COVID-19 an added challenge for the blind

(The following article was published in the Star Advertiser on August 24, 2020 where Cassie Ordonio interviews multiple blind community members, including GDH Director Jeanne Torres, who are navigating the changes of COVID-19.) 

For eight years, the world slowly disappeared for Mary Bafile. After she was diagnosed with macular degeneration, Bafile lost 90% of her vision.

Now blind during the coronavirus pandemic, the 73-year-old Hilo resident has to navigate a learning curve while keeping herself safe from the virus.

“I’m afraid to get too close to people because at my age I won’t survive it,” she said.

Bafile has been independent since her husband died 10 years ago. Though she’s capable of memorizing each step it takes to get from her home to the grocery store, she only leaves her one- bedroom apartment for essential needs.

She describes her blindness as seeing shadow figures.

“Blindness isn’t all black,” she said. “There are so many different levels. I used to be able to see someone’s face and hair. Pretty soon their face was gone.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, challenges have heightened for the blind community, including dealing with social distancing guidelines, traveling on the bus, preparing for school and adapting to online services.

But even so, Bafile feels that it’s harder to keep herself from touching objects and staying 6 feet away from people.

She recalled a conflict with a sales associate at a retail store, who commanded her to move 6 feet away. Being blind, she can’t tell how far away she is.

“The girl tells me I have to move 6 feet back,” she said. “I did it and she shows me the phone and said, ‘talk,’ and I said, ‘I just told you I’m blind. I can’t see the phone from that far away,’ and it’s like she didn’t get it.”

Blind people rely on touch and sound for their vision, and many who go outdoors are traveling independently with a cane or guide dog.

Art Cabanilla, president of the advocacy group and serv­ice provider Hawaii Association of the Blind, said going out for essential needs has been an issue because of the social distancing guidelines.

Each business has a 6-foot marker taped on the floor, which Cabanilla said is useless for a blind person.

“Unfortunately these lines on the floors are helpful to everybody but a blind person,” Cabanilla, who is also blind, said. “If a blind person really is traveling independently, which many of us do, that line doesn’t help us.”

Aiea resident Jeanne Torres, who has been blind for over 20 years, said traveling as a blind person is dangerous and limited, especially when they want to exercise their independence by confidently navigating in their community.

She said blind people will violate the social distancing guidelines by accidentally bumping into people. And their response is sometimes rude because of the “stigma of a blind person,” Torres said. She noted that “not all blind folks look blind.”

“As for myself, as a blind person, I limited my exposure to going out only if it’s absolutely beyond my control,” she said. Government officials who are putting in place restrictions to minimize contracting the virus “didn’t consider that all of those restrictions were going to seriously strip the livelihood of the blind community.”

“To tell a blind person not to touch, you just took out what was left of our vision,” she continued. “And with the general public being anxious, scared and deeply concerned such as myself, certainly emotions are going to erupt when a blind person bumps into somebody. They don’t step back and say, ‘Why is this person bumping into me?’ and realize that person has a cane. Right off the bat, they’re going to say, ‘Watch where you’re going.’”

Torres, who is also the executive director for Guide Dogs of Hawaii, said there’s been a high demand for guide dogs for independent travel. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the dogs need to be retrained.

Raising a child while prepping for school

Torres raised two sighted children while blind and is currently raising her 12-year-old granddaughter, who is also sighted.

With school back in session, she’s worried about the safety of her household. She constantly checks to see if her granddaughter has her mask and hand sanitizer before she goes out.

“Kids at that age don’t grasp the magnitude of everything,” she said. “And what makes it difficult for me is that I can’t see. I might sound like a nagging parent when she comes through the door. I say, ‘Did you wash you hands?’ It will irritate her, but if I didn’t hear it, she didn’t do it.”

Teachers for the blind are also experiencing a learning curve and a shortage. Statewide, there are approximately 20 teachers in the Department of Education who work with about 270 visually impaired students — including the blind — in pre-K to grade 12, according to Amy Downard.

Downard — a special education teacher for visually impaired students in the Department of Education system — said one of the challenges was adapting her teaching curriculum with the sighted teacher’s agenda.

With the continued rising COVID-19 cases, some parents are opting for virtual teaching only, Downard said.

“We’re doing this together mentality,” Downard said. “It was really positive. The challenging part was getting the materials to the kids that they could do at home.”

Visually impaired students who are back in school will have to practice more hand-washing and sanitizing their canes. Downard and other teachers also had to adjust their techniques for blind students’ safety. Before, blind students were matched with a human guide who would hold the blind student’s hand to navigate through the school safely. Due to social distancing guidelines, handholding is out. Instead sighted human guides can use their voices to guide blind students.

Other challenges

Gavan Abe, community services coordinator for Ho‘opono Services for the Blind, said the past four months have been challenging due to the limited staffing available for blind people on the neighbor islands.

“Due to mandated telework, our staff have been rotating into the office in some cases,” Abe said. “While many services are being provided remotely, there are many —such as blindness skills training — that cannot be done sufficiently over the phone or virtually.”

The Hawaii Association of the Blind also had to switch to online services. Cabanilla said that it was rough for to make the transition, but the organization managed.

“It was concerning because my job required me to meet with my clients face-to-face,” he said. “I teach other bind people how to use computers, phones and other technology that we use so they can become independent. It was concerning because they’re saying being in a full room and breathing the same air can get you sick.”

Given the extremes of the coronavirus pandemic, many in the blind community are staying home.

“My advice to other blind individuals … I would say not to give up your independence,” Torres said. “We have COVID-19, and we’re forced to face it.”

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