Sarasota-Manatee Residents Living With Vision Loss Adopt Digital Tools During COVID-19

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On Thanksgiving Day 2018, Rich Jacobs handed his friend his car keys and said, “I’m done driving. I don’t want to endanger anyone.

Earlier that year he woke up and his vision was suddenly hazy. He thought he might need glasses, which surprised him because he had never needed corrective lenses before.

As his vision worsened, he went to several doctors to try and figure out the problem. They eventually diagnosed her with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), a genetic condition that causes blurred and then blurred vision, and often results in acute loss of sight.

His vision deteriorated until he realized he could no longer work and should no longer be driving. By March 2019, her sight had completely disappeared.

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His wife, Kim, helps him with his housework and puts Velcro on the microwave so he can work his way around buttons to reheat meals. He found a guide dog, a 3 year old black lab named Debbie, who was a helpful companion.

It was physically and emotionally difficult for Jacobs to be blind at 51, after so many years of seeing. Fortunately, he has a strong support system from family and friends that helps him stay positive. He even discovered that his other senses such as taste, smell and hearing increased dramatically.

But it’s harder to stay connected with people digitally these days. His first step was to relearn how to use his iPhone. Her next goal is to relearn how to use her computer. For now, Kim helps her with more complicated digital tasks.

Before losing his eyesight, Jacobs was a project manager for major construction projects in Pennsylvania. He still has all of those skills, but he needs to be able to use technology to get back into his field.

“I just want to be productive again,” he says.

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He was among the 7,675,600 people affected by vision loss in the United States in 2016, according to The National Federation of the Blind. For many years, people like Jacobs have faced challenges accessing the digital world.

According to the Pew Research Center, progress has been made in making social media platforms and websites more accessible to the visually impaired; however, there have also been dozens of recent lawsuits claiming that some aspect of the digital world is not accessible to people with vision loss.

To find help in his situation, Jacobs visited Lighthouse Vision Loss Education Center, a Sarasota-Manatee non-profit organization whose mission is “to educate and empower people affected by vision loss so that they can live happy, healthy and independent lives.”

He uses Lighthouse’s digital training to familiarize himself with his devices. When COVID-19 arrived in Florida in March 2020, all of Lighthouse’s programs moved online.

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“At first he was a bit apprehensive about how navigation works in digital training,” says Yahkub Augustine, chief technology officer at Lighthouse. “But now he really gets it and he’s one of the best clients we have. “

To help Jacobs relearn how to use his phone, Augustine hosted Zoom Meetings. First, he taught Jacobs how to use the voiceover feature on his phone. Jacobs instructed the Siri program to activate voiceover, which is a gesture-based screen reader that gives audible descriptions of what’s on Jacob’s screen, battery level, who is calling. , which app his finger is on.

Next, Augustine asked Jacobs to install an app on his iPhone that he swears by, called “Seeing AI”. Seeing the AI ​​can also depict scenes in front of Jacobs when he points his camera at them. This helps him navigate the world via his phone, telling Jacobs what’s in front of him.

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Jim Auchter, 60, also lost his sight recently. In 2019, he suffered from health complications that caused him to lose his sight. Even the simple things have gotten surprisingly difficult.

“Go into the bathroom blindfolded and try to find your toothbrush and toothpaste,” he says. “See if you can put the toothpaste right on the toothbrush. “

Auchter grew more and more upset when he realized that so many things he loved to do were now inaccessible to him. He wanted to read books and browse the Internet. All his life he was tech savvy and worked as an operations research analyst for the Department of Defense. But without her sight, all her past passions seemed out of reach.

He went to Lighthouse just a month before COVID-19 arrived in the United States.

“At first I was worried and didn’t know what was going to happen if we couldn’t meet in person again,” says Auchter. “But it turned out that the transition was really smooth and helpful.”

He gives a lot of credit to Lighthouse’s IT department, which offers a range of services, from tech classes to book groups and cooking classes. Like Jacobs, he also started using apps, especially one called “Be My Eyes”.

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If Auchter drops something on the ground, like a prescribed medication, and fears his dog will come and eat it, he can get immediate help from the Be My Eyes team. He launches the application, then a volunteer answers and shares his screen.

They help him search the ground, and once they spot the pill, they guide him to pick it up. He also asks for help finding his favorite pasta sauce at the grocery store. Other apps like Siri and Cortana help him answer questions and search the web for topics that interest him.

He appreciates that Lighthouse has introduced him to such useful technology and also embraces the camaraderie he finds. Lighthouse hosts talk therapy sessions, where people with vision loss can discuss the issues they deal with on a daily basis.

During their discussions on Zoom, they address the feeling of being “other” by society. Especially during the pandemic, many blind people experienced intense feelings of isolation and anxiety. Being in public was the way they usually interacted with people. Without the ability to use digital tools, there would be a lot more silence in their lives, Auchter says.

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Lisa Howard, CEO of Lighthouse, said that while COVID-19 presented some challenges, they were always able to adapt and serve, with a few surprises along the way.

“Through the use of virtual meetings, we can reach people from further afield who could not make it to our physical location before,” explains Howard.

Before COVID-19, people had to find ways to get to Lighthouse. Some spent hours using public transportation to get there. But now they can access the same help from the comfort of their own homes.

From April to December 2020, Lighthouse provided over 6,800 hours of direct customer service remotely using Zoom or Google.

Howard says Lighthouse will eventually have its physical location available again for in-person programs when it is safe, but things will never be the same again.

“Seeing the usefulness of these digital tools has changed everything,” she says.

This story comes from Aspirations journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to educate, inspire and engage the community to take action on digital access issues.


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