Visually Impaired: Now What?

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Designing a Public Bathroom for Ease of Navigation

In this post, it's not necessary to provide one more "frantic public restroom" nightmare. We have included several examples in the post "Tips on Navigating Public Bathrooms with a Vision Impairment." You probably sighed and said, "Been there, done that," or just laughed out loud because you could identify completely with the situation. Even so, you have learned, no doubt, many good tips to try the next time you must venture into a public restroom.

Diagram of a high contrast bathroom sink - a white sink on a dark red counter top

Meaning of Universal Design

But wouldn't it be wonderful to walk into the public restrooms at the airport, movie theater, doctor's office, restaurant, etc. and know that all of them had the same layout? This concept is known as universal design, conceived at North Carolina State University College of Design in 1989. Universal design seems so simple when you consider the definition: a design that can be used by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. More specifically, as it relates to public restrooms, universal design refers to an environment that can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability. Simply put, in every public restroom, the stalls would always face in the same direction, the toilet paper dispensers would always be on the right side of the stall, and the flushing mechanisms would always be a button two feet above the toilet on the wall or sensor activated. You could confidently walk into a public restroom and always find the lavatories just inside the door facing the center of the room. And imagine always finding the soap dispenser on the wall between two lavatories—bowl-shape set in a solid counter with paper towels just above the soap dispenser and a hole in the counter between the lavatories to discard the used paper towels.

Development of Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment

Prior to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there were no enforceable accessibility standards for architectural modifications for maximizing accessibility and safety for people with disabilities. However, even the ADA standards provide only minimum requirements, such as wheelchair ramps, sizes of accessible restroom stalls, heights of lavatories and paper towel dispensers, and braille labels on restroom doors to accommodate individuals with disabilities. In May 2015, the National Institute of Building Sciences issued the Design Guideline Manual for the Visual Environment, including low vision guidelines for public restrooms. If implemented by architects and builders, their assessment and recommendations would be extremely helpful for individuals with limited but usable vision. Below are several excerpts from those guidelines.

  • Colors of wall, counter, and floor surfaces should contrast with those of the toilets, lavatories, and all other plumbing fixtures.
  • Walls of toilet partitions should contrast with walls and floors of the restroom.
  • White toilet, lavatory, and other plumbing fixtures which are easier to keep clean and replace are also easier to identify against darker backgrounds.
  • Faucets and flush valves with brushed chrome, nickel, or pewter rather than polished chrome reduce glare.
  • Toilet paper and toilet seat cover holders, paper towel, and soap dispensers may be located more easily when their finishes contrast with the walls and counters.
  • Full-length mirrors may be mistaken for doorways by persons with low vision if the mirrors are located where a door might be expected, such as the entrance to a public restroom.
  • Ambient lighting for restrooms should cover all areas evenly, including toilet stalls and foyer-like entrances to avoid shadows and dark areas that create discomfort and confusion because of the decrease in visual functioning.
  • Vanity lighting at mirrors should avoid glare while illuminating the vanity surface and the face of the user.

Currently, no law adequately addresses the principles of universal design. In the Design Guidelines for the Visual Environment, the National Institute of Building Sciences gives us a glimmer of hope that someday universal design of public restrooms and other public facilities may be as common as wheelchair ramps, accessible restroom stalls, and braille on doors and elevators, if we are as diligent as our predecessors were at obtaining passage of the ADA.

Additional Information

Simple Home Improvements for the Vision Impaired

Bathroom Home Modification

Bathroom Safety Tips

Orientation and Mobility Skills

Getting Around
Home modification
Low Vision

Tips on Navigating Public Bathrooms with a Vision Impairment

By Peer Advisors Empish J. Thomas and Lynda Jones

row of stalls in public bath

About a month ago VisionAware received an awkward but important question on the message boards. The person wanted to know about the best ways to access public bathrooms. Of course, going to the bathroom is something that we all must do but trying to figure out where everything is in a bathroom facility can be embarrassing, frustrating, and uncomfortable when you have a vision impairment. In an attempt to respond to the question, the VisionAware peers had a lively conversation about our own challenges when Mother Nature calls. We talked among ourselves about the lack of universal design and strategies we use to best deal with this delicate and sensitive topic sprinkling it with a bit of humor and laughter. During the discussion, I shared about a previous post titled "My Navigational Dance in the Bathroom." In that post, I used song and dance to explain how I navigated public bathrooms. We all agreed it was time to revisit this topic and share this information. We hope that this post will benefit others who are grappling with the same dilemma. Below are comments from some of the peers. In addition, Lynda Jones has written a separate post on universal design and how that relates to public bathrooms.

