already had restrictions face even greater limits from the pandemic.

Many people with sight issues spent a lot of time at home even before the pandemic. They are home even more now and that is tough to adjust to since they rely heavily on touch to navigate their surroundings.

Molly Pasley, associate professor at Northern Ilinois University, hosted a virtual open house for the Central Illinois Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired so the community can reconnect with each other and set up friends groups for social support. Pasley said almost 20 people joined the meeting. She said the feedback from the community exceeded their expectations.

“Just getting that phone call, knowing that we’re trying to do things and keep them actively engaged, we got a lot of really great feedback from patrons saying they were interested and also joined the chat," said Pasley, who works with school-age children in the visually impaired community.

She said like all the other kids, they have had to adjust to finishing classes at home. Pasley said students miss the structure and stability that helps them compensate for low vision and effectively get through the school day.

“First period, you go to this class, second period you go to this class, and then it goes to, ‘Okay, well how am I going to manage all this? I don’t have someone sitting over me telling me how to do stuff, when to do it, and how to do it and having to work on self-management,’” Pasley said. “For younger kids, that’s a real challenge, too.”

Some students along with other visually-impaired people are having trouble getting equipment and internet access to participate in virtual meetings and complete schoolwork. Pasley said schools were able to provide hotspots and other devices to aid students.

A vision access advocate for the Bloomington-based Life Center for Independent Living, Kim Tarkowski, said the Central Illinois Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired is loaning equipment such as wheelchairs, canes, crutches, toilet seat risers, and walkers to people for free to pick up. Tarkowski, who has been blind for more than 40 years, said the need for equipment varies from person to person. Some may need technology, some can navigate on their own, and others have human support.

“I’m pretty independent and I have a lot of different kinds of technology that will assist me in terms of doing things,” Tarkowski said. “My computer has a screen reader, so I can get on my computer and do my work and get the phone numbers from different people that I need to call. Not everybody has access to that. Not everybody needs to have access to that. [For] some people, just using a magnifier if they have low vision is help for them.”

Facemasks, gloves, and other PPE equipment that’s required when going out in places with 10 or more people have become the new dress code for Americans. The visually-impaired community is required to wear them, especially with their human guide when social distancing is unlikely. Pasley said being visually impaired doesn’t put them in the high-risk group, but it’s more to do with their age and underlying health conditions like everyone else.

Wearing gloves could potentially block them from using their other senses to function, like reading braille. However, Tarkowski said she’s had little to no issues with wearing gloves, so she doesn’t see it causing problems for people with low vision.

“There might be certain things that gloves would interfere with being able to feel,” Tarkowski said. "Maybe picking up a dime or a piece of paper or something like that would be difficult, but as far as being guided, that wouldn’t be an issue.”

Visually-impaired people in the over-50 age group worry more about getting food, especially those living in rural areas. Central Illinois Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired Director Cora Quinn said people living alone are more likely to struggle to find food. She said they turn to a few food banks that provide delivery services.

“They bring us things from the food bank and we get it once a month,” Quinn said. “They have a person from the center call us and if we want anything, they’ll help us get it if we tell them we need help.”

Quinn said the center hasn’t received funding for the services, but are relying on donations from the public to provide aid to the community since fundraisers have been canceled. Tarkowski said the Life Center has received funds from the CARES Act to provide food, sanitation, hygiene items, and rent for customers in need. 

Others with low or no vision still need to make trips to essential businesses like the doctor and dentist and use public transportation, but socially distanced navigating in public can be challenging, especially if there is no guide. Guide dogs, which are commonly used by the visually impaired community, are not equipped for social distancing. Quinn said people may need help from store workers or others even to cross the street. 

Tarkowski said the upside of social distancing is it is easier to notice someone who is visually impaired and needs help.

Tarkowski said the public can help by vocally pinpointing surroundings while social distancing. 

‘“Somebody may need to say ‘Excuse me, I don’t know if you are aware, [but] you’re pretty close’ in terms of social distancing, and doing it in a nice way.”

Tarkowski said despite the hurdles, the visually impaired community’s transition to life during the pandemic is not much different from everyone else’s adjustment.

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