Navigating COVID-19 With a Visual Impairment

Kathryn Marxen-Simonson helps a patient learn to navigate with visual aids.
Kathryn Marxen-Simonson, OTR/L, CLVT, is an occupational therapist in Casey Eye Institute's Vision Rehabilitation Center. 

During these unprecedented times of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is experiencing a wide range of emotions as they deal with changes to their daily routines, ever-changing government policy and a nonstop flood of daily news. For people with vision loss, the pandemic may pose unique challenges. Transportation options may be limited and you may have difficulty getting groceries and other supplies, accessing medical care, COVID-19 information, and online education, and managing physical distancing while out in the community. Below are some resources to help you cope during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Staying informed

Getting up-to-date and credible information about COVID-19 can help you and your family stay safe. Good sources of information include the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and your local state health authority such as the Oregon Health Authority or the Washington State Department of Health. There is an accessible statistic tracker for up-to-date local, national and international COVID-19 statistics that is user friendly if you use a screen reader or other assistive technology.

Be kind to yourself

Very few of us have lived through a global pandemic before and we are all processing this in our own way. Physical distancing has an impact on our mental health regardless of vision impairment. Be kind to yourself. We are all experiencing a wide range of emotions and may be more emotional than normal, have less patience and focus, or feel greater anxiety. We may feel bad about taking the time to take care of our own needs or feel guilty for not using this extra time to be productive. It is okay to have a quiet day filled with self-care activities that make you feel good.

An article in the Harvard Business Review hit home for me and it might help you too. It discussed how everyone is experiencing collective grief. I encourage you to read it and make your mental health a priority during this time. Think of things that bring you joy and engage in one of those activities each day. I have even found greater social connection by just stepping outside my home and spending time in my yard. I have met more neighbors than I had prior to stay-at-home orders and there are many more people out taking walks. Finally, if you are feeling especially down, reach out to your healthcare provider to seek professional mental health services.

Even though we are physically distant from one another, it doesn’t mean we need to be socially distant. Engage with a friend or family member in an activity through a video call or phone call, such as playing a game, doing crafts, or cooking together. Sometimes it feels more connecting to engage in an activity together rather than just sitting and talking, where the conversation inevitably returns to the topic on everyone’s mind, COVID-19. Local chapters of the the American Council of the Blind are hosting community events through conference calls to help individuals stay connected during social distancing. You can sign up to receive information about upcoming events such as coffee social, chair yoga, sobriety first, and technology discussions.   

Boost your mood with movement

We know that our mental health is supported by physical activity. Physical activity can help our mood and help us stay in shape. This could be as simple as taking a walk in your neighborhood.

There are also several resources specifically tailored to blind and visually impaired individuals. A local organization, the Northwest Association of Blind Athletes has a 30-day workout challenge posted on their YouTube channel. You can join anytime and enjoy the variety of daily workouts they post through your computer, smartphone or tablet. The Eyes Free Fitness program produces audio-described fitness routines on their YouTube channel that can be accessed from any device as well.

Yoga is my exercise of choice when I am not riding my horse. Since I have not been able to go to my yoga studio, I have been enjoying the Down Dog app on my iPhone. It guides you through a routine that you can customize, including the type and length of the yoga practice. It is fully accessible with VoiceOver or Zoom.

Resources for shopping

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, blind and visually impaired people frequently used online shopping. With the implementation of physical distancing measures, these services are more important than ever. Many grocery stores allow online ordering and curbside pick-up, including Safeway, Albertsons, and Fred Meyer. There are also online companies that can shop for you, such as Instacart, AmazonFresh and the nonprofit Store to Door. Many of these services are experiencing longer than usual wait times for delivery. Instead of getting your groceries the same day, you may have to wait a week. Try to plan meals ahead of time and make sure that you have enough to get you through.

If accessing these services is not an option, a family member or neighbor may be able to do the shopping for you and deliver your groceries and needed supplies. Finally, Portland’s public transportation system, TriMet has seen a decrease in ridership for their Lift service that typically provides door-to-door services. You can now access this service for grocery delivery if you qualify for this program.

Sighted assistance

If you no longer have in-home help due to physical distancing, the smartphone apps Be My Eyes and Aira can connect you to sighted assistance.

Be My Eyes is a free app and free service that connects you to a sighted volunteer who  assists with any visual task through the use of your smartphone’s camera. Aira, on the other hand, requires a subscription and is a paid-for service that connects you to a trained agent who can assist with any visual task. Aira does, however, offer the first five minutes of a phone call for free and only requires an account to use this part of the service. It is also free to use in many locations, such as airports and federal buildings.

To demonstrate how these services can be used, I will share a personal story. One day, I needed assistance finding a can of soup in my pantry. I called up Aira. I used the camera on my phone to video inside my pantry. They told me the names of different soups. When I picked one out, I poured it into the bowl and prepared it to go into the microwave. While I was doing this, the agent looked up the cooking instructions for me. Using my camera, she helped me push the correct buttons on my microwave to the correct time. We finished the call and I enjoyed my soup.

Whether it is through a trained agent from Aira or a volunteer through Be My Eyes, these programs can help read cooking instructions on a package, a piece of mail, or help you remain 6 feet from others when out in public, among many other tasks.

Accessing health care

Medical doctors, including many providers at OHSU Casey Eye Institute, have moved many of their appointments to virtual video or telephone visits. Contact your physician and learn how they are providing virtual visits to their patients and make sure you are set up with this technology.

At OHSU, these video visits are being conducted through MyChart. We encourage patients, if they can, to create a MyChart account so they can engage with their providers electronically. This connection will serve you well during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. To sign up for an OHSU MyChart account, you will need an activation code and your medical record number. These can be obtained from your MyChart Activation Letter, an After-Visit Summary, or by contacting your OHSU provider or an OHSU Pharmacy. Once you have this activation code, you can sign up for an account. MyChart allows you to send messages to your providers, schedule appointments, pay bills, and access virtual video visits with your providers.

Many of these resources require using technology. Some people may be more comfortable with accessing digital information than others. With implementation of physical distancing, going online seems to be at the forefront of most access these days with online shopping, virtual doctor visits, online education, people working from home, and virtual meetings. This could be a good chance for you to learn more about technology access and accessibility features.

Virtual meetings

If you want to join a cloud-based meeting through the Zoom platform, but want more training, Meet Me Accessibility – A Guide to Zoom Cloud Meetings From a Blindness Perspective provides information about the Zoom platform with the needs of blind and visually impaired individuals in mind. Google Hangouts is another common platform for video calls. Resources for accessibility can be found on their accessibility website. The Hadley School for the Blind has several video tutorials relating to technology and using accessibility features. They have tutorials about iPhone/iPad, Android phones, using a Windows or Mac computer, and accessing the NLS talking book player. Hadley also has courses on a variety of topics related to blindness.

Vision rehabilitation services at Casey

During this time of limited operations, Casey’s Vision Rehabilitation Center team is available for virtual and telephone visits. In-person visits are available on a limited case-by-case basis. Please call the clinic at 503-494-3098 for more information.