Take a Moment to Orient Yourself to the Bathroom

By Lynda Jones, Vision Rehabilitation Therapist

public bath with sink and paper towels

There is very little that is predictable about public bathrooms, and places like airports sometimes have 15 or 20 stalls including the "handicap" stalls. As guide dog users know, it's much easier to get around in public restrooms, but it can still be tricky. Now that I'm back to using a white cane, I usually step aside and stop when I enter the restroom. To get my orientation, I listen for the sound of toilets flushing, water running in the sinks, or the dryers when present. This doesn't solve all of the problems, but it helps. Often, by the time I've gathered my information, some nice lady has asked if I need assistance. At other times, I use my charm (LOL) and humor and ask for assistance. I don't recommend that a husband or male companion go into a restroom with a female unless it's a single bathroom. Even then, the man could look in and tell her where everything is located. That's another good reason for using a cane. Then you can locate the toilet, sink, and trash can. Locating the soap and paper towel dispensers, as we all know, can be an adventure that leads to frustration.

Ask for Help

By Maxwell Ivey

I think this is one of those areas where the solution won’t be found in the kind of bathroom we use; I personally find that this is one of those things where I just have to ask for help and trust the other person to be just as afraid of or disgusted by a dirty toilet seat. I have never been refused when asking these questions in a men’s restroom, and I would assume that women would be even more understanding. I understand the fear is real. I wish someone could come up with a good answer.

By Audrey Demmitt

I think it is worth mentioning that it is very likely there will be someone in the ladies room who will offer help finding the stall door, paper towels, soap dispenser, etc. That is my experience anyway. One time, while I was a cane user, I literally got "lost" in a public bathroom at the airport—notorious for chrome, glare, and all one color decor! I could not find my way out, and a kind woman noticed I was getting frustrated. She came up to me and asked if she could be of help, and she guided me out. Phew! She saved my dignity. This is also a good argument for using a white cane as an "identifier"—people see it and offer help.

Now, as a guide dog user, I can command my dog to find the "door," and she is trained to take me to the large stall that accommodates both of us. Then, she will take me to the sink. I can usually find soap and get the water on...can't always find the towels though, so I just dry my hands in the air!

Use a Guide Dog

By DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

A lot of the decisions I make depend on whether the public restroom is crowded or empty; whether it is a large room with several stalls or a single accessible bathroom. If I am using a white cane, I use it to explore either type if they are empty. I work to train my guide dog to look for the handicapped accessible stall in multi-stall restrooms. This gives me the room for my dog to stay with me. If that isn’t available, I back him in, and if there is room to get him beside the commode, I can then close the door. If there isn’t sufficient space, I will have him lie down and then close the door while he is low enough to close it over his front end. I also teach him to locate the sink on command. And I teach him to find the trash bins. If I am concerned about cleanliness, I do one of two things. I always carry hand sanitizer in my purse to use once I return to a restaurant. I also use the restaurant employee method if it is a single room accessible restroom. I locate the fixtures first by exploring. If there are paper towels, I roll one down first thing. Then I take care of my needs, wash my hands, dry them on the previously rolled down paper towel, use it to flush toilets, turn off the water, and open door before dropping it in the trash. By using the used paper towel to touch faucet handles, flush buttons or handles, and doorknobs, I keep my hands clean after washing. If the restroom is crowded, I ask for assistance so as not to cut ahead of anyone or miss my turn. If the restroom is large, I step inside, pause, and listen for clues like running water in sinks, toilets flushing, etc. to orient myself.

Use a Family Bathroom

By Empish J. Thomas

sign saying companion care and with symbols of woman and man and arrow pointing toward bath

I am out and about often and have learned a thing or two about public bathrooms. First of all, I try to make sure to never wait until the last minute to go. Being in a tight is never a pleasant situation and then on top of that trying to figure out an unfamiliar bathroom can be a set up for a very bad situation. I always look for a "family" bathroom first. This type of bathroom is an individual bathroom with everything you need in one room, and you can lock yourself inside. It is typically one perfect square, so I find that I can navigate it very easily. If that is not available, then I will trail my white cane into a regular bathroom. Usually, stalls are either on the left or right. I go for the smaller stall as it is easier for me to find everything that I need. Before locking the door, I double check for toilet tissue. Most of the time sinks are right outside the stall, but if they are not, I listen for running water or the hand dryers blowing. I will feel around to see if the sink is manual or electronic. I also feel around to see if the soap is on the mirror or next to the sink. The challenge is always finding the paper towels. They never seem to be in the same or most obvious place! Then, the next challenge is retracing my steps to the door. Sometimes I can remember, but if I am having a "senior moment," I might have to trail my cane around or ask a person who might be in the bathroom with me.

public family bath showing toilet, sink, grab bar

Avoid Germs by Coming Prepared

By Steven J. Wilson

The stress can be such that fears may prevent one from even touching anything public facility related, let alone touch a flushing handle or button. Sit on a toilet? Reprehensible! Yeah, yeah...liners or even lining with toilet paper are not enough protection for some. The fear is very real.

I only use a restroom that is well maintained when and if at all possible. I am such a germaphobe. Here is what I mean by this. In the past, I used my foot to flush the toilets and my elbow for the stand-up urinals. I especially appreciate the sinks with the long, protruding paddle handles I can turn on and off with an elbow. Today, for the planned trips, I bring along antibacterial towelettes. For the unplanned or unexpected trips and I must use a public facility, I go straight to the paper towel dispenser, grab half a dozen sheets, and use as a barrier. I use these for everything, from touching toilet handles to the faucet sink. Of course, I use soap and water most liberally when done and towel dry before exiting. I even use these for the door handle on the way out. There are usually trash receptacles nearby to dispose of my paper barrier. If not, I'll simply fold that last paper towel I used for the door handle I exited from and place into my back pocket until I can find a wastebasket.

Oh, by the way, the trash receptacles make a distinctive sound when tapping with a cane. I also try tapping the walls near the sinks for those receptacles that are built in flush with the walls. Some might consider me a noisy restroom user with all my tapping while others present will notice and ask me if I'm looking for the waste bin. They are usually kind enough to inform me where it is.

Learn Orientation and Mobility Skills

By Shannon Carollo, Orientation and Mobility Specialist and Program Manager of FamilyConnect

Picture of older man learning to use cane from orientation and mobility instructor

From an orientation and mobility specialist's point of view, the best friend of blind/visually impaired people in a public restroom is the white cane. The individual should work with an orientation and mobility specialist to learn to utilize the cane to locate the precise location of the toilet, toilet paper, general sink area, and bathroom door to exit. The person would likely hold the cane upright, tip on the ground, and use it in a motion similar to a windshield wiper.

The person can also grab a little extra toilet paper to use when searching for the handle and grab a little extra paper towel when searching for the opening of the bathroom door. The person may even want to bring their own little towel for drying hands/opening the door with minimal contact to germs. This was the norm when I lived in Japan, and I think it is a useful tip for an individual who is blind or visually impaired. I also suggest carrying hand sanitizer or wipes.

Additional Information

Bathroom Home Modification

Bathroom Safety Tips

Orientation and Mobility Skills

Getting Around
Home modification
Low Vision
Personal Reflections

Cardelia Cunningham: She Keeps on Overcoming

Editor's note: In honor of Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Appreciation Week, we are publishing an article about Cardelia Cunningham, VRT, retired, and former employee of the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. Ms. Cunningham epitomizes what the vision rehabilitation therapist is all about as a dedicated, hard-working individual who fulfilled her goals despite many adversities and who inspires others to take up the work. This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of DIALOGUE Magazine, copyright 2017 by Blindskills Inc.

Cardelia Cunningham: She Keeps On Overcoming

by Empish J. Thomas, VisionAware Peer Advisor

No Shrinking Violet

Cardelia Cunningham is no shrinking violet. She has overcome numerous challenges since childhood and has somehow bounced back from each one. She battled with vision loss for the majority of her childhood, successfully took on college after 20 years as a single mom, earned success in her chosen field, had to give up that career because of poor health, and that's only the beginning of her story.

She credits her faith in God with helping her to overcome all of these challenges in her life. "If Jesus is my partner, how can I fail?"

Headshot of Cardelia Cunningham smiling at the camera

Diagnosed with Uveitis

Cunningham has lived most of her life in Florence, Alabama, a mostly rural community in the northwest part of the state near the Tennessee border. She began to lose her vision gradually when she was in the sixth grade. By the end of her teen years, she was completely blind. She was diagnosed with sarcoid uveitis, which causes inflammation in the middle of the eye, called the uveal tract. The uveal tract contains veins and arteries that transport blood to the parts of the eye that are critical for vision.

"I was the only one in my family with the condition," she said. "The doctors didn't really know where it came from or how I got it." The condition was very painful, and her family had little to no medical insurance for treatment. She recalls that she probably could have gotten more assistance but her father was a proud man and wouldn't accept it. She made a decision long ago not to dwell on that and to move on.

Cunningham was determined to go to school and brought a "homemade heating pad" with her. During class breaks, she would go to the bathroom and run hot water over a washcloth to place on her eyes to relieve the pain. Although she had no accommodations, she graduated from high school in 1972.

Raising a Family On Her Own Without Vision Rehabilitation Services

No one raised the subject of college with her, so she mistakenly thought that blind and visually impaired people could not go. After high school, Cunningham got married and began to raise a family. The marriage was short-lived, and she quickly became a single mom raising her two sons on her own.

Cunningham managed the best way she could without vision rehabilitation training. She recalls that she had no mobility training (travel skills) at all. "I had no clue how to cross the street," she said. "I would walk as much as four miles to get somewhere because we had no public transportation."

Going to College and Becoming a Social Worker

It was not until 20 years later when her sons were in college that Cunningham was approached about going to college herself. She says she was afraid because she had never heard of a person with vision loss attending college. Her vocational rehabilitation counselor encouraged her and provided mobility instruction from her home to the University of North Alabama.

Now armed with white cane travel techniques and accommodations for classwork, she built up her skills and self-confidence by walking to school every day. "It was a good experience with my classmates and professors," she said. "They were helpful, and I made a lot of friends." She also came away with a degree in social work.

Getting a Job with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services

Before finishing college in 1996, Cunningham met her second husband, and they got married. She had found a job in Decatur, Alabama, but it was 50 miles away—too far for her husband to drive her. She was able to make a carpooling arrangement with a person who lived nearby. That enabled her to make an employment connection which lasted for the next 19 years. She worked as a rehabilitation therapist for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation services until illness forced her to retire in 2016.

Getting Her Master's Degree in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy

During those years, she took advantage of a fellowship at Florida State University to earn a Master's in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy in 2003. Eventually, she was able to transfer from the Decatur office to the Muscle Shoals office making her commute to work only five miles.

"Teaching and seeing people change right in front of you is what I loved most about being a VRT," Cunningham reflected. "It is amazing to see that. Because I am blind myself, I know what it feels like to be at those progressive stages of vision loss." But Cunningham also notes the challenges of being a VRT: "What I use to dislike is the casework, the paper and paper and paper; but it had to be done, so you get it done."

Becoming a Go-To Person for Information and Resources

As a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, she managed a heavy caseload, which covered five rural counties, conducted training classes at the center, launched five support groups, and served as an active member of various professional associations, such as the special education advisory council. She also became well known in the field and, through word of mouth, people would contact her for information, resources, and assistance. "The field is so dynamic. You have to be in constant learning mode; otherwise, you won't be as effective as a teacher," she said. "You have to suggest things to your centers and consumers, and you have to keep up with what is happening in the field."

Diagnosed with Kidney Failure and Getting a New Kidney

In 2014, she was diagnosed with kidney failure. While still working, she started dialysis. "The heavy caseload was just a part of the job. Funding was tight, and my illness caused me to not be as effective as I could have been," she recalled.

During the first month of her dialysis treatment, a remarkable thing occurred. Her paratransit driver, who had just started with the company, offered to be tested as a donor when she learned of Cunningham's need. The test proved a match, and today, Cunningham has a new kidney.

Launching a Nonprofit Business: Low Vision No Vision

Now, Cardelia Cunningham is moving toward her next career goal of launching a nonprofit business. Her organization is called Cunningham Consulting: Low Vision No Vision. She wants to offer services to people who are new to vision loss—services that focus on adjusting to vision loss, low-tech skills, and independent living skills. She also wants to do public education training and workshops where she can teach the general public how to interact with people who are blind.

Cunningham is filing for 501(c)(3) status and feels confident that her business will be successful. "I have been networking and made many connections over the years," she explained. "Also, because I am a licensed social worker and VRT, I can locate resources and services for people."

She says for those who are interested in becoming a VRT, the need is great, and there is much opportunity. "There is an influx of baby boomers, and we are working in a shortage right now. We need people that care, and people that want to help blind people improve their lives because the need is out there."

Additional Information

More Information About Vision Rehabilitation Therapists

How I Became a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist

Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Video

Low Vision
Personal Reflections

Suggestions for Preparing Your Taxes as a Person with Vision Loss

It's that dreaded time of year again, April 17, the date that our income taxes are due, looming large on the horizon. We have asked VisionAware's peer advisors to comment on their strategies for managing their income taxes. We have also updated our tax guide with additional links and resources, thanks to peer advisor Elizabeth Sammons.

Managing Income Tax as a Small Business Owner

By Beckie Horter

A girl and a boy sitting on the ground; the girl is holding a piggy bank, and the boy is holding a large calculator

As a small business owner, I trust an accountant to do my tax preparation. Before vision loss, and before my husband and I owned a small shop, I did my own taxes because I took accounting classes in college.

I actually work with the accountant throughout the year whenever I get forms in the mail or have questions regarding the many tax issues we face.

Starting in January, I prepare for the mid-April deadline. January is when the forms start coming in, so I label each with a thick black marker and begin my new file (really a box!) for the accountant.

Although my accountant actually does the year-end filing, I am always at work maintaining proper records and keeping payments current. My filing system for expenses, divided into categories such as Advertising Expense, Insurance Expense, etc., eases the end-of-the-year totaling process. I present my numbers to the accountant, and we go back and forth making sure everything is covered.

Of course, it costs more to go the professional route, but the benefits are multiple. The biggest plus for me is peace of mind that things are being done correctly. Additionally, I trust the accountant to keep current with the ever-changing tax codes. I trust him to figure depreciation. I trust him to know about tax credits that I otherwise would be clueless about.

Let’s face it—reams of small print can make a visually impaired person nervous. I say spend a little bit and invest in peace of mind.

Keeping Your Financial Information Organized Keeps Professional Costs Low

By Lynda Jones

I have never had the confidence nor, truthfully, the desire to do my own taxes, and not only because I'm visually impaired. More importantly, I know virtually nothing about accounting and even less about tax codes. In addition, I've always believed in going to the experts with the important things in my life.

For years, a friend who was retired from the IRS prepared my income tax forms. Obviously, she knew the IRS well, but she also kept up with the changes in the tax code and maintained her license through continuing education. When I decided to form an LLC, I knew I would need assistance from an expert. I took the recommendation of a friend but also did some research on the firm the accountant worked for. That was five years ago, and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made!

Matt helped me with the documentation for filing the LLC, which he still handles annually. He prepared a schedule for paying my quarterly taxes and recommended that I set aside a monthly percentage in a separate account for any tax surprises that might occur. He provided a very helpful list of tax credits available through the LLC. Thanks to Matt's expertise, since the first year, I've never paid any extra taxes.

I've created my own electronic template for keeping track of my annual income and deductible expenses. (The online form provided by Matt's firm is not easy to navigate with vision loss.) Some categories on my template I itemize and record monthly. Others, such as income from investment, Social Security and state retirement, and deductibles like property taxes and insurance, are recorded once a year or when they are paid. I maintain a hard copy file for each category on the template. Keeping track of many of the deductibles throughout the year limits my end of the year preparation to a couple of hours. When I meet with my accountant, I give him a six- or seven-page document listing everything including my total income and total expenses along with copies of the necessary documentation. Providing Matt with this level of information keeps the cost of professional services to a minimum. An additional benefit to using my own template is having electronic access to five years of income and expense information at my fingertips.

As Beckie stated, if you can, "spend a little bit and invest in peace of mind." If there is a problem with the IRS, the accountant is your representative. If you cannot afford a CPA, at least find someone with lots of knowledge like my friend. FYI, Matt's fee is a line item in the deductible column through tax year 2017!

Using a Financial Manager

by Lynda Lambert

Man sorting through files in home office

For many years, before my sight loss, my husband Bob and I have engaged a financial manager to handle our finances. This was the best thing we ever did, for when I lost almost all my sight in 2007, I already had this support system in place.

Our financial manager sends all of our financial reports directly to our accountant via e-mail, at our request. This way, we only have to keep records of the expenses and incomes that are required for a couple of the aspects of tax reporting. I personally manage my own income/expense records for my art and writing business. I made a Word Document—one for expenses and one for income. In those files, I record all of the necessary figures, and when I record an item, I immediately file it in a paper folder for my files, which I will have ready to take to the accountant when the time comes. I put every item on the computer and into a paper file—chronologically. I keep the paper files in order as I record them—using a paper clip to keep them neatly in their place. I record an item as soon as I pay a bill or make an income. I never let it get ahead of me—not for a single day. By being vigilant in this way, I have no problems when it is time to take my records to the accountant.

In addition to my own business files, I also keep our donation files in the same way. Bob has only to do some other files, which he puts together at least weekly.

Our files combined with the financial manager's files, which are already at the accountants, make the work so easy. The other good point is that if there is any problem or question, the professionals know what to do.

Getting Help from a Friend or Volunteer

By Mary Hiland

Editor's note: For those who are interested in obtaining help with taxes but don't have an accountant, Mary suggests another route.

I have a friend who volunteers as a tax preparer for AARP. There is no charge. I wish I had known this years ago, as I paid over $200 to get my taxes done and another $200 to get my mother’s done when she was in assisted living. I still keep all receipts for medical expenses, just in case. Right now, I don’t make enough from Social Security to even file a tax return every year, another fact I wish I had known. But I think I have to file every three years anyway.

Do you have suggestions? Please comment below.

Additional Resources

Tax Guide

File Management Tips

Banking Services

How I Keep My Hands On My Money

Low Vision
Personal Reflections

Getting in the Swim

By this time of year, we’re all longing for sunshine and outdoor activities. My favorite way to spend a sunny morning is to take a long and brisk walk with my dog guide Dora from Seeing Eye. Even better is to have a destination, like a coffee shop, but sometimes just walking a variety of routes around my neighborhood can be relaxing and a good way to sort out problems, work off some irritation, or think of how I want to write the next chapter in my book.

Road Block

But since September of last year, a chronic back problem has prevented me from walking without a great deal of pain. The only exercise Dora has been getting is a game of fetch in the backyard, which requires me to only throw the ball for about 50 times or so or until my arm gets tired. Lately, I have been paying a neighbor boy to walk her for a half hour a few times a week. But what about me? I can’t just sit around all day and gain weight.

Back to the "Y" I Go

Mary in swimming pool

The YMCA is a wonderful place to exercise, take classes, and meet people, especially when you’re old enough to get all this for free with the "Silver Sneakers" program. I went to a fundraiser breakfast yesterday, and I was very impressed with all the other programs that the "Y" offers, like supervising recess play at schools so kids can learn how to be constructive in their leisure activities.

Program Called Diversibilities

I was their speaker representing their program called "Diversibilities." Normally, I scoff at such made up words, but I think this one is pretty good. I talked about how much I benefit from swimming at the "Y." I may not be able to walk without pain, but swimming is easy on the joints and eases tension. Ropes strung from one side of the pool to the other with plastic colorful rings around them divide the lanes and keep me, a totally blind person, from wandering all over the place. It’s a 25-meter lane, and it takes me about 25 strokes with each arm to get from one side to the other. If you are a swimmer, you know that’s not very fast or efficient, but it works for me. It’s important to keep counting, so I don’t bang my head at the end, but even if I do, it doesn’t hurt much because I’m not really going that fast. I do the backstroke only because I never got the hang of breathing sufficiently when I try to do other strokes, and I wear a nose guard to keep water from sloshing into my nose and throat; so it’s really relaxing as well as good exercise that doesn’t hurt. Before I begin swimming though, I use water weights and a noodle to warm up first. The noodle is a styrofoam cylinder that I hold onto or sit on while doing bicycling motions with my legs. Water weights are like barbells that you use to do resistance exercises in the water. These weights are very good for toning your arms and legs.

Getting Help

mary's dog guide at pool

As with just about anything we do as blind individuals, we have to find ways of getting where we want to go and doing the things we love to do. I use the Red Cross community transportation service to get to the "Y," but I understand that this service is not available everywhere. You might want to check in your community. Once I’m there, I’ve found that the staff is very helpful. They aren’t available for taking you around to the weight machines, but the yoga teacher at my "Y" was very cooperative in helping me when I didn’t understand a position or movement. You can pay for swim lessons, and then with a little help in finding an open lane, you can become quite independent as you move around the building. Having a dog guide has been extremely helpful to me because she knows her way around and all I have to do is give her a single word command like "restroom" or "hot tub" or "locker room," and off we go.

Other People at the "Y"

I’m very fortunate to have a group of friends from my church who took turns helping me with getting from one weight machine to another and setting the weights and adjusting the seats, but as I came regularly, the staff began to know me. When I had to quit the weight machines because of my back issues, the women at the front desk took over with helping me learn my way around the locker room and then guiding me to a free lane at the pool. Once I had secured my dog by a bench nearby and I was in the water, I could be completely independent.

On crowded days when it’s necessary to share lanes, the lifeguards always make sure I have a lane to myself. I am a little jealous of the other people who are laughing and talking as they exercise in the pool, but my workout is tranquil and much more intense. But then when I go to the hot tub, I often get into interesting conversations with others. You’d be surprised at what topics we cover, everything from recipes to service dogs. Of course, most conversations begin with a question about my dog, who waits patiently while I let the roiling waters massage my back. Perhaps the most social place at the "Y" is the locker room. Most of the women are very kind, letting me know when a shower is available, or that I’ve dropped something out of my bag or that I’ve left something in my locker. We talk about our grandchildren and our favorite shampoo. It’s a wonderful way to teach sighted people that blind people are not too different from them. Some of the less adventurous ones have watched me swim and compliment me on my good form. And of course, everybody loves Dora. When I’m taking a shower, she never stays behind the curtain like she’s supposed to. She’s always got her head sticking out so people can pet her as they go by. We all pretend that I don’t know that.

When I’m done for the day, my dog guides me to a table and chair in the lobby, and the next thing I know, my friend at the front desk has handed me a cup of coffee, fixed just the way I like it. She doesn’t have time to sit and talk with me, but other ladies from the locker room stop to chat for a minute before they leave, and sometimes a gentleman will stop and admire my dog. As I wait for the Red Cross van to pull up, I am completely immersed in the good feeling I’ve gained by spending my morning at the "Y."

Find Out More

Mary has done a promotional video about her swimming experiences at the YMCA. Watch or check out the transcript below.

Read about swimming tips

Transcript of Mary's Video on YouTube

Audio of Mary

"I started going to the "Y" about three years ago, and my first love was the pool. And so that was what I was interested in first. And then, I thought I would give the weights a try, and I have a team of four or five people from the church who help me go from one machine to another. And I also tried yoga classes which I really loved. But my first love was the pool."

Audio Description of Video

The YMCA logo and some background music.

Mary speaks while on her rocking chair in her living room. Mary swimming in the pool at the "Y" and using weights.

Audio of Mary

"When I get to the "Y," the gals at the front desk are very, very helpful. One of them in particular, Delilah, will take me back to the locker room, and she likes to go back with us because then she can find a lane for me, which I can’t do independently. You just see people that are my age and older who are being active, keeping their bodies active, and therefore, their brains active. And we are all going to live longer. And we are going to live better in our old age as a result of having this opportunity."

Audio Description of Video

Mary in the lobby of the YMCA speaking to an employee. She is standing in front of a dry erase board announcing the schedules for the Thanksgiving week. There is a screen in the background saying, "Like us on Facebook!" Mary at the front desk with her backpack and dog chatting with three women employees. Then Delilah and Mary are walking through the halls with her dog. Mary swimming in the pool and then in her rocker. Mary sitting by the pool with her hand on her dog’s paws. Mary walking out of the YMCA with her dog. A gentleman holds the door open for her.

Audio of Mary

"It’s not just the exercise, but I have people to talk to, and that’s almost as important as the workout itself."

Audio Description of Video

Mary in her rocker. The camera zooms into her face.

Low Vision
Personal Reflections
